Featured together because of a common story are two men who worked as a team at Forest Heights Lodge, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys, founded in 1954 on Forest Hill in Evergreen. Forest Heights Lodge continues to operate in the same location after nearly 60 years and has earned a reputation for excellence internationally.
1930 – 2013
Russ Colburn was born in Janesville, Wisconsin with a life shaped by the Depression. His family moved frequently but he viewed that as exciting. He spent four years in the Air Force later graduating from the University of Wisconsin - LaCrosse and received a Master's degree in social work from the University of Denver. He married Vera Fahlberg.
Russ arrived in Evergreen in the early 1960s, first as summer staff at Forest Heights Lodge, and then as Executive Director in 1963 when the owners retired, serving in that capacity for 32 years before retiring himself in 1995.
He rallied treatment centers to collaborate on standards for care of children in residence and to serve as a resource for legislative issues. The group became known as Colorado Association of Child Care Institutions, and Colburn was elected as its president in 1979.
He served on the University of Colorado Medical Center Committee for Autistic Kids and has been a consultant to numerous mental health facilities, VA hospitals, and school systems.
“Russ was the one with many visions, both day-to-day and nationally,” said Linda Clefisch, current Executive Director of FHL, who worked side by side with Colburn for many years and considers him her mentor.
Jointly, with his wife, Dr. Vera Fahlberg, the Colburns were named “Evergreen Person(s) of the Year” in 1980. A bronze statue of Russ and his dog, sculpted by Tome Ware, is in a central location on the campus.
Colburn says he is proud of how the Lodge has evolved, noting that it “can’t stay stagnant.”
1929 – 2015
Glen and his wife, Audrey, relocated from Waverly, Iowa, in 1963. He was one of four adults working with emotionally disturbed boys at FHL prior to the retirement of the Swartwoods, who founded the center.
Glen served as Assistant Director/Program Director under Russ Colburn for 27 years, retiring in 1991 but returning to work both part-time and full-time over the years.
FHL named its private 120-acre campsite in Conifer “Forest Glen” in his honor. A bust of Glen, sculpted by Tom Ware, is a permanent fixture in the garden at the Lodge.
In Evergreen, Our Mountain Community, Russ Colburn was quoted as saying, “Glen played a major role in the growth of the Lodge. His sensitivity, insightfulness, dedication and caring to both kids and staff and the philosophy of the Lodge was unmatched.”
Of his many memories of the relationships he shared at Forest Heights Lodge, Glen recalls fondly a particular story of asking on kid why he’d decided to get well, “Because she loved me,” said the boy, pointing to the one member of the staff the child had become very attached to. And that’s the heart of the tremendous success story behind Forest Heights Lodge and so many young boys over the years.
Forest Heights Lodge
Hank and Claire Swartwood started Forest Heights Lodge in 1954 as a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys. It began with a group-home atmosphere and then, through the University of Colorado Medical Center, included psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers to guide treatment. According to the current executive director, the Swartwoods were “ahead of their time” in treating emotionally disturbed children – before professionals in the field were engaging people nationally.
Amidst summer cabins and accessed by dirt roads high on Forest Hill with spectacular views of the Continental Divide, Forest Heights Lodge exuded a serenity that became the basis for the healing and transition that would take place there for hundreds of boys over the next six decades. Visually, not much has changed since then except for the paving of roads and the maturing of trees.
The treatment center has been there longer than nearly anyone else in the neighborhood, and it’s always been a respected part of the neighborhood. In 1955 Main Street was the only paved street in town, and Evergreen had only around 1,500 year-round residents.
Prior to being purchased by the Swartwoods, the lodge, built in about 1913, had been a weekend home and later a rustic lodge catering to weddings, so the image it projects is far from institutional. At this time the campus is comprised of four buildings on 10 acres, plus additional residences where staff lives during the round-the-clock shifts (2 days on, 4 days off).
In the early days the boys would attend public schools in Evergreen, but now all students are educated on campus. Schooling is certified by numerous school districts in the US, as credits must be transferable when the youngsters return home.
In addition to classrooms, the school building houses an enormous gymnasium that is not apparent from the street because blasting into the rock made it possible to sink the two-story gymnasium below ground level to allow the profile of the building to conform to the surroundings. The gymnasium was made possible by a generous gift by many grateful famiies whose sons’ lives were transformed there.
In 1971 the Lodge was accepting 15 boys at any one time, some staying as long as 4 years. There were just 4 people on staff at that time. Today, with a staff of 35, the limit is 24 boys who stay for 18-24 months. Youngsters are accepted as young as 5 and as old as 14. There are two basic assumptions of life at the Lodge:
• “We will not allow you to be hurt, and you will not be allowed to hurt others.”
• “We must know where you are at all times.”
Camping, skiing, and other outdoor activities are part of life and therapy, as are Denver-area expeditions for movies, cultural events, and shopping.
FHL owns 120 acres near Conifer called “Forest Glen” – after Glen Lein – which provides a place for the children to camp, cook over a campfire, fish, play in the creek, and cut the annual Christmas tree, which (to keep with tradition) must touch the 16-ft. ceiling.
Young residents are encouraged to learn to give to one another as well as give back to the community. They volunteer – Earth Day, cleaning highways, serving at the Yellow House, loading boxes during food drives, helping at a homeless shelter in Denver, providing Christmas presents for underprivileged children.
FHL does not accept delinquent children, substance abusers, fire setters or sexually predatory children, those with brain injuries, nor those who require 24-hour medical supervision. Boys must agree to live there. Families visit every 4-6 weeks.
Now, more than in the early days, staff works very intensely with families during and after residency. The Lodge operates 365 days/year even though most youngsters go home for the holidays; some join their families in local settings. Staff is frequently in contact with families during those periods.
Treatment is founded on building an uncomplicated atmosphere where individuals can feel safe. The extended-family environment that includes 59 staff members and youngsters, is one of intense personal relationships that build feelings of trust. Forest Heights Lodge prides itself on being a warm, caring, and inviting environment in a peaceful, tranquil setting. There is little turnover in staff with key personnel often working there for 30+ years.
“The main building block of therapy is relationships,” explains Glen Lein, who is one of those who worked there for three decades. The routine of working together with consistent expectations is one that is supported by everyone.
“It is helpful [for the boys] to see that life is worth living and to learn how to capture hope,” says Executive Director Linda Clefisch.
Forest Heights Lodge a leader in the field
FHL was one of the first programs to be certified through the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, which issues credentials to more than 19,000 healthcare organizations and programs in the US and has the highest standards for treatment, records maintenance, and problem solving.
In 1971 the cost for residency was $10,000 per year, as compared to $22,000 for residential treatment for a child at Fort Logan Mental Health Center. In 2011, the cost is $103,205 per year, considered “medium cost” in the industry which typically charges anywhere between $150 and $800 per day, according to Clefisch.
Forest Heights Lodge is often considered “a last resort” because families have generally had their children elsewhere in failed situations. The Lodge has a 96 percent success rate of integrating the residents back into their family settings.
Boys – some have become high achievers – often stop in at the Lodge en route to college or after they’ve become adults. They’ve even started to reconnect on a Facebook page, reminiscing about their days in Evergreen. The Lodge held a 50th anniversary reunion at the Lakehouse in 2004, and a number of those who’d been residents as boys returned to Evergreen for the occasion.
Today, Forest Heights Lodge is known internationally as a leader in its field, often providing consultation and training to other professionals throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Sources: Evergreen, Our Mountain Community; Glen Lein; Linda Clefisch, Executive Director of FHL, an article in The Denver Post dated March 14, 1971.