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One On 1: Covenant House Executive Director Bruce Henry

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his "One On 1" series with a profile of a man whose work has affected the lives of thousands of young people in New York, Covenant House Executive Director Bruce Henry.

If you're looking for predictability, and instant gratification, working with teenagers is probably not for you. Take it from a guy who has been doing it for 40 years.

“You want to be in this profession, you are going to need an infinite capacity to fail,” says Bruce Henry. “If you have that, you can then reach some group of the kids. But if you can't do that, this isn't going to be for you. Because these are real, live human beings. They're not a machine, they're not a mathematical formula. Some percentage of them are going to do great, some percentage are not going to do great."

Bruce Henry has been imparting knowledge to kids at Covenant House since 1984. He became executive director two years later.

Even on his most difficult days, he brings to the job a frame of reference formed in a faraway place long ago; Vietnam in the late 1960s, when he thought every night that was the worst day of my life, until he'd wake up and do it all over again.

“A whole year of that, it really taught me that there's always a next day and you gotta’ keep showing up and you gotta’ keep trying,” he says. “And I see that a lot with the teenagers because there, right then anyway, they think that their life is at the worst it can be. I’ve had a lot of experience of things that I was afraid of, things that were really hard. This isn't one of them, and they are not one of them."

When Henry first joined Covenant House, it was known primarily for its crisis center in Times Square, helping homeless and at-risk youth.

"Crisis center does one really great thing; it gets you out of the terrible thing you're in, whether if you're living in the street, or you're from a foster care, or maybe you were in jail, whatever it is, it gets you out of that. But what's next?" he asks. “How do you earn a living? How do you take care of yourself? How do you pay your rent? And so we decided very, very, very early on that work would be the number one thing.”

So Henry helped create the Rights of Passage program, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It was designed to help kids become self-sufficient and prepared for work.

Along the way, Covenant House created the Mother and Child program, providing housing for young working mothers and community resource centers around the city. But one aspect of the program has remained constant.

“There is just not that many organizations that want to deal with 19-year-olds,” Henry says. “If that kid is in prison, his parole officer knows about Covenant House. Police are still the number one bringer of kids to Covenant House."

Henry has been married to Judge Patricia Henry for more than 35 years. They have two grown children, who they raised in a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn.

Henry's worked with thousands of kids through the years, but the work took time, and sacrifice.

“When my kids were teenagers and were angry at me, they would accuse me of, my daughter used to say, 'You're a national expert at this - you're not doing so well with me,’” he says.

Perhaps the most difficult time during Henry's tenure at Covenant House came in the late '80s and early '90s, when Covenant House President Bruce Ritter was accused of having sex with four residents, allegations he denied.

There were also charges of financial improprieties. Ritter resigned in 1990.

Henry says the effect lasted for three years.

“Every interview, every discussion, every interaction, every phone call from donors was about that,” he says. “And there's no question at some point that became a drain. But we also got support from people saying, 'Where are these kids going to go if Covenant House closes?’ And that helped us to rebuild."

Bruce Henry brings a wealth of book knowledge to his job, and some amazing life experiences.

He was born and bred in an Irish Catholic immigrant family in downtown Brooklyn, but he spent his high school years at a seminary on Long Island, and he got accustomed to the questions about celibacy.

“My parents were going to send me to an all-boys high school no matter what,” he says. “This was not in a world of discussion - this is what you did. So I don't even remember thinking about that that much."

Henry eventually decided not to become a priest, and met with no resistance at home.

“We were really quite imbued with the idea of service, Catholic social service action,” he says. “You worked and lived among poor and it began to occur to me, 'These are relatively incompatible. I don't want to stay in a place where I'm away from people.’ There were opportunities where I could make a difference, but I had to be there."

Then it was on to one of the seminal periods in Henry's life - Vietnam. He was initially sent to El Paso for a year for intensive Vietnamese language study. He then served 13 months in Southeast Asia in military intelligence.

Henry says he went because he thought a draft that primarily chose poor and working class kids was unfair.

"If you were going to have a military involvement, how could it be that anybody who was wealthy enough to go to college just got eliminated?” he says. “I definitely got the sense that what I'm doing is not wrong."

During his time there, Henry's doubts about the American mission in Vietnam grew, leading to fights with his family back home.

"I remember having, both with my father and father-in-law, having the most intense discussions about all sides, and I remember clearly having thinking, “You know, I went, guys,’” he says.

Henry also volunteered in an orphanage while serving in Vietnam, but nobody wanted to hear about that when he got home. He got a taste of the unpopularity of the war and the people fighting it when he flew to Ohio to visit his soon-to-be wife.

“You used to have to fly on planes in uniform. That's how you got the rate, the cheap rate to get to do this,” he says. “And particularly in Dayton, her friends would say the most outrageous things to me and people who didn't even know me."

The pain of Vietnam started to fade. Henry got married, raised a family in Brooklyn. He went to law school even though he knew he wouldn't practice. He says he did it so he wouldn't be outmaneuvered by lawyers when representing his clients, kids.

Occasionally he's succumbed to the feeling that his work might be an endless battle that would never be won.

“There are times where I wonder how can we be doing the same work we've been doing 25 years ago?” he says. “Sometimes numbers change, sometimes the drug of choice changes, sometimes economic conditions change. It leaves you with that sense of, yeah, this is pretty successful, but there are still a lot of struggling young people out there."

Most of Henry's work these days is with staff members, rather than the participants in the program. One of the lessons he continues to teach is that the gratification must come from the work, and not the youngster.

“Don't be looking to the client to give you that. That's not the nature of the relationship,” he says.

“The nature of the relationship is your commitment, your belief, your desire to do what you believe is right, and live with the consequences.”

Yet there is still a joy for Henry in helping to turn lives around, and knowing that for 40 years he's done exactly what he wanted to do.

“I never felt like I wanted to give this up, I can't reach them. I never felt that,” he says. “I always felt there was some spark that made that kid intriguing, that said to me if somehow I stay patient, he'll start to help himself. We all bring some natural gifts, but the sense that if you could just figure out one or two keys, he/she would start turning around, that never left me. I always felt that, and feel it today.”

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