Authored by: Denise Pilz, Executive Director
In January of this year, I began my service as the new Executive Director of Norris. Not only was this a daunting task because it was the first time I had been in a role like this, but I was also stepping into a 100-year legacy of caring for youth and knew I also had to plan a big party! As I began thinking about what Norris could be in the future, I had to take a step back and learn where Norris had been so that any future plans were in line with the original mission and vision of Niel Norris. For those of who who don’t know much about Norris, here is some quick history.
In the Fall of 1911, Mr. Daniel W. (Niel) Norris caught two boys taking light bulbs from his automobiles parked next to the factory where he worked. After working with the police, it was learned that they were part of a group of four boys who had been taking lamps, batteries, and similar articles and storing them in a pigeon coop so that they could experiment with them later. While there was no indication that they had tried to sell the articles, this awoke a desire in Niel to help boys that may get themselves into trouble. In 1917 with the encouragement of his mother, Fannie Wells Norris, to dedicate his life and wealth to the boys in need, NORRIS was founded.
During the summer of 1917, Niel operated Mount Vernon Boys Camp, which was organized under the wartime effort known as “Soldiers of the Soil”. Sixty-five boys spent the summer buIlding roads and bridges and erecting a mess hall. When the summer ended, there were 32 boys who could not return to their homes. Niel purchased a nearby farm to not only care for the 32 boys but to also make positive changes in the lives of youth who were headed down a delinquent path. Niel strove to instill a moral compass, a work ethic, the value of education and recreation, good citizenship and independence; all the tools needed to pursue a healthy, productive life, becoming a credit to themselves and to the community. These values have given Norris a solid foundation upon which it has grown for one hundred years.
During the 1920’s, the Norris Farm began expanding in both size and purpose. A schoolhouse was built and a separate school district was established in 1927, which continues to exist today. A gymnasium was built, makIng athletics an important aspect of life on the Farm. Long-term residential care for boys became fully developed and clarified. The School now had permanent staff, as well as a blacksmith, mechanic, herdsman, and farm manager, among others. The center now had established houseparents, visiting doctors, and an administrative support staff.
Today, the Norris campus is almost 900 acres of treatment, educational and recreational space that provides a calm environment for youth and families to heal and grow. Educational services are provided through the Norris Academy in the Norris School District. Norris and Norris Academy work in close partnership to provide the right blend of personalized treatment and educational services that give youth the ability to explore their talents, interests and realize their self-worth and connection to the larger community.
On September 22nd, we honored Norris’ 100-year legacy with a carnival-themed party and it was humbling to meet former residents from the 1950’s and an entire family that traveled across the country to visit the place their grandfather had once called “home”. These are the moments that define not only the past but the future of what Norris can be and should be. We had about 100 other guests attend our event that ranged from community members, to neighbors to local business owners and the families we currently serve. We ate, we talked, we laughed, we had a youth sing for us and we had some great entertainment courtesy of the Milwaukee Flyers.
After nine months in my new role, I am very proud to be part of the legacy and am excited for the future of Norris. As the service needs for children and families has changed over the past 100 years, Norris has forwarded its practice to meet these needs, allowing us to remain a sustainable resource for the community. Norris strives to become the premier provider not only for treatment and educational services, but also as a resource and asset to the larger community and an advocate for children and families everywhere. With a focus on relationships and trauma informed care, we are a connection that gives children and families the safety to tell and understand their story, the impact it has and gives them hope that the possibilities for the future are endless.
Please join us on our journey into the next 100 years!