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Drilling rejection a setback for Mars Home for Youth

| Saturday, April 12, 2014, 6:10 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Lisa Schiller is the executive director of Mars Home for Youth (MHY).

The board of directors of the Mars Home for Youth briefly entertained the tantalizing prospect of signing a gas drilling lease that could help pay for badly needed upgrades at the century-old Adams facility.

“We allowed ourselves five minutes of dreaming, ‘What would we do?' ” said Lisa Schiller, executive director of MHY Family Services. “There are older buildings that could desperately use repairs. We were excited with the opportunity as a nonprofit organization.”

The dreaming ended when the Mars Area School District on March 11 rejected a drilling proposal from Rex Energy after a public outcry over safety and other concerns. Because the youth home is surrounded by school district property, Rex Energy said there's no way it can get to youth home property to drill beneath it.

“It was a disappointment,” Schiller said, but she added that she harbors no ill will toward the school district. “We are both committed to being good neighbors.”

The youth home now must push harder to raise money for needed repairs, which include roofing work, gym renovations, a cafeteria overhaul, flooring in some of the buildings and other upgrades.

“We're just going to have to do as much fundraising as we can,” said youth home board President Pam Schiller, who is no relation to Lisa Schiller. One event planned is a gala on May 3.

“We depend a great deal on volunteerism and donations. There's no short and easy way to make up for what that Rex Energy project would have given us,” Pam Schiller said.

Rex had negotiated a five-year lease with a five-year extension that provided payments for acreage and royalties. Board members didn't release specifics, but Pam Schiller said the offer was “well into the six figures.”

The money, though, wasn't the overriding concern. A well pad would not have been placed on the 70-acre property, and drilling operations would have been undergound.

“We don't want people to think we would have done anything to get that money,” said Pam Schiller of Richland, an attorney. “We did our due diligence. We have children entrusted to our care.”

Mars Superintendent Jim Budzilek said the school board had to make the best decision for the school district.

“In this particular case, it was a matter of what's best for this district, rather than what's best for our neighbor,” he said.

“They are a good organization. They will weather this.”

The subsurface drilling interested the youth home board because it would not have disrupted operations at the campus.

“If you were standing on school property, you wouldn't really know there's anything going on,” said board member Lisa Hollingsworth-Segedy of Edgewood, a river restoration planner for American Rivers.

The youth home began as an orphanage more than 130 years ago, but now helps youth “who have experienced some sort of life trauma or have extensive mental health issues,” Lisa Schiller said.

With an $8 million budget, the campus houses the Longmore Academy, which provides alternative education for more than 90 at-risk youth in grades 5 through 12.

The campus also has a residential treatment facility and hosts a diversion and stabilization program to help those ages 9 to 17 with medication or therapy to avoid hospitalization, Lisa Schiller said.

The organization receives funding from various sources, including school districts that send children there, medical assistance and county money.

Pam Schiller said the board has no estimate of costs.

“There are a great many capital expenses on our list,” Pam Schiller said. The lease “would have been a tremendous help to the services we provide. We definitely were disappointed. It would have made a substantial difference to the campus and the kids.”

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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