SOUTH SALEM, N.Y. – Dr. Gary Altheim is on a mission.
Actually, Altheim, a licensed clinical psychologist and South Salem resident, has been on a mission for most of his professional career. But for the last 15 years that mission has focused on his Growth and Development Services (GDS), an organization that targets at-risk youth.
Founded in 1996, GDS is a not-for-profit group that provides services to teens and families facing emotional, behavior and emotional issues. It strives to equip them with the tools needed to cope with life’s myriad challenges.
Altheim, who grew up on Long Island, said the inspiration for not only becoming a psychologist, but for dedicating his career to troubled youth, came early in life.
“I was an acting-out teenager,” he said. “It came to the point where my parents said we are either going to get help or they were going to send me away. I chose to see a counselor who ended up being my therapist for 21 years. It was a changing moment in my life. I discovered you could seek help from an outside source.”
Altheim and GDS is now that “outside source.”
GDS has two distinct programs: Youth and Family Services and the Training Institute. Youth and Family Services is based in Washington Heights in New York City, while the Training Institute is based out of Altheim’s South Salem home. While the Youth and Family Services focuses on the psychological side, including issues such as trust and impulse, the Training Institute deals with things such as life skills, leadership development and motivation.
The key element behind the programs is GDS’s Excel Retreat, an overnight camp located at Camp Mariah in Fishkill, N.Y. There, kids can engage in recreational and team-building activities and create bonds with their peers.
“It’s a matter of getting them in a comfortable environment,” Altheim said. “I’ll play basketball with them as a way to bond with them because they can tend to see it as ‘us vs. them.’”
Using a sleepover camp for the core of his program seemed natural to Altheim. From the ages of seven to 16, he spent summers at camp and as an adult he worked at an array of camps as a counselor.
Growth and Development Funding relies on private donations from individuals and foundations and very little government funding. Altheim said government funding usually comes with stipulations that he says are often counter-intuitive the way he runs his programs.
Like many social programs and charities, the struggling economy has taken its toll on GDS – particularly the Excel Retreat.
“We had no overnight camp this year for the first time in 20 years,” Altheim said. “It’s the core of program and we’ve stopped recruiting new teens until we can raise the funds.”
Altheim said GDS’s two biggest donors, who between them accounted for $500,000, recently had to drop out. But “Dr. Gary” – as his teens call him – isn’t about to give up.
“It’s my mission in life,” he said. “We have to help each other out. I have become more of an activist than a psychologist. We need to keep this charity going. We have inspired a lot of people. Teens have told me that without it they’d be dead.”
Those interested in learning more about GDS can visit the website - http://www.excelgds.org - and even click on the “Donate” tab if they’d like to contribute.
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