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Waterford Country School director honored by Cornell University

Waterford Country School Executive Director Bill Martin was awarded Tuesday for, among other accomplishments, being the perfect link between theory and practice in the fields of human development and well-being.

Martin received the third Eckenrode Award for Partner in Translational Research from Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research during a Zoom event. Researchers from Cornell, as well as many people, past and present, involved in the Waterford Country School, gathered virtually to celebrate Martin’s achievements and wish him well on his upcoming retirement.

Cornell described the award — named after John Eckenrode, a social psychologist and founding director of the Bronfenbrenner Center — as “dedicated to honoring individuals and organizations who have played a vital partnership role with Cornell researchers to expand, strengthen and speed connections between research, policy and practice in service of human development and wellbeing.”

The Waterford Country School is a nonprofit agency providing residential treatment, emergency shelters, foster care, special education and therapeutic boarding, among other services. Martin led the school to partner with the Residential Child Care Project in evaluating and modifying the project’s Children and Residential Experiences, or CARE, program model, which substantially reduced how often staff members need to restrain clients, cutting the need for prescription drugs to control behaviors and even leading to fewer runaways and less campus property damage. Waterford Country School, in turn, has helped change the lives of hundreds of other troubled youths elsewhere by inviting visitors to see the CARE program in person, as well as documenting its progress by carefully recording data and being part of scientific studies.

Waterford Country School was one of the first residential facilities in the country to introduce the CARE model, which was implemented in foster care, residential treatment and its school. Traditionally, residential facilities for people with emotional or behavioral problems had used behaviorist models based on rewards and consequences, but residential child care project Director Martha Holden wanted to use a more relational approach, understanding kids need support, not punishment, when they lash out.

The idea was to look at what kids were good at, rather than focusing on their problems. Under the new model, kids are defined by their successes rather than their struggles.

On Tuesday, numerous school staff members, as well as Cornell University partners, shared their admiration for Martin and his stewardship.

“Thirteen years ago, I received a call from Bill ... I was so impressed, I loved how he was advocating for his staff, his organization and the young people there, and wanted to make sure they got the very best care from the programs they implemented,” Holden said. “Bill loaded up his van with a group of his leaders and drove to Cornell, and we had a meeting that was the beginning of this incredible partnership.”

Martin also recalled the meeting, which apparently lasted three hours.

“Maybe 12 years ago, we had great people here, isolated in our little corner of Connecticut, trying to figure out how to take care of very complicated kids,” Martin said. “We were really frustrated. Things were not moving in the right direction. We were reading the books, we were listening to the speakers, we were watching the programs, but we weren’t able to come up with the formula we were confident and happy with to help the kids. We invited ourselves to Martha’s office ... and that started a pretty incredible relationship.”

Through working with Cornell, Martin was invited to speaking engagements around the world, and “People all over the world had a stake in Waterford Country School because of our relationship with the child care project,” he said. The school was able to contribute to Cornell’s research and, in some cases, address shortcomings in the CARE model. He joked that Waterford Country School is better known internationally than in Connecticut.

“It was those forces, the true merger of translational research, the researcher and the practitioner, joining together,” Martin said. “This is a little bit backward. Waterford Country School owes Cornell, the people who helped us do this, the people who changed our ability to help kids ... it was a true change agent for us.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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