Category: News

Gazette opinion: Save Montana kids’ mental health care


Gazette opinion: Save Montana kids’ mental health care

Nov 5, 2017

Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch is caring for nearly 600 kids, but only 65 were living on the sprawling campus along 72nd Street West last week. The other children and teens receive YBGR’s help in their schools, their homes or foster homes. It’s that big group of kids who would be hurt first and worst if the state cuts its budget.

Youth in-home care and targeted case management are on the chopping block, even though they are key to helping emotionally disturbed youth stay safe in their own homes.

YBGR, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, serves Montana through community offices in Dillon, Livingston, Lewistown and Billings. Those services include 32 school-based treatment teams in Billings, Laurel and other Montana public schools.

Kids on the campus west of Billings suffer serious illnesses, including major depression and PTSD resulting from abuse. Many have engaged in self-harm, such as cutting or suicide attempts. About half have chemical dependencies or are at high risk for addiction.

The vast majority of YBGR services are provided through Medicaid. The fiscal year began with zero rate increases for Medicaid mental health care. YGBR and other Montana health care providers already were struggling to pay salaries that will recruit and retain professional staff.

“Medicaid does not cover our costs,” YBGR Chief Executive Officer Mike Chavers said in an interview last week. “Our donors and foundation help.”

Starting and resuming children’s mental health care isn’t like flipping a light switch on and off. If disturbed youth are cut off from treatment, they will regress; they may need a higher level of treatment because they couldn’t access the less expensive care when they needed it. If in-home work with parents and dysfunctional families suddenly ceases, problems will grow.

“Most cuts are focused on low-cost services that serve a lot of people and divert them from higher cost care, hospitals and juvenile detention,” Chavers said. “Cutting down in this area doesn’t save money, it drives costs elsewhere. Let’s figure out ways to drive kids to better outcomes and bring kids home.

Of course, the state needs to control the costs of its high-end kids’ mental health care, too. It’s currently paying $327 a day for residential treatment, but that rate, which doesn’t fully cover costs of care, is under the budget axe, too.

DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan and division heads are “open to thinking creatively,” Chavers said. “The challenge is there is so much noise in the system, nobody knows what’s going to happen. There’s no easy way to make 10 percent budget cuts.”

The state absolutely can improve the system. Montana public health officials should work with in-state residential treatment centers to send fewer troubled kids out of state for care. Montana needs to invest enough in community-based services to prevent kids from deteriorating till they need to be hospitalized. DPHHS must step up engagement of providers, clients and their parents to plan better, more cost-effective services. But none of this will save the general fund the $100 million DPHHS could lose this biennium to balance the state budget.

As Chavers said, “There are ways we can improve the system, but it takes time.”


Music therapy changing lives in Dillon







Posted:  Oct 17, 2017 7:45 PM MDT Updated:  Oct 18, 2017 7:55 AM MDT


DILLON – “Go! Go, Bobby. Play, play, play your instrument, play, play, play,” Bethany Venekamp, Musical Therapist, sings to her class.

Music is more than just fun. At Parkview Elementary, Bethany says music has scientific qualities that are good for therapy.

“Music is organized, it’s structured, it’s predictable and that quality of music makes it a really special medium to work and train or reteach the brain,” Venekamp said.

For a year now, Bethany has been working with special needs students using musical therapy that includes drumming and singing songs.

“I try to pick songs that they know, we call it piggybacking, so we maybe take the chorus and the melody, but we adjust some of the lines to what we’re going to work on,” Venekamp said.

“We love it,” said Special Ed Teacher Beth Pavalis.  “When she first came in I asked if she could come every day, it’s just the beautiful little time in our week that we all look forward to.”

Most people use musical instruments for entertainment, but Bethany used them for learning. She can get the students to follow along and stop, or use a rattle to help them learn rhythm and this is all done so they can develop social skills.

“These kids are learning to follow direction because they need to know that skill in class and in life and so just working on stop, start, play up high, play down low, just simple directives that I’m giving them,” Venekamp said.

Teachers say this therapy has made a difference for the nine special needs students at the school.

“The kids really tune in and engage and follow directions a lot better and more effectively when music is involved,” Pavalis said.

Venekamp added: “So our sessions when we started were like 15, 20 minutes for some of the kids and then they would live or disengage, so the fact that we can have a session that’s almost 40 minutes with independent engagement without needing assistance from their other teachers is huge.”


History in the making YBGR youth make breadboards out of grain elevator wood

History in the making

Our very own Ron O’Leary


Banking on the eclipse: Billings artist designs hundreds of eclipse souvenirs


Ron O'Leary
Eclipse shirt back

T-shirts by O’Leary show the line of the total eclipse on the back. They sell for $24.

JACI WEBB/Gazette Staff

Click here to see the original article 

JACI WEBB/Gazette Staff

When Billings artist Ron O’Leary gets behind something, he doesn’t go halfway.

That attitude fits perfectly with the total eclipse of the sun on Monday. Around Christmastime in 2016, Ron and his sister, Kathleen O’Leary of Riverton, Wyo., were talking about the eclipse. Riverton will experience the eclipse at 100 percent at 11:39 a.m. on Monday.

Folks around Riverton started planning early for the onslaught of viewers looking for a place to stay and ways to celebrate the eclipse. There will be a two-day Dark in the Park festival in Riverton on Saturday and Sunday. Kathleen O’Leary is allowing some camping on her ranchland but has no more spaces available.

Encouraged by his sister, O’Leary put his artistic side to work to make souvenirs. A ceramic artist, he created a wall plaque in the shape of the sun with the date of the eclipse painted around it. A perfectionist who loves color and design, O’Leary hand-paints each sun, using various color combinations to create different effects. Each one is different.

“What’s funny is these items that took the most time and resources aren’t always the ones people like. One day, two different people said their favorite was one I considered my worst,” O’Leary said.

He calls one the goth plaque because it has no bright colors, just black, white and gray. Another has a vintage look, which he calls “retro road sign.” It is painted with a patina made with iron oxide.

O’Leary’s teenage daughter, Lilly, and his partner, Linda Hofer, helped with some of the painting. But for the most part, it’s been O’Leary hunched over a table in his backyard studio painting the sun.

O’Leary has taught art and music at Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch for 18 years and his studio reflects that with shelves of ceramic work he can’t bear to part with.

Over the summer O’Leary traveled through central Oregon, where the eclipse will also be 100 percent. Some of the shops took his sun plaques and others asked about items like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

As soon as he returned to Billings, O’Leary got busy again, designing solar eclipse T-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, flashlights, book bags and eventually a poster showing a bison with the date of the eclipse and the longitude and latitude of Riverton. The items are for sale at, Etsy or will be sold in Capser, Wyoming, on Thursday and in Riverton this weekend.

“What’s kind of fun to think about is all the different designs people have come up with. There are 23 pages on Etsy of solar eclipse merchandise, all the way from tacky to real nice artistic designs,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary has never seen a solar eclipse and he said he’s getting excited for the experience on Monday.

Learn About YBGR’s Therapeutic Foster Care, June 19

(Dillon, Mont.) June 15, 2017 – Are you considering becoming a foster care parent? Visit with professionals of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch to learn initial information on what it is to be a foster parent during the evening of Monday, June 19, from 5:30 – 7 p.m. at Dillon Elementary School District Board Room, located at 22 North Cottom, Dillon, MT 59725.

This is an informational evening for anyone who may be interested in becoming a therapeutic foster parent or who would like to learn more about Therapeutic Foster Care.

Contact Charise Lemelin at, Tracey Lujan at, or call 406-683-0416 to R.S.V.P. for the event.


Support YBGR on AmazonSmile

The Yellowstone Foundation has partnered with AmazonSmile, an program for nonprofits, to allow shoppers to donate to the Ranch at no added cost!

How does AmazonSmile work? 

AmazonSmile will donate .5% of all eligible purchases to the Yellowstone Foundation to support Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch programs.

Click here to go to the link on or go to, then login to your Amazon account, shop, and buy!




Yellowstone Academy Talent Show

Performing and singing many current pop songs and hits from the past, kids and staff rocked the stage inside Yellowstone Academy (YA) during this year’s Talent Show on May 26. The auditorium was filled with kids ready to strum, pick, key and hit instruments provided by YA’s music program.

Music and Art Teacher Ron O’Leary and a YA student play and sing on stage at this year’s Talent Show.

Those who had a knack for acoustic guitar, bongo drums or the keyboard captured the audience’s attention with the vibrant sound of live music. Most of the kids sang to voiceless versions of songs from pop singers like Ariana Grande, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and country songs like those by Sam Hunt, Blake Shelton and more.  During the best composed performances and the most well-known songs, kids cheered and stood, swaying to the tempo. Many staff jumped in, including lodge workers, teachers and the school therapist, showing off strong vocals and musical talents of their own.

One youth plays the guitar, cheered loudly by the crowd in front of her.

Once the performers stepped off stage, they were met with high-fives, and words of praise and encouragement from their peers.  Impressed with their friends’ performances and sometimes critical of their own, many of the kids walked away with a newfound confidence or a set of goals to achieve the next level of adjunct instrumentalist or singer superstar.

The Ranch Teaches Kids How to Work a Branding

(Billings, Mont.) May 22, 2017 – Kids from Billings’ Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch took to the dirt and manure on Friday afternoon, learning how to brand cattle like true Montanans. The Ranch’s kids come from around the state and across the nation. Some have never seen a feedlot or cattle operation, but the Ranch’s Farm Director, Gary Adams, showed them how it’s done. Mike Chavers, YBGR’s CEO, as well as residential staff, also jumped in on the action.

“These kids got to face their fears, find their confidence and learn new skills today. I really enjoyed seeing the kids work together and jumping in there with them,” said Chavers.

Close to 15 kids partook in this year’s branding. Inside the fences, they traded turns, learning teamwork on how to grab the calves’ hooves and flanks for a solid heave to the ground.  In total, over 50 calves were vaccinated and branded.

“Last year, the girls were running circles around the boys,” said Jeff Seeley, program manager for a residential lodge.

This year, many of the girls jumped right in, while others were shy to the sport. Adams, impressed with all of the kids’ motivation and hard work, applauded them for their efforts and praised them for a job well done.

As the kids dumped a cooler of cold water on each other, Adams said, “I’ll take this work crew anytime.”

The Yellowstone Conference: Kids in Crisis

Celebrating 60 Years of Leadership and Creating Positive Outcomes for At-Risk Children and Youth in Montana

Save the Date for September 21, 2017, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch has reached 60 years of working to improve the lives of At-Risk Children and Youth in Montana.  As part of our celebration of this legacy of caring, we are hosting a conference focused on improving outcomes for kids and families in Montana.  Named The Yellowstone Conference: Kids in Crisis, the event will focus on promoting effective solutions to the problems facing our state’s most vulnerable young people, and provide a forum for mental health practitioners, education staff and law enforcement to exchange ideas – and to celebrate the efforts of those who are on the front lines developing and implementing solutions.

Based upon Georgetown University’s LEAD (Leadership, Evidence, Analysis, Debate) Conference, the conference is designed to be both interactive and informative.  During the conference, dedicated and knowledgeable professionals from a variety of governmental and organizations from around Montana will provide insight on the current challenges facing Montana youth, as well as introduce promising practices.

Through a lens of trauma informed practice and a focus on outcome measurement, the conference will provide opportunities to learn and engage on the following topics affecting Montana youth:

  • Youth Suicide
  • Social Media and Bullying
  • Co-Occurring Disorders / Dual Diagnosis
  • Funding Challenges and Opportunities

Eric Arzubi, MD, Chair of the Billings Clinic Department of Psychiatry and is President of the Big Sky Regional Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry will be providing the keynote address at the end of the day, summarizing the event.

Afterwards, there will be a reception celebrating YBGR’s 60 years of caring.

Fee for conference is $25.00, which includes conference, lunch, and reception.

Register here


Mike Chavers, CEO of Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch

Foster Care Pre-Service in Livingston

(Livingston, Mont.) May 15, 2017 – Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch (YBGR) in Livingston will be hosting pre-service training during the months of May and June for individuals interested in becoming therapeutic foster parents. These are free evenings for Livingston and surrounding area families to learn initial information on foster care, begin the training process, meet YBGR’s team of professionals and enjoy dinner.

The dates are May 30, and June 1, 6, and 8, from 6 – 10 p.m. at YBGR’s Livingston office, located at 5237 Hwy 89 South, Suite 1, Livingston, MT 59047. All four trainings must be attended.  For more information on these trainings, or to learn about foster care, call Tracey Lujan at 406-222-6490, e-mail, or e-mail Charise Lemelin at