Sally Stansberry spent her 30s living with her husband, their two children and eight teenage boys.

She and William “Stanz” Stansberry were some of the first house parents for Youth Homes Inc., a Missoula-based organization that cares for children who are facing abuse, neglect, emotional trauma and substance abuse problems.

The organization operates nine homes in three Western Montana communities, serving 150 kids and families.

But when the Stansberrys began working for the organization 39 years ago, there were just four homes and Youth Homes had only existed for about 10 years.

The Stansberrys would be integral to the organization's evolution over the next 30 years.

She and her husband met at the University of Montana while they were both studying psychology. After the two graduated, Stansberry wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her degree. A friend of hers was starting a house painting business and asked if Stansberry would help her.

“I said, ‘Sure, (but) you’ll have to teach me how to paint,’ ” Stansberry said.

There weren’t any other women in the house-painting business in Missoula at that time, Stansberry said. Clients liked the work the pair did. Stansberry liked the six-pack abs she got from holding up the extended paint roller and pressing in the paint.

The job was a placeholder, though. Soon, Stansberry noticed her husband had taken to circling the same job ad in the newspaper every day.

The ad’s pitch was a tough sell: Move into a group home with eight teenage boys.

At the time, the Stansberrys’ son was about 5 years old and Sally Stansberry had reservations about bringing him into a group home environment. But the couple applied and Youth Homes approved them, asking them to move into the Tom Roy Home. The house is still used by the organization.

Running the home was intense. “I couldn’t afford to go home, watch TV and have a beer,” Stansberry said. But she was was so engaged in the work, she never felt deprived.

In every sense, Stansberry said she wanted the kids to be healthy. That meant making sure they ate right and making sure they got exercise. It also meant addressing their emotional conflicts.

“Kids have real issues,” Stansberry said. “They come by them honestly.”

Many of the kids, when they came to the home, didn’t know how to form relationships, didn’t know how to engage in activities, she said.

“They were limited in how they saw, how they felt,” Stansberry said. “Excited was happy, mad was everything else.”

Some of her kids struggled as they became adults, but she doesn’t know if that makes them unsuccessful. She also doesn’t know if there is a way to judge a person’s success in life.

Stansberry hopes her teens grew up and made connections with people, got some form of education and stayed out of trouble. 

Years later, one of the teens who used to live with Stansberry came knocking at her door. He told her he was loading his own children up into his truck and taking them on hikes, which used to be the standard outing for the group home on Sundays. On one of these trips, he’d found a spectacular rock, which is why he’d come to see her. He wanted to show her the rock.

This, Stansberry said, was a sign of success.

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The Stansberrys lived in the group home for about five years. When Stansberry gave birth to her daughter, she started to consider moving out. By the time their daughter was 3 years old, the family moved. 

For the next 39 years, Stansberry worked for Youth Homes. She retired this March from the position of director of operations. Youth Homes Executive Director Geoff Birnbaum said the Stansberrys were an integral part of making sure the homes did right by both the staff and the kids as the organization evolved.

Sally Stansberry helped to move the organization away from house parents to shift staff.

Being a houseparent was tough, Stansberry said. Sometimes a parent might ask for a child to be removed from the house.

“It sends a profound message to live with someone,” Stansberry said. “But it also sends a profound message to make them leave.”

Better to have staff staying at the homes in shifts, she said.

She has spent the years since her husband’s death helping prepare Youth Homes — an organization that “held her” after her loss — for its future.

More of a homebody, Stansberry was surprised how much she enjoyed her final goodbye party. The people in the Youth Homes organization are some of the most exceptional people she’s ever known, she said. That includes both the kids and the staff.

Today, Stansberry spends her days with her daughter and grandchildren. She’s planning a trip to Seattle this summer, intending to visit one of the kids who used to live in her group home. In the evenings, she gets to go home and kick back — and even have a beer now and then.

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