Cory Rathbun graduated from college in 1977. Within weeks of taking off his graduation cap, he began work as a counselor at what was then St. Francis Boys’ Home in his hometown of Ellsworth, Kansas.
When the 22-year-old started work as a relief counselor, he was barely older than some of the boys living in the home. It didn’t occur to him that he would retire from Saint Francis Ministries 43 years later.
Cory was inundated in those early days with learning about the boys and their oftentimes heartbreaking life stories, and in learning about the founder Rev. Robert Mize Jr.’s philosophies around caring for youth.
“I probably learned more from them than they learned from me,” Cory said. “We had 26 boys, and we had about seven counselors who actually worked with the kids, in addition to the support staff and a director. Each counselor would carry a caseload of about four to six kids.”
Along with writing treatment plans and doing counseling, Cory and the other counselors would do chores with the youth and participate in activities. Cory, who grew up on a farm, was almost immediately put in charge of the Boys’ Home equine program.
“I was very active,” Cory said. “I like to do a lot of outside things and sports, so the kids gravitated toward me to some degree. I’d come in and they’d want to go fishing. Some of the kids didn’t want to sit in a room and do counseling. They wanted to do things so you could go out and maybe go fishing or camping, and they would really, really share with you. We always tried to find something that every one of the kids would excel at to build self- esteem. Many of them hadn’t had a lot of successes throughout their lives.”
One of Fr. Mize’s philosophies was that it was important for the boys to become part of the community.
“If we were going to make changes, they needed to go to a local school, they needed to date local girls when they got an opportunity, they needed to go to church in the community,” Cory recalled. “They shouldn’t be separated away, isolated, because it is impossible to grow like that.”
Professional and personal growth
Many of the founding principles of Saint Francis Ministries – including Therapy in Christ and beginning and ending each day with a prayer – spoke to Cory’s own belief system. It was part of the reason he stayed for four decades.
Saint Francis also offered him the opportunity to continue to grow in his career and as a person. The organization encouraged and supported him in getting a master’s degree in health administration. He worked at the Boys Home for about eight years before taking a position as assistant director at the Boys’ Home residential facility in Bavaria, Kansas, near Salina, that Fr. Mize opened in the late 1940s.
Over the years, Cory held many positions, ending his career as a Vice President. He helped start various programs outside of Kansas and was proud to see Saint Francis grow. In 40-plus years, Cory led the Salina West residential facility as it became the first “Level VI” program in the state — as all the state hospitals were closing. He added another residential facility in Salina and started the first partial-day hospital program and output substance use program for adolescents in Salina.
Cory worked closely with Betty Rush, who today is Regional Vice President of Child and Family Services and started Foster Care Homes as a needed service for the youth discharging from Salina West. When Kansas began the process of privatizing child welfare, it was under Cory’s leadership that Saint Francis received the first round of Family Preservation contracts in western Kansas, and in 2000, received out-of-home work as well. He started programs for Saint Francis in Oklahoma and later in Nebraska.
Focus on the mission
To Cory, who hesitates to talk about his accomplishments, the focus has always been about staying true to the mission that Fr. Bob Mize set in place.
“When Fr. Bob started the program, he went around to a lot of the adult prisons, or county jails, and picked kids up out of there. Most of those kids were offenders to some degree,” Cory said. “With the Therapy in Christ, and the forgiveness, it was like, when kids came in, they started over and no matter what they had done or what had been done to them, they were starting over, and nobody held that against them.”
The core of supporting youth based out of love and forgiveness may not have changed much over the years, but Cory was proud of the fact that Saint Francis staff constantly were learning and challenging themselves to change and grow as the world’s understanding of trauma and treatment changed.
“The residential programs were always on the cutting edge, even when I started,” Cory said. “We were the only residential program in Kansas that was accredited by The Joint Commission at the time, and we just had an outstanding research department. Saint Francis was very hard to get into because we were always full, always had a waiting list, and we would take kids from all over the United States at that point.”
Cory said fewer than 30 to 40 percent of youth in the residentials were from Kansas early in his career. Today, most of the youth in the residential facilities are from Kansas.
It’s about helping people
Much has changed for the positive over the years, as more was learned about how to be effective in caring for children. “Knowledge about treating trauma, about the importance of treating not just the child but the family, and about the importance of getting youth into a homelike setting, rather than a residential setting, all grew in recent decades,” Cory said.
For Cory, the work remained about doing what is best for children and families. It never really occurred to him to leave this field and seek employment elsewhere.
“It’s helping people,” he said of his motivation. “I think that’s just kind of what I was wired to do, to be in this field someplace. I’m glad I ended up at Saint Francis.
“It’s incredible what has happened from Fr. Bob’s thought of opening a boys’ home to what the organization is today,” Cory added. “Fr. Bobby (Smith) has done a fantastic job of continuing with the mission of Saint Francis. I think Saint Francis is in a very good position, and I’m looking forward to seeing its continued growth.”
This story originally appeared in the 75th Anniversary issue of Hi-Lites, published in 2020. You can view past HiLites here.