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Packard Institute restoring old car to restore lost souls
By Paula Schleis
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published: Octob(PHONE NUMBER HIDDEN)
In some ways, the 1948 Packard Victoria Convertible is a metaphor for the youngsters who will be restoring it: a treasure hiding beneath the visible dings and dents of a hard life.
But as with all the various “therapies" used with at-risk teens at the Packard Institute, turning the hunter green auto that's currently missing its ragtop into a shimmering silver head-turner will teach them about the power of second chances.
Packard Institute, a Highland Square-based nonprofit that works mostly with young people struggling with substance abuse, took possession of the car last week with the intention of making it the “flagship" of the organization.
The institute's founder, Raynard Packard, is a distant cousin to James and William Packard, who founded Packard Automobiles in Warren in 1899, “so it's only fitting," he said.
The car comes with its own star-studded history.
It was purchased new in 1948 by Johnny Singer, who was known as “Dean of the Big Bands" in Cleveland. Singer rubbed elbows with the likes of Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer and Ernest Hemingway and played at events for presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
He drove the car until 1956, then parked it in his garage until his death in 2006, when it was handed down to his son Eric Singer, current drummer for the rock band KISS.
An organization in Missouri had begun restoration of the car when Packard found it and negotiated a deal to have it shipped to Akron.
“About three years ago, we started getting these antique automobiles," Raynard Packard said. “It's a lot of fun, and the kids learn a skill set, but it's really about building relationships. The car is a fun by-product of the relationships."
Among the volunteers who have worked with the youngsters is Greg Delagrange, a Barberton car restorer and Packard auto expert.
“Greg has given $50,000 worth of hours with these kids," Packard said.
Packard and Delagrange met a year and a half ago at a Stan Hywet car show. Packard was looking for help with a 1949 Packard sedan he had rescued from the basement of a barn that repeatedly had flooded.
Delagrange led the effort to restore that car and was moved by the way the institute was touching the lives of troubled youths.
“Some of these kids come from homes, let's just say they aren't the Cleavers," he said, referencing the Leave It to Beaver sitcom. “Sometimes I think they're like this car: They get dumped and abandoned."
Others have attentive parents, but end up turning to drugs for a variety of reasons.
“You have the same person but put them in a different environment, and there can be a different result at the end," Delagrange said. “These kids can change."
At the institute, which has worked with some 400 children since it launched in 2007, that new “environment" can mean practicing yoga, hiking the Appalachian Trail, whitewater rafting in Tennessee or diving for sponges off the coast of Florida.
“It shows me I don't need drugs to be happy," said Nate, an 18-year-old from Akron who asked that his last name not be used.
After nearly two years with the Packard Institute, Nate said he rose above his own problems, which include drug use and “being arrested for doing other stuff," to become a peer mentor and volunteer.
Packard said in addition to showing youngsters there are other routes to happiness, many of the activities “are a challenge of that scope and that intensity that takes people to places and has them reach deeper than ever before."
He said he finds “great warmth" in knowing that most of the institute's clients are referred by the kids themselves.
“They say, ‘You think I'm screwed up? You should see my buddy,' " Packard said.
The new Packard “flagship" car is being stored at the home Packard grew up in, appropriately around the corner from where Akron's own Dr. Bob helped found Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Packard house is being renovated into a “recovery home" for clients in their late teens and early 20s who need a temporary place to stay.
“They may be kids who have a crisis in the home, or maybe they need a more intensive level of care than outpatient at the institute," Packard said. He said it will be the only facility of its kind in the area targeting that young age group.
Packard spent more than 20 years working in public clinical settings before deciding to set out on his own. He said there was too much “soul-numbing inertia" in government to reach kids in the ways that worked for his own personal recovery.
He spent many youthful years in Los Angeles, where he began experimenting with drugs in his early teens. He was booted out of the Army Reserves for drinking and checked himself into the Veterans Administration hospital in Brecksville at the age of 29 to begin his long climb up from rock bottom. His muse came from running marathons.
Packard went on to earn a master's degree in counseling and dedicated himself to helping kids who are battling the same demons that once haunted him.
He's confident his recipe is working. His institute has not used any public money and survives solely on private insurance and funding, he said.
When he opened his agency on West Market Street, “I didn't know how I was going to pay the rent from one month to the next," he said.
But with the help of dozens of volunteers and benefactors, he survived those formative years as well as a crushing recession.
“I figured out the absolute best business model you can have is to provide a service that works. That's your business plan," Packard said. “You do things that make a difference in young people's lives."