Andy and Lysa Rieger have lived in the sprawling ABC House at 731 Harvard Avenue for 17 years, helping dozens of out-of-state students grow up and make the most of their opportunities as scholars at Strath Haven High School’s A Better Chance program. The time has come, the couple decided, to move on, but not too far. This summer, Andy and Lysa, and daughters Caeli (nearly 11) and Alice (7) will move a mile or so to Drexel Place in Swarthmore, to a house they’ve owned and rented out for many years.
Lysa said that when the couple became resident directors at the Harvard Avenue ABC boys house in 2000, “We told the board we’d do it for five years, and after a couple of years we thought we should have a house to move into after that. So maybe that was jumping the gun a little…”
The time has clearly come, though, Andy said. “It’s physically not that big a move. Lysa is still going to be co-academic chair of the house, and I am going to be on the board. So we will continue to do a fair bit of ABC stuff. But there’s a big difference between living in the house, being responsible 24 hours a day and just being connected on the board. As our kids get older, they need a lot more attention, and we have jobs!” [Lysa teaches math at Strath Haven HS; Andy runs Transparent Health Group in Swarthmore.]
Has it been difficult to live here as a family, with other relationship dynamics among the residents?
Lysa said: “I’ve loved living here. Up until we made the decision, I never thought we’d leave. But there are so many balls to keep up in the air, and we just keep adding more — focusing on our kids and their needs, the house’s needs, work and everything else.”
Andy answered: “The house runs smoothly. It’s large, and there is room to go away from someone who’s annoying. And like anyone else, there are some students our kids like more than others, and those are the ones they hang out with.
“The girls are often more socially mature; boys are often more process-oriented and less dramatic. Mixing them is nice. And since most colleges dorms are coed, living with the other gender and learning about appropriate interactions gives them a leg up.”
What has been your daughters’ experience of ABC?
Andy: “Caile just wrote a paper for 5th grade English class that talked about feelings about leaving. She talked about her memories of the house, with all these vignettes of her interactions with the kids, how important it was to her, … how different it is from a traditional house, and how she’s going to miss that difference.
“I feel bad for Alice – moving at 7, she may not remember much of this life. But for my oldest, it’s more than just modeling how to be an older kid – it’s the modeling of how much sacrifice the kids undertook to come here, and the amount of work they put in to succeed, the goal orientation. I think Caeli really sees and respects that.”
Lysa said that ABC’s new resident directors for 2017-2018 will be Ben Landau-Beispiel and Stephanie Oliver. “Stephanie was a tutor at ABC about 9 years ago, and then became RD at the girls’ house for about 3 years. Six years later, she is coming back from New Orleans to Philly with her husband Ben, heard the job was opening and applied. It was a pretty easy selection process; she did a good job when she was here before.”
Do you have advice for your successors?
Andy: “We tend to tell people ‘It’s not about you.’ For teenagers, 90% of what happens is about something else. If they’re angry, it’s probably not anger at you. With this many lives, that’s important to realize. And as we tell everyone on the board, it’s not about gratitude. If you’re coming here to have people thank you every day, it’s not a great fit. Our kids are polite, but being a teenager is not a time of intense gratitude.”
Lysa: “When the students really appreciate [the experience at ABC] is when they’ve left, they have space and they can reflect on it. While you’re living it, it’s hard to get excited about thanking the person who bought the milk. But when they come back after college begins, they realize how much ABC provided them.”
What talents are required to do this job well?
Andy: “I think we both have a natural ability to counsel and resolve conflicts.”
Lysa: “Before I came here, I taught at a Quaker school in New York where as a teacher … you have a group of advisees you stay with for four years, guiding them through everything. I help a lot with the college process, and part of that came from how much more as a private school teacher you get to work closely with kids as they apply.”
College visits must be a big production.
Lysa: “We pile into one of our two ginormous, three-row seated vehicles …”
Andy: “We usually do two trips a year. Day trips around here, and one multiday visit to New York, New England.”
Lysa: “It’s all to help them focus on what sort of school and culture they want, not to visit every college they’re applying to. We help them find the best fit for their lives after ABC.”
Find out more about A Better Chance – Strath Haven at abcstrathhaven.org.