As I look across my u-shaped desk, the Havana Nights 2020 binder is closed. The sponsorship documents, destination brochures for live auction, checklists and event tickets that are typically scattered around are now neatly bound and sprinkled with a light layer of dust. The telephone is not ringing, the catering is not being finalized, the financial donations that fund 1/3 of the shelter’s operating budget to support our children’s needs are at a stalemate.
This “Party with a Purpose” will have to wait as the invisible enemy named COVID-19 dominates our every move.
Switching focus, I rotate my chair and look outside my office window to the shelter playground. “She is back again,” I say to myself.
A young girl is swinging on the swing set. We will call her Kayli. She is about 13 years old. While many children are experiencing the loneliness of social distancing, Kayli also is suffering from high levels of emotional and behavioral challenges due to the trauma she experienced in her home. Swinging is not just an opportunity for her to manage boredom and “get out of the house” while living at the Children’s Shelter, it has become her coping mechanism. It has created a therapeutic skill that is helping her achieve a behavioral balance when overwhelmed with her emotions and past trauma.
Pushing her legs out into the air, her feet rise. She straightens her elbows, leans back, and lets the air lift her hair as her back is now parallel with the ground and her shadow rolls over the mulch beneath her. Back and forth, up and down, pushing and pulling, she goes ... finding freedom and peace on her swing. She is finally getting the opportunity to just be a kid! I think I will go join her.
The Fort Smith Children’s Shelter provides youth in foster care, ages 10 and older, with a safe and stable home. Every child at the shelter has a story – they are victims of abuse and neglect, and are placed there at no fault of their own. The shelter’s mission is to help each child cope and heal by providing a resident-centered and trauma-informed model of care for a period of six months or longer.
While COVID-19 has pushed the “pause” button on life for the majority of the world, it has not stopped child abuse or neglect. It has not stopped the mission, values and purpose of the Fort Smith Children’s Shelter and its independent living program, GetREAL24, for ages 18-22.
It has not stopped our direct-care staff members from coming into work to take care of our kids. And it has not stopped our GR24 life-skills classes and self-sufficiency support systems.
Every day, our shelter and GR24 staff must leave their homes, their children and their families to take care of our kids. They are essential. They are the stability in an otherwise troubled world.
Staff members are on strict restrictions. The entry policy at the Children’s Shelter no longer allows anyone into the home except the residents and direct-care staff.
Keeping the home clean at all times and the children and staff free of sickness is a top priority. Workers undergo multiple health screenings before and after each shift. Donations are dropped off and sanitized before being brought inside.
It has been more than 60 days since our children have left the shelter. For youngsters living with 10 other children, even on a campus with a gymnasium and playground, and the young adults living at the GR24 apartment complex, this pandemic has increased the behavioral challenges that each of them faces, as well as the workload and stress level of the staff.
As I swing next to Kayli, trying to keep our shadows in sync, I wonder what her life might look like had the community not built the Children’s Shelter. Where would she have gone? If not for the shelter, where would other residents like her have been placed? Would they have a safe space to just be kids?
On Nov. 1, the Fort Smith Children’s Shelter will celebrate 23 years of taking care of abused and neglected children in foster care. The Children’s Shelter is here to give children in crisis hope for a better future, safety and security and healing from a childhood that no one should have to live.
We are here to love and teach, and provide opportunities for each of our kids as they learn how to manage their trauma. We are here because of this community!
You may never see the faces or know the names of the children that live at the Children’s Shelter. But they are loved and cared for because of the generosity of this community. As COVID-19 continues to affect our nation, we are committed to continuing to care for each child that calls the shelter “home.”
We hope that just as the Junior League of Fort Smith envisioned this Children’s Shelter in 1995, that you will join us by supporting our vision of continued hope, safety and security for youth in foster care.
We hope that recovery from COVID-19 brings forth generosity and stability, and that you will find a way to support the Children’s Shelter as we continue to care for and give children in crisis the opportunity to just be kids!
Tables temporarily turned, the Children’s Shelter was happy to order from several donor restaurants
Being good stewards of donor dollars is a foremost responsibility for Children’s Shelter Foundation. More than half of its operating budget is funded through private donations, grants and fundraisers, particularly Havana Nights.
Due to COVID-19, fundraisers like the annual “Community Strikes Back” bowling tournament and Havana Nights party have been postponed and could still potentially be canceled due to public health policies.
In response, some foundations that provide grants to the shelter have released additional funds and have temporarily allowed the shelter to spend a little differently. Normally, shelter meals are cooked homestyle through major support from Tyson Foods, which provides for good nutrition with abundant, fresh, healthy foods.
When schools closed, the shelter knew its food budget would be overcome. Every child that lives at the shelter qualifies for the free and reduced lunch program. With school closed, 47 days of unbudgeted lunches for each resident and staff member became an added expense.
When donors gave more because of the shutdown and lifted certain restrictions, the shelter took the opportunity to give back to the community that has so graciously given to it.
Through relief funding, the Children’s Shelter was able to order a few take-out lunches (and pay full price for them!) from locally owned and operated restaurants.
In addition, the Shelter reached out to supporters to ask them how they could share their businesses needs on the Children’s Shelter social media pages.
Among all the darkness that COVID-19 had brought, it had given the Children’s Shelter an opportunity to financially give back to our community.
This opportunity also gave the children, young adults and staff at the Children’s Shelter an opportunity to understand the value in the art of giving and supporting the community through this crisis.
Name reflects mission of more home-like, therapeutic care
The Children’s Emergency Shelter has recently transitioned from an "emergency" shelter providing short-term care, to a Qualified Residential Treatment Program.
As a QRTP, the Fort Smith Children’s Shelter now provides long-term care to youth in foster care who exhibit a higher degree of emotional and behavioral challenges due to the neglect and abuse they have experienced. This level of care allows it to better support the mental and emotional health needs of each child through a “trauma-informed” approach, providing therapy services and coping strategies that will help each one transition into a more traditional home environment. Children may live at the shelter for up to 6 months, up from the former 21-day stay.
The Children’s Shelter campus also includes the 24-unit GetREAL24 apartment complex for youth 18-22 who have aged out of foster care and who opt for support and independent living classes while living and working on their own.
To learn more about the Fort Smith Children’s Shelter or donate, visit fschildrensshelter.org
By Ashley Forsgren, Director of Development, Fort Smith Children’s Shelter