*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the children.
His name is Mitch. At only 7 years of age, he was removed from his home by DSS because of repeated rape by his older brother. It was a cycle of abuse, the father having sexually abused the older brother. Her name is Janice. She was pregnant by her own father at 12 and she was brought to the shelter along with her sister. They were soon separated, possibly forever. His name is Rick. He has spent almost a year in an emergency shelter that typically keeps kids for 45 days. Neglect and abuse has kept this 3yr old away from a stable home life for far too long. The children’s shelter I work for has around 40 kids at any given time. A good portion of these kids are on medications for mental problems and most will probably go on to have emotional and behavioral issues due to not only the trauma and neglect, but due to the incredibly difficult situations facing them in the DSS shelter/home system. In this article, I will tell you about some of the issues facing kids in the system and how you could possibly help.
When I first started working at the children’s shelter, I was amazed at how quickly empty beds were filled. To think we were but one of several children’s shelters… I shuddered at that. The first thing I noticed, however, was the lack of activities. Most of the toys and books are old or abused, and even the electronic media, like the DVDs, were mostly unusable. There was a distinct lack of artistic outlets for the kids and most art supplies were getting pretty old and unusable. I soon learned that it was not the fault of staff at the shelter but a lack of funds. This shelter, indeed most shelters, are not state run in SC and rely on funds from outside sources, such as donations and grants. This directly affects the amount and quality of resources and supplies each shelter has. It can be something as complicated as whether there are radios to play soothing music at naptime or as simple as whether there is any tear free shampoo available for the children that need it.
As time went by, I noticed something more disturbing. Volunteers came and went, rarely visiting on a regular basis. While this does affect how the staff is able to work, the real impacts are seen by the children. Some of these children have never known affection; at best some have only seen apathy. At worst, they have seen prostitution, drug use and physical/emotional/sexual violence. They need effective role models to show them kindness. However, they need stability to show them that kindness need not be a transient thing. An adult who only visits once a month can do more damage to a young heart hungry for attention. This is even more important when you consider that the adults they see on a daily basis may be part time or on call employees whom they may rarely see. More importantly, just as you might expect, the personalities of those working with the children vary; it is just as likely they may be disciplinarian or distant in nature as they may be friendly or outgoing. It would be wrong to assume everyone who works with kids does so out of the goodness of their hearts. Like anywhere else, to some it is simply a paycheck.
The most disturbing thing of all was the impacts this kind of situation can have on young hearts and minds. Most of the new clients are ripped from their homes on little or no notice into a situation full of strange people they’ve never met. Most of the established clients have already gone from shelter to shelter and back again. Some shelters are pretty exclusive in the type of clients they will handle; the more problems a child has, especially behavioral, the less chance they will be accepted into some shelters or kept long. A few are separated not only from parents, but ripped away from the stability of siblings as many shelters or foster situations are not equipped to handle an entire family of 4 kids or more. Even when they are in the same shelter, most of the time girls are kept mostly separate from the boys. One such client, Henery, once stated that he knew he wasn’t going home. His only hope was that his good behavior would ensure he and his 3 sisters would be fostered, and eventually adopted, by the same family. It is enough to make an observer cry; imagine the emotional states of the children. It is a miracle that some of these kids will escape a total emotional crippling.
So what can a reader like you do about helping these kids? The problems seem way too large for any one person to affect, doesn’t it? That’s not true though. The best thing you can do is to donate your time to your local children’s shelter and play with the kids once a week. Buy a bottle of tear free shampoo from the local dollar store on your way there. A half hour or hour of coloring or being a chaperone to the children’s museum or zoo is invaluable to kids needing adult affection. The staff and kids get a break from each other and you will feel wonderful as a result. In positive psychology, people who serve a cause greater than themselves feel the most enduring happiness. Maybe you could find your cause here.
If your time is simply at a premium, a donation of just about anything is wonderful. Most shelters are in need of donations so here is a list of some basic needs:
• Toiletries: Body wash, soap, rags, diapers, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, toothpaste and especially tear free shampoos.
• School supplies: paper, folders, art supplies, pencils.
• Entertainment needs: Toys, DVD’s, CD/DVD repair kits, Play dough, board games or books.
• Clothes: Anything clean, from infant sizes to husky teens.
Most of these goods can be bought from discount outlets like BIG LOTS or from dollar stores. Kids are just as happy with generic toys from there as they are from Toys R’ Us. Even used goods in good condition are welcomed by kids with nothing or little to their names. Many kids arrive with nothing but the threadbare and stained clothing they are wearing, so almost anything is welcome. However, keep in mind that anything that could be used to cut, like nail clippers or manicure sets, will not be given to the children. It is not so much they may use them as weapons but some kids may use them to hurt themselves. A good portion of kids end up on suicide watches when in this type of situation.
Not sure where you can find one? A simple BING™ or GOOGLE™ search of children’s shelters in your city and state should help. However, if nothing shows up, try going to your local GOODWILL™ offices or the Department of Social Services and ask if they know how to contact your local shelter. I will post some links that may be of assistance following this article.
However you decide to help, please help. There is little we can do to make a huge difference in these children’s lives but every little thing can add up to life altering. You may be the person whose affection means a life that ends the cycle of violence and means a child can live a life full of meaning. And you might find some meaning in your own lives, as well.
SOURCE: Mark Gittner has been working at an SC children’s shelter in Greenville, SC since December of 2009. This article is based on his experiences at the shelter. Stories are actual histories of clients with names changed to protect the children’s identities.