A peek into Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter’s daily routine reveals its extraordinary impact children who have been neglected or abused
It’s hard to succinctly describe the positive effect Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter has on the lives of kids who have been abandoned, abused and neglected.
You may know that Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter’s mission is to provide these kids with a safe haven, high-quality care and hope for the future. But what does that look like on a daily basis? Each of the 45 days the Children’s Shelter has with these kids is precious, so the staff tries to make each one as impactful as possible. We could list all of the unique and innovative programs and services the Children’s Shelter offers, but it’s something that almost has to be seen firsthand.
We’d like to show you a snapshot of a day in the life of a child at Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, through the fairly typical experience of a 7-year-old girl.
We will call her Sophia. Sophia is a composite of experiences of and comments made by actual residents served by the Children’s Shelter in the past few months. And while she is a composite, many of the 6,600 or so children who have called the Children’s Shelter home since its beginning in 1993 could sign their names to this account.
The stark reality is that even though Northwest Arkansas has a reputation as an affluent area that may be perceived as being more immune to child abuse and neglect than other areas of the state, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, for the 2012 fiscal year, the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) reported that among Arkansas’ 75 counties, Washington and Benton counties had the third- and fourth-highest incidences, respectively, of children in foster care. Just this past May, Benton County reported a new monthly record-high for kids taken into foster care, with 85 cases in that one month. Northwest Arkansas as a whole (Benton, Washington, Carroll and Madison counties) accounted for about 12 percent of the state’s 7,740 children in foster care in the 2012 fiscal year.
Sophia is one such child. She came to Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter from rural southwest Benton County. Like about 80 percent of the children in the Children’s Shelter’s care, she was a victim of environmental neglect. Like about 15 percent of the Children’s Shelter’s kids, she also suffered physical abuse. And like most all of the Children’s Shelter’s kids, she was removed from her home abruptly and arrived with only the clothes on her back … and an ample supply of emotional turmoil and insecurities. This “day-in-the-life” narrative begins at the end of Sophia’s first full week with the Children’s Shelter (a Friday).
6:15 a.m. – Rise and shine
Sophia is awakened by Ms. Korinna, a direct-care staffer on the Girls’ Wing. Sophia awakes with a yawn, a big stretch and a faint smile. Having her own bed and getting a good night’s sleep are still something of a luxury. She has been sleeping in the same bed with her four siblings as long as she can remember. And since she is the eldest, she usually is the last one to go to sleep, after seeing to the needs of her younger brothers and sisters. As do many of her peers, Sophia seems comforted by having a well-established routine.
6:30 a.m. – Morning Expectations
Sophia dutifully makes her bed and cleans her room, as she now has been taught to do. Both are new concepts, but she accepts the challenge. She is motivated because making the bed and cleaning her room are part of the Expectations program. Performing those tasks translates to points and eventually to rewards (cash), which can be used as spending money on outings or to buy items from the Expectations Rewards Store.
6:30 – 7:15 a.m. – Prepping for school
Sophia brushes her teeth, dresses for school, fixes her hair and readies her backpack. Ms. Korinna has very patiently worked with Sophia on how to brush her teeth. It’s a skill she’s never been taught. She’s getting the hang of it pretty quickly. Ms. Korinna also makes a quick check to see if Sophia’s hair is free of lice. When she arrived, a week ago, the staff quickly saw that she and her siblings were infested and quickly intervened. Sophia’s hair is clear; no new nits.
7:15 – 7:50 a.m. – Breakfast
Breakfast is served. Sophia grabs a banana from the basket at the head of the tray line and greets the Food Service Manager with a broad grin. “Good morning, Mr. Bill!,” she exclaims. Bananas, which she has never had before, now are a new favorite.
Mr. Bill exits the kitchen to bring Sophia her soy milk and a nutritional supplement that has been prescribed by Sophia’s new doctor. Sophia is lactose-intolerant and is grossly under-nourished. She suffers from food insecurity but is gradually learning that she does not need to hoard food. The routine of three regular meals and two snacks a day has begun to alleviate her worries about when and how she will eat next.
She also gleefully greets her four younger siblings, who have arrived from the Boys’ Wing and Infant & Pre-School Wing, with hugs and kisses. The Children’s Shelter’s size and wide age range, makes it one of the few shelters that can accommodate large sibling groups – which helps keep this little family together as long as possible.
After breakfast, she asks for the honor of sweeping the floor under and around her table. Ms. Korinna consents, and Sophia does the job with pride. Ms. Korinna compliments her on a job well-done, and even a casual observer can see the self-esteem welling up behind Sophia’s bright eyes.
7:50 – 9 a.m. – School begins
Sophia lines up and marches proudly down the hallway to Ms. Jech’s Kindergarten – 2nd Grade class at the Children’s Shelter’s On-Site School, where she is working on learning the alphabet. In just two days in class, she already has made remarkable progress, even though she is woefully behind in her studies. Sophia had been to school before coming to the Children’s Shelter, but her attendance was very spotty, and her parents had made little or no attempt to help her at home. Even though she is in second grade, she cannot read or write (except for writing her name), knew only the first seven letters of the alphabet and could do only the most basic math (1 + 1 = 2, etc.).
On her first day in school, Sophia was evaluated academically, and Ms. Jech mapped out a plan to address the deficiencies. Since then, she has worked alongside the kindergartners and in one-on-one sessions with volunteer tutors. Through some inventive “learning games” that incorporate her love of music, she has made it up to the letter “s” and should have full mastery of the alphabet within a few days. She proudly sings the “A-B-C song” to everyone she meets.
By attending the On-Site School, Sophia avoids the potential added emotional trauma of being thrust into an unfamiliar environment, where she knows no one and may have to handle some awkward questions. At the On-Site School, she acclimates to her new home and new school simultaneously.
9 – 10:45 a.m. – Dental appointment
Ms. Debbie, a volunteer transporter, takes Sophia and another child for initial dental evaluations by Dr. Jeff in Rogers. The Children’s Shelter facilitated more than 1,100 such appointments for medical/dental/vision examinations and care last year. It is determined that Sophia has six cavities, and she is scheduled for a follow-up visit to install fillings and apply dental sealant. The “new doctor” mentioned in the breakfast portion of this narrative performed an intake physical on Sophia and identified several medical/developmental conditions that need addressing. Case Managers like Ms. Casey arrange all of the evaluations and interventions needed for each child, setting individual goals, recording progress and challenges and coordinating visits by family members, court dates, etc.
10:45 – 11:15 a.m. – Counseling
After Sophia returns, Ms. Elise, the Children’s Shelter’s on-site counselor, provided by Ozark Guidance, gets Sophia and her siblings together for a group counseling session. The kids play together, as Ms. Elise skillfully guides them through questions that help them explore their feelings about their common experience and new surroundings. This unique, on-site integration of counseling services makes for a more immediate and “seamless” start to emotional healing.
11:15 – 11:50 a.m. – Lunch
Sophia has been eager for lunch because the menu includes her new favorite meal: salad bar. Fresh and nutritious foods also are new concepts to Sophia. In fact, she was amazed that the food at the Children’s Shelter “doesn’t have any bugs on it.”
This time, she gets to wipe the table. She inspects it thoroughly, to ensure she has not missed a spot and is praised by Ms. Sidney, who works in the On-Site School, for being so conscientious. “High-fives” and hugs ensue.
11:50 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Recess
At recess, Sophia is determined to learn how to ride a bicycle. And with a little help from Ms. Kaity, another On-Site School staffer, she finally gets the pedals going and rides the length of the basketball court under her own power. Tomorrow, she’ll work on stopping.
12:30 – 3 p.m. – School field trip
The entire On-Site School mobilizes for a field trip to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There, Sophia is exposed to an exciting world that is totally foreign to her, opening an entire new horizon. She likes the “alphabet brain” sculpture best and wistfully sings the “A-B-C” song as she gazes upward, pointing to the letters as she sings them.
(While the kids are away, volunteers from a local corporation decorate the Girls’ Wing for the holidays. When Sophia and the rest of the girls arrive and see their handiwork, “oohs” and “aahs” can be heard as they point out their favorite decorations. Over the next few days, volunteer groups will transform the Children’s Shelter into a holiday wonderland.)
3 – 3:30 p.m. – Snack time/Birthday party
Sophia arrives back at the Children’s Shelter just in time for a snack of Snickerdoodles – her new favorite cookie, but Ms. Casey, her Case Manager, ushers her to the Infant & Pre-School Wing for a birthday celebration for her 3-year-old little sister, Isabella. In a mothering manner, Sophia helps Isabella remove the paper from her special cupcake and then guides her through unwrapping the mound of presents that await her. She and Isabella and her other sister, Emma (who is 2 years old … and covered in cupcake frosting) pose for a family birthday picture.
The festivities are a vicarious thrill for Sophia because she has never had a birthday party herself, though she has attended a few. For her younger sisters, it is a totally new experience. Every child who celebrates a birthday while in the Children’s Shelter’s care has a “full-blown” birthday party, courtesy of the Sophia Scott Expanding Horizons program and the Circle of Care annual giving club, which helps pay for such activities.
3:30 – 3:45 p.m. – Expectations & evening-planning meeting
After putting school backpacks away and collecting items needing to be laundered, the residents and staff of the Girls’ Wing convene in the wing’s living area to discuss the schedule for the evening and what the girls will be expected to do and/or accomplish.
3:45 – 5 p.m. – Free play (no TV)
The kids are allowed to play outside or in the Recreation Center. Sophia returns to the bicycle for a while. Next, she joins two other girls for a session of jump rope. They conclude by adjourning to the Recreation Center to play the “Dance Revolution” video game.
5 – 5:45 p.m. – Dinner
Sophia has discovered another new favorite food – chicken tenders – that is on the menu tonight. And she tries green beans for the very first time. Many kids like Sophia tell the Children’s Shelter’s staff that they experienced several dietary “firsts” and healthy eating habits while in the Children’s Shelter’s care, many of which they have carried forward.
5:45 – 8:30 p.m. – Roller-skating outing
The Children’s Shelter’s residents load into vans and head out for a night of roller-skating. For many of them, including Sophia and her siblings, it will be the first time they have been a part of anything remotely resembling this kind of recreational outing. Sophia takes to the rink like a natural-born skater and helps her two younger brothers, who are not quite as sure on their feet. The trip is the thrill of her young lifetime.
The outing is part of the Sophia Scott Expanding Horizons program, which gives children the opportunity to participate in “fun” activities that help them manage fear and stress, while building self-esteem. The program also includes outings such as bowling, movies, park visits, zoo trips, plays, amusement parks, swimming, ice-skating, kid-themed restaurants and craft-making. Many of the Children’s Shelter’s kids are participating in these events for the very first time.
8:30 – 9 p.m. – Bedtime preparation
The group arrives back at the Children’s Shelter excited, but exhausted. Sophia and her wingmates on the Girls’ Wing take baths/showers and brush their teeth. Sophia is fascinated by the shower because the house where she lived had no running water. The girls don their bedtime attire and retire to their bedrooms, where they straighten up before calling it a night. Sophia puts her things away with great care.
She loves her new “sparkly shirt” that has the word “Princess” on the front. By the time she leaves, although she arrived with only a dingy T-shirt and a thread-bare pair of shorts, she will leave with a new wardrobe and a complete supply of toiletries and accessories, school supplies and even several toys, stuffed animals and a favorite book or two.
She and her roommate chat for a few minutes, anticipating what other adventures the weekend may hold, before falling asleep. Weekends are busy times for the Children’s Shelter, with plenty of fun outings planned.
2 a.m. – The night watch
During a routine bed check (performed every 15 minutes by the direct-care staff’s night shift) Ms. Jenece hears desperate sobs coming from Sophia’s room. Sophia is having a nightmare. Ms. Jenece reassures the distraught and confused little girl with soothing words and gently strokes her hair until Sophia drifts back to sleep.
The Children’s Shelter’s overnight staff are awake, alert, active and available for the duration of their shift. They are ready to help with nightmares, illness, new admissions, cleaning tasks, etc.
Sophia may be a composite, but this day is by no means fictional. And the positive results produced for the children are a very real, everyday occurrence.
We hope this look at a day in the life of the staff and residents of Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter has given you a better appreciation of how the Children’s Shelter uses the generous support of the community to create a safe haven where children who have been neglected or abused can find hope for a better future.
Replicate this day 364 more times … then multiply it by 48 children … and it is easy to see how significant an impact this organization makes on our entire community in the course of a year, one day – and one child – at a time.