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Gwinnett Children's Shelter realizes dream of home for boys

Brothers Rob, 14, and Michael, 16, (not their real names) have seen a lot in their lives. When Michael was 7 their dad got fed up with the instability and drug use of their mom and left home to start a new life.

Three years later, things got so bad that DFCS had to step in, and Rob and Michael were sent to a foster home while mom was sent to a drug rehab program. Michael had a hard time with the yelling and name calling he experienced in the foster home, and at age 11 he ran away.

A year and two foster homes later, mom was out of drug rehab and ready to try again. She managed to make ends meet for a while, but eventually her drug use started again. Because of mom's addiction, Rob and Michael experienced five moves and five different schools in one year.

The last move was with a man mom had known for two weeks. He quickly grew tired of an instant family and put all of them on the street. In desperation and seeking help with her boys, mom once again turned to DFCS. Late on a rainy October evening, Rob and Michael entered the Gwinnett Children's Shelter scared, apprehensive, curious, sad and tired. The only good news was that they still had each other.

Given their history, one would expect these boys to be full of behavioral problems, behind in school, angry at the world and full of mistrust for all adults. Yet somehow, somewhere, good things had happened in these boys' lives, because they were exactly the opposite. We experienced young men who were well-behaved, polite, friendly and anxious for a stable school environment where they could prepare a future for themselves.

After three months at the shelter and excelling in school, they presented a proposal to the director: "Please let us stay until the end of the school year. We don't want to have our education disrupted again. I know this is against the Gwinnett Children's Shelter policy, but we will talk with whomever we need to talk to about this. If the expense is too great, we will get jobs to offset the cost of us staying longer. We promise we'll show good behavior, appreciate the opportunity given, and do everything in our power to honor and respect your faith in us."

How could anyone say no to that? The boys stayed until the end of the school year, living up to every promise they made. As we saw them grow into excellent young men, our board and staff became even more convinced that we must turn our dream of building a long-term group home for boys into a reality. Even as the boys finished the school year, there was no permanent placement available for them in our community. There was no foster home that would accept two teenage boys, and Gwinnett County has no long-term group home for boys.

I am happy to report good news. While not able to stay in Gwinnett County, after 13 months at the shelter, Rob and Michael were placed in a stable group home and staff at the shelter continues to visit them and provide direction and support. And through the generous support of Gwinnett County and the Community Development Block Grant program, the Gwinnett Children's Shelter now has the funds to construct a long-term group home for boys.

Construction will begin in 2005, with an anticipated opening of mid-year 2006. The facility will house eight teenage boys and will be a long-term stable placement for these boys until they reach adulthood or are able to reunite with their families.

The program will be designed to ensure that these boys have a normal, community-centered adolescence. They will attend public school, be allowed to hold jobs and date, and receive support with

educational and life-skills development needed to move into a successful, productive adulthood.

The Gwinnett Children's Shelter's extensive counseling program will be available to help them process the trauma they have experienced in their lives, and we will reach out to and restore or preserve bonds with any family members that are still available to them.

The Gwinnett Children's Shelter was started by a small group of community volunteers. Over the years, our circle of support has grown enormously, and it is this tremendous support that allows the shelter to continue to expand the services we can provide to children and families in crisis. This new project is no exception. While we have the funds available for the construction of the building, additional funding is needed for furnishings, landscaping, telephones, computers, household supplies and more. We also need volunteers to serve as ongoing mentors for youth in our program.

Don't be surprised if during the next few months someone you know says, "Hey, have you heard about that new home at the Gwinnett Children's Shelter. They need your help. I'm going to make a gift, and I'm thinking about volunteering with the kids. I'd love for you to do the same!" Or, if you want to be ahead of the game, simply call us at 678-546-8770 and we'll be happy to talk with you about how you can get involved. Rob and Michael are just two of the 350 kids we serve every year. Each one of them is counting on all of us to care.

"People Helping People" is a weekly column written by the executive directors of nonprofit organizations in Gwinnett County. Today's article was written by Nancy Friauf, executive director of the Gwinnett Children's Shelter, 3850 Tuggle Road, Contact her 678-546-8770 or nfriauf@gwinnettchildrenshelter.org or the shelter's Web site, www.gwinnettchildrenshelter.org.

Need help or know someone who does? The Gwinnett Helpline directs callers to the appropriate nonprofit agency. Call 770-995-3339.