Gwinnett Children's Shelter helps teens get through tumultuous years

When I started working at the Gwinnett Children's Shelter, my daughters were 9 and 5 and I fell more in love with them every day. I was amazed to learn that many teens came to us because their parents abandoned them or kicked them out of the house, so the Division of Family and Children Services had to take custody. I would explain this in speaking engagements and share the disbelief that parents could actually turn their backs on their children.

I've been at the Children's Shelter for 13 years, and my two beautiful daughters are now 22 and 18. I have to admit that during some of their more tumultuous years I have completely understood the temptation to throw up my hands and say "That's it, I can't do it anymore, someone help!" Luckily I've been blessed with lots of support and daughters who came through with flying colors, but it's exactly because of those feelings of frustration and hopelessness that the Gwinnett Children's Shelter was the first agency to bring Project Safe Place to the metro-Atlanta area.

A national project sponsored by local agencies, Safe Place came to Gwinnett in 1999 through the partnership of the Gwinnett Children's Shelter and QuikTrip. Emergency shelter, staff oversight and volunteer support were provided by the Gwinnett Children's Shelter. QuikTrip generously donated the initial seed money and along with the Gwinnett County Libraries served as our first Safe Place sites. Since starting in 1999, the Shelter's Safe Place program has served 221 youth that otherwise would have found themselves on the street with no place to go and no one to help make things better.

The concept for Safe Place is simple: Get kids off the street and reconnected with their families. Businesses and organizations in the community serve as Safe Place sites, displaying the yellow Safe Place sign to let kids know they're available to help. When a youth arrives at a Safe Place site, the shelter is contacted, a volunteer goes to meet with the youth and, if the child agrees, transports the youth to the shelter for further intervention. At the shelter, staff assess safety, and if no abuse is present, contacts the parents to ask them if the child can stay at the shelter while family problems are addressed. Counseling is then started with the family and youth to work on resolving the crisis.

Let me share the story of the first family we served through Safe Place. Two weeks after opening our first 34 sites, we received a call from a QuikTrip that had just been visited by a scared 14-year-old we'll call Jennifer. Jennifer had gotten sick of the strict rules at home and wanted to hang out with her friends. She had left home a week previously, an ongoing teen party at a local hotel too exciting to pass up. However, as alcohol progressed to drugs and friendly conversation with boys turned into outrageous sexual demands, Jennifer knew she needed help. She remembered a school presentation about Safe Place and thought we might help her sort things out.

Jennifer's parents were notified immediately and cried when they heard Jennifer was safe. Her week's absence with no contact had left them frantic. They agreed a time out was best for everyone and came in to meet with Jennifer and the shelter therapist the next day. After two weeks of counseling, Jennifer had a better understanding of the family rules and her parents realized their adolescent daughter needed more reasonable limits. Jennifer left the shelter to return home the Friday before Mother's Day.

Project Safe Place is all about families, understanding that all families go through hard times and that all families need help to mend the hurt. Safe Place is also all about community, different facets of the community coming together, bringing their distinct gifts to provide a safety net for youth and families. There are lots of different ways you can bring your gifts to the Safe Place program: volunteer, make your business a Safe Place site, provide financial support. To get involved, call us at 678-546-8770 and ask to speak with our Safe Place coordinator. Your support creates hope for families in crisis.

"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 of Gwinnett Children's Shelter.