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Shelter offers refuge for Gwinnett youth

Staff Photo: John Bohn The shadow of Amy, a teenaged girl who is a resident at the Gwinnett Children's Shelter, is shown while she discusses her life and how she became a resident of the shelter. The Gwinnett Children's Shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year. The shelter serves as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

Staff Photo: John Bohn The shadow of Amy, a teenaged girl who is a resident at the Gwinnett Children's Shelter, is shown while she discusses her life and how she became a resident of the shelter. The Gwinnett Children's Shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year. The shelter serves as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

Fundraiser for the Ages

What: Georgia Legends Event. The Gwinnett Children's Shelter's largest fundraiser ever.

Who: Attendees and speakers include Atlanta Falcons Coach Mike Smith, baseball legend Willie Mays and former UGA quarterback David Greene.

When: April 19-21

Where: Chateau Elan (100 Rue Charlemagne, Braselton)

Events: Georgia Legends Golf Tournament; "Run for Hope" 5K and 10.2K qualifier; legends dinner and auction with guest speakers.

Information: Call 678-546-8770 or visit gwinnettchildrenshelter.org for a rundown of event times and specifics. Michelle Watkins (for sponsorships), mwatkins@gwinnettchildrenshelter.org; Tanesha Graham (auction donations) tgraham@gwinnettchildrenshelter.org.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Kim Phillips, Executive Director of Gwinnett Children's Shelter gives a tour of the living area of the portion of the facility that is reserved for girls. A separate building houses boys. Gwinnett Children's Shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year, serving as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn A resident of the boy's home at the Gwinnett Children's Shelter watches television in a common living room. The Gwinnett Children's Shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year, searving as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn A wide selection of books are available for reading in the girls wing of the Gwinnett Children's Shelter. The shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year and serves as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Kim Phillips, Executive Director of Gwinnett Children's Shelter, walks on the grounds of the facility. Gwinnett Children's Shelter celebrates it's 25th anniversary this year, while serving as a temporary home for boys and girls from troubled family situations.

Editor's Note: The names of teens in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

BUFORD -- Aimee, a whip-smart soccer fanatic who wears huge hoop earrings and a hoodie, seems too wizened to be 14 years old. Creative by nature, she hopes to attend Savannah College of Art and Design, and her career ambitions after that are as disparate as they come: She wants to be a boxer. Or a military officer. Or a famous female rapper.

Before any of that, though, Aimee has to be adopted.

Hers is textbook case of abandonment issues manifesting in outbursts of rage. Aimee doesn't know where her mother is. Her father isn't willing to bear the burden of her. Raised by an aunt, she was repeatedly suspended from school for skipping class and cussing out teachers. The boiling point came when a fist fight with her aunt became "a little war" involving a cousin and her grandmother. She ran away. Police found her, charged her with absconding. There seemed no logical place left to turn.

In 2011, Aimee moved in to the Gwinnett Children's Shelter girls unit, a dorm-like space with private mini-apartments, a Wii-equipped game room and a large common area with a pool table and "Brag Board" for noting personal accomplishments. For a change, Aimee felt embraced by adults, and camaraderie with her peers. She recently made the honor roll at Mill Creek High School.

"They actually care about the kids," Aimee said of shelter staff. "We used to ask them if they won the lottery, would they still work. A lot of them said yes."

The Buford shelter has been tallying success stories like Aimee's for 25 years, and in doing so has become a unique refuge for abandoned, abused or otherwise neglected kids across Georgia. Yet leaders say most Gwinnett residents don't know the agency exists.

It's the only shelter of its kind for boys and girls in Gwinnett. Roughly 90 percent of kids are placed by the Division of Children and Family Services, while the rest are handed over by families who've fallen on hard times (curbside drop-offs have recently spiked, leaders say). Since 1987, the not-for-profit has housed more than 6,000 kids, mostly from Gwinnett and Hall counties, and some from shockingly deprived circumstances.

One 16-year-old boy had been living in abandoned Atlanta houses for six months, caught by police stealing a lit backyard grill for its food and heat. One girl, age 17, had no idea how to tie her shoes. Some pregnant teens arrive carrying a family member's baby, others illiterate, many with rotted teeth.

"You don't focus on what happened," cautioned Michelle Watkins, the shelter's marketing director. "You just focus on the child."

Ninety percent of shelter kids have never had their own birthday party. Accordingly, deflated "Happy Birthday" balloons and silvery flyers stay tapped to kids' doors and walls months after celebrations have passed, the sentiment too cherished to throw away.

"We make a big deal about birthdays," said executive director Kim Phillips, a shelter leader for 19 years who, like other staff, considers the job her mission field.

To commemorate 25 years, leaders are preparing for the largest fundraiser in shelter history later this month, a three-day "Georgia Legends Event" with attractions that range from a 5K race and celebrity golf outing to a Chevy Camaro raffle. Participants include Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and baseball legend Willie Mays.

Phillips hopes the high-profile names can help push her agency back into the black. The shelter, which employs 40 workers on a $2.3 million budget, is funded primarily through a state per-diem reimbursement, and contributions from business, churches and individuals, Phillips said.

She hopes to make the "Legends" weekend an annual event.

A sanctuary

By design, the shelter cannot be stumbled upon.

It's a tucked-away, three-building complex on a forested 45 acres, replete with basketball courts and soccer fields, a one-mile hiking trail, a deck perched over a creek and little square-box gardens for the kids. Deer, wild turkeys and the occasional coyote traipse the serene grounds.

The shelter can house up to 34 youths, ages 12 to 24; a state policy change several years ago prohibits the shelter from serving children under age 12. For protection, the address is kept secret.

"Our kids come here in a crisis," Phillips said during a recent tour. "It's a place where they can really just take a deep breath and relax ... The kids have not had anyone to show them that love doesn't hurt."

The shelter plays host to a microcosm of a much larger problem.

According to DFCS data, roughly 7,700 Georgia children are in foster care at any given time. Most will be reunited with birth families. Other exits include adoption, guardianships and "emancipation" when they reach adulthood.

Statewide, 174 incidents of child abuse and neglect are reported daily, with 77 children killed by abuse and neglect in 2010, according to Georgia's Court Appointed Special Advocates program. Phillips has noticed a spike in sexual abuse cases, which she attributes to educational efforts that prompt children to make outcries.

The goal with any shelter resident is reunification with their family, but the process is rarely easy; the average length of stay is eight months. As a general rule, shelter kids are enrolled in an education program within two days of arrival, be it an alternative school or classrooms in the Mill Creek cluster, Phillips said.

For older kids, workers teach resume preparation and interview skills. There's a "Dress For Success Room" onsite, brimming with donated suits, ties, even prom dresses. What kids take out of the room, they keep.

One beneficiary is 17-year-old Richard, of Clayton County.

Kicked out of school for fighting, Richard's family put him to work at a young age, setting a course that landed him in jail. Now, Richard is finishing a GED at Gwinnett Tech, and he's been accepted to Georgia College, where he'll major in chemistry. He envisions himself as a college professor, or maybe an anesthesiologist.

"I like science," Richard said with a bashful grin. "It's easy."

To learn more about Gwinnett Children's Shelter initiatives and events, call 678-546-8770 or visit www.gwinnettchildrenshelter.org