By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
This Christmas season, when most kids are dreaming of toys under the tree, some children in Enid are hoping only for their next meal and a safe place to sleep.
The community can help give these children safety and hope far beyond the holidays through the Youth and Family Services of North Central Oklahoma Nights of Shelter campaign.
The first Nights of Shelter campaign was launched last November to fill budget gaps at Thelma J. Gungoll Youth and Family Center, where Youth and Family Services operates an emergency youth shelter.
The majority of children who come to the shelter have been removed from their homes by authorities due to abuse and neglect. The shelter also accepts runaways and, in extreme cases, parents may place their children in the shelter for up to 72 hours.
When children arrive at the Youth and Family Services shelter, they receive more than just a warm bed and hot food. Shelter staff also work to provide recreation, life skills training, job skills for older teens and counseling services.
“We work to make this more than just a safe place for the kids,” said Youth and Family Services Executive Director Dan Buckley. “We want it to be a place they enjoy.”
“Our shelter is a home for these kids when they’re here,” said Youth and Family Services director of development Shelby Hall.
She said getting the children to feel at home often involves helping them past traumatic experiences.
“When a kid comes in here and has experienced incredible trauma, trauma no kid should ever have to go through, it makes a huge difference for someone to sit down with them for an hour and just say, ‘What happened to you?’” Hall said. “Most of them have never had that experience.”
Since the shelter was opened in 1974, Youth and Family Services has provided more than 24,000 nights of food, shelter and services to more than 1,900 children in need.
In 2011, the shelter staff provided 2,646 nights of shelter, more than 2,000 hours of recreation and 1,550 hours of life skills training to 185 children.
The shelter’s ability to care for those children was threatened last year, when federal budget cuts eliminated $60,000 in grant funding. That added up to a more than 15 percent reduction in the shelter’s budget.
In response to the crisis, the shelter initiated the Nights of Shelter campaign, whereby individuals or corporations could make donations in increments of $30, the average cost of sheltering one child for one night.
Hall said last year’s campaign raised more than $24,000.
“We were able to provide 800 nights of shelter for kids in need, which means we were able to take on two extra kids for the entire year,” Hall said.
The Nights of Shelter campaign enabled Youth and Family Services to increase its licensed capacity from 12 to 14 children this year.
“Because of Nights of Shelter, we were able to continue to run full, not only with kids from our own area, but also with kids who needed help from other areas, through April,” Buckley said. “Then, we had to basically trim back to just taking care of our own kids from this area.”
This year, Youth and Family Services hopes to raise enough money to support 1,000 nights of shelter, about $30,000.
Hall said donations help care for children from the local area, in Garfield, Grant and Major counties, and for kids from across the state who can’t be placed in already-full shelters.
“The need is there,” Hall said, “and the more money we raise from the community, the more good we can do for these kids who need us.”
In July alone, the shelter received calls from 60 service agencies from outside the local service area seeking beds for kids in need. Due to licensing requirements and available funds, they could not be taken in at the local shelter.
There also has been an increase in the number of parents voluntarily checking their children into the shelter due to financial or legal troubles.
“There is such a need for shelter services statewide, and we could take in a lot more out-of-area kids,” Buckley said. “I wouldn’t say that’s a goal, but it is an unfortunate necessity.”
The shortage in shelter services, and the strain on already-tight budgets, is being made worse by the increasingly long time kids remain in temporary shelter before being placed with foster families or returned to their parents.
“The length of stay is getting worse and worse, and it seems like the older the kids are, the longer they have to stay,” Buckley said.
Buckley said the shelter does not receive funding from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and relies on limited grant funding and community donations to provide for kids who may otherwise go hungry and without shelter.
Hall said we, as a community, have a responsibility to help care for kids in need.
“These are kids whose parents have fallen on hard times or had trouble with the law, or who have been abused at home,” Hall said. “It’s on us as a community to provide appropriate interventions for these kids so they can have better outcomes.”
Nights of Shelter can be purchased in $30 increments online at www.yfsenid.org, or in person at 605 W. Oxford, Enid.
Nights of Shelter also can be purchased as a gift in someone else’s honor.
A card commemorating the gift will be sent to the honoree.
For information, call Youth and Family Services at (580) 233-7220.