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In Sebastian County, the Children’s Shelter addresses some of the most devastating issues that can lead to placement in the foster care system, including trauma, abuse and neglect. The Children’s Shelter helps over 300 children each year by providing an environment of healing and recovery. Here, children in crisis can just be kids, given opportunities that range from taking special trips to simply bathing and eating regular meals each day.
Children’s Shelter youth visit Magic Springs
Ashley Forsgren, a Fort Smith native and mother of six, has served as Director of Development at the Children’s Shelter since 2014. She shares that Sebastian County has the highest number of foster youth in the state, in spite of not having the largest population. The Children’s Shelter was begun in 1997 to help address the need; for 21 years it served as the county’s only emergency shelter, meaning that children who were suddenly removed from their homes were taken to the shelter to stay until the courts decided where they would go.
With the congressional passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act October 2018, federal funding has shifted. To keep pace, the Children’s Shelter began a new chapter in October 2019, transiting from an emergency shelter into a Qualified Residential Treatment Program. The shelter now offers long-term services instead of emergency-based. Apart from narrowing the range of ages they help (the shelter formerly housed kids ages 6-17 but now focuses on adolescents and teenagers ages 10-17), housing children for a more stable continuous duration rather than for emergent and unspecified duration, and retaining a therapist, the shelter operates in much the same way as it has for the past two decades. Forsgren stresses that they are still helping the same types of children that they were helping before, but they’re being classified differently by the Department of Human Services—and, she believes the change actually improves the Children’s Shelter’s ability to help kids. Practically, she explains, “we become their home instead of a temporary emergency shelter where they’re going to hang out for a little bit,” and anticipates the changes in the program will be positive for the kids.
Forsgren sounds optimistic, but she’s dealt with some hard statistics: 70% of youth who age out in foster care immediately become homeless, incarcerated or suicidal. Older teens in foster care need help to transition from foster care to life on their own. To meet this need, the Children’s Shelter has designed and implemented a program since July 2015 called GetREAL24. This program is for former foster youth 18 years and older. It gives these young people a chance to live independently and learn crucial life skills in a safe environment. Forsgren summarizes the program’s purpose as, “We provide them a safety net, social skills and life skills to let them become successful members of society.”
Through GetREAL24, former foster youth are provided an apartment in an on-site complex. They are required to pay rent and utilities, and either get a job or go to school. They are taught to budget, shop, prepare food and even use leftovers. They learn to drive and receive help buying and financing their first car. GetREAL24 has been an exciting and impactful program that Forsgren hopes will continue to expand, including by incorporating some of the younger teenagers at the Children’s Shelter in the life skills classes.
A GetREAL24 Life Skills Class teaches young people how to shop for a car.
A GetREAL24 Life Skills class teaches young people about preparing their own food.
GetREAL24 participant Carlos is happy to get a job.
GetREAL24 receives no funding from the State of Arkansas and relies exclusively on charitable donations, which can be made online. GetREAL24 is also in need of mentors, sponsor families, and volunteers to teach life skills classes, as well as businesses willing to provide internship opportunities. Apply online to volunteer at the Children’s Shelter or with GetREAL24.
The Children’s Shelter exists to help children in crisis, providing a stable and caring environment for emotional and mental healing. Beyond that, it helps children and teens grow into contributing members of society. Forsgren refers to a need to “break the cycle” for foster youth in crisis and points out, “if we can truly change the life of one child, it impacts so many others.”
Photos provided courtesy of the Children’s Shelter
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