story by Aric Mitchell
Editor’s note: During 2012, The City Wire is publishing a series of stories focusing on people and organizations working in our communities to raise awareness of child abuse and reduce abuse figures. See the list of related stories at the bottom of this page for more stories on the topic.
A young man wakes up and realizes he’s late for day one of his first job.
While many adults — perhaps even his boss — would be shaking their heads in frustration and wondering what is “wrong” with today’s generation, the boy has a good reason for sleeping in.
He’s 18 years old. He’s never had a family. And when he was forced into a group home because no one else cared enough to take him in, his well-meaning caretakers did everything for him.
They never thought to teach him the little things, like setting an alarm clock. Things people like Junior League of Fort Smith (JLFS) President Amanda Tolbert took for granted — at least until she and her organization set their focus on helping transitional youths assimilate successfully into society.
The JLFS has begun a two-part plan for helping youths ready to age out of the foster care system. They are seeking and teaming with community partners to teach youth, ages 14-24, “valuable life skills,” and to set up transitional youth facilities that will teach kids how to live on their own.
“That’s what the Junior League does best. It’s our forte,” Tolbert said. “We already do a lot of that, going to Girls Inc., twice a month, teaching cooking and study skills.”
At Girls Inc., Junior League members will also dress up as historical figures and talk about their lives, doing “whatever it takes” to make the experience an interactive one for kids, and they’re ready to bring that same enthusiasm to children, who need it most, Tolbert said.
Using cooking as an example, Tolbert continued: “We’re not just going to read out of a book. We’re going to cook with them, give them a recipe, show them how to shop, cook the meal, and then show the math. For instance, maybe have a menu from Joe’s Pizza and Pasta available, and say, ‘If you were going to go out to eat, this is how much spaghetti would cost, but we made spaghetti here tonight for the amount of $1.05 per meal.’ We just want to do more real-life classes.”
Fred Kirkwood, Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. Sr. vice-president of marketing and customer service, shares the enthusiasm, and said his company is ready to move forward as a partner in the plan.
“We believe there is definitely a need to help kids at that age. Even kids that don’t come from a foster home need to learn life skills. Our deal will be to, of course, provide financial support, but we also want to assist in teaching them how to turn on utilities, pay deposits, and maintain a safe environment for utility operations,” Kirkwood said, adding that he also hoped “to talk to them about the different jobs we have in the utility business.”
Kirkwood continued: “As a business professional, I’ve been involved with a number of non-profit organizations like the United Way, and I’ve seen the good that they do. But I’ve also noticed there is a gap when kids reach a certain age in what you can do for them. To me, this (JLFS effort) is going to that next level and taking these kids, who’ve been in the system, and giving them an opportunity to become productive citizens.”
The types of “life skills” that the Junior League members hope to teach will also include cooking, hygiene, “how to fill out an application for a job, how to write a resume, dress for an interview, what proper hygiene is, the proper way to talk in a group setting,” said Tolbert. “If we can be that stand-in family and get them around the age of 14, then there is a good chance they’re going to be successful.”
While the focus may be a new one for the JLFS, it won’t be the group’s first time starting a program to help at-risk kids. The Fort Smith Children’s Emergency Shelter is the only emergency shelter serving Sebastian County youth that is approved by the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS).
The shelter began with a simple question, according to the CES website: “What happens to our children when they must be removed from their homes?”
The JLFS was the group that asked that question and spearheaded an effort that culminated with the CES opening in October 1997. Today, the CES can house 24 at-risk children in its eight bedrooms. It is managed by Executive Director Jack Moffett, Assistant Director Ami Curry, and a Board of Directors, with which the JLFS is still involved.
Tolbert is not sure whether the transitional youth facilities — the second part of the plan — will be a campus unto itself as with CES, or comprised of “duplex and four-plex” rentals.
“It will be a setting available to kids starting at age 18, and will be like a dorm room with an R.A.-type person that’s there 24/7” to help kids learn how to be independent, Tolbert said.
For Kirkwood, it’s time for the business community “and the social community” to step up.
“Definitely, what the business community and the social community wants are more citizens that are productive, and it’s better that we lend a hand now to assure the success of these kids. Because as their success grows, then so will the success of the business world and the social environment in Arkansas as a whole, especially here in the Sebastian and Crawford County areas,” Kirkwood said.