“We go to court in 2 days! Two days…our dad…we get to go live with him…live on a farm! We’re going to have dogs and chickens and cows…our dad! Did you hear me? Ms. Ashley! In 2 days!”
Looking into the eyes of a child filled with joy that could pass as Christmas magic, my eyes glazed over. I heard his words. They were songs of hope, flowing through his lungs like water cascading from a fall. Young Joseph and his sister were preparing for a world of hope. They had been removed from their mom, lived 45 days at the Children’s Emergency Shelter, and now they were going to live with a dad they had only met inside a courtroom.
Behind the smile, I just wanted to slip away into a bubble of denial for the world that existed before me—hope shattered with neglect; innocence striped by abuse; invisible children who just wanted to be seen, and needed to be loved. Was the cycle going to repeat for little Joseph and his sister? Would I see them again? Did we make an impact? I closed my eyes and prayed for their dad.
Foster care children are often referred to as “invisible children.” Through no fault of their own, their world is changed overnight by the actions of those who are supposed to love them most. They no longer have their own bed, their own neighborhood friends, or the love and support that every child deserves. With a black trash bag at their sides, they become passengers in a transport car, case files lost in an overcrowded system, invisible to the world.
Sebastian County has the largest percentage of foster care children in the state of Arkansas. In the mid-1990s, the Junior League of Fort Smith (JLFS) recognized the need to provide hope for these children in crisis. Opening its doors to abused and neglected children in the fall of 1997, the Fort Smith Children’s Emergency Shelter (CES) was founded by the JLFS, designed by The Hill Group, built by Charles Mock, and is supported by a lengthy list of selfless volunteers and funders who continuously open their hearts to a reality that hurts.
Serving more than 300 invisible children each year, the CES provides a safe and structured home-like environment to children ages 6-17. It gives each child the opportunity to be seen, to break the cycle of dysfunction, and to create happy memories. The CES allows children in crisis the opportunity to “just be kids.” It strives to provide normalcy, which includes new shoes that fit and clothes they pick out for themselves; it includes outings and holiday trips, life skills, lessons and chores, a safe bed, home-cooked meals, and a stable environment for each child. It provides hope.
In November, the CES celebrated 20 years of hope—shelter from the storm—for these children in crisis. In addition to the 20th anniversary, the CES also celebrated its new program, GetREAL24, which serves the foster youth who have “aged out” of the foster care system.
This independent living program supports foster youth, like 19-year-old Conner, who knows the odds are stacked drastically against him. It equips each resident with the life skills needed to become self-sufficient, contributing citizens by providing the resources and relationships to assist their successful transition into adulthood. The program relies heavily on mentors and sponsor families for its residents, and is 100 percent funded through private donations and grants. It is Restorative. Empowering. Alternative. Living. It is REAL.