Bryson City shelter gives hurting teens a fresh start
Despite the automated security system that speaks up every time a door is opened and the whiteboard grid tracking points for the shelter’s behavior management program, “institutional” is the last word that comes to mind when you enter Hawthorn Heights in Bryson City. Midday sunshine brightens the dining room’s white tile floors and family-style wooden table and chairs, and a few rooms over, couches circle a fireplace and television stand crammed with movies and Wii games. A large porch juts out from the stone building, the perfect place to play cards or read a book on a warm afternoon.
“Over and over, we hear that it feels homey,” said Kara Haney, program director at Hawthorn Heights DSS Licensed Home.
Which is important, because hominess is arguably the most important attribute Hawthorn Heights could have. Founded in 1973, the shelter was Swain County’s community response after police picked up a 12-year-old runaway who begged to be locked in jail rather than taken home. A photograph of a teddy bear in jail accompanied the newspaper article reporting the incident. Since then, Hawthorn Heights has served as a safe haven for teens ages 12 to 18, giving them a place to live, learn important life skills and plan for their next step after Hawthorn. The organization can only house nine children at a time, and as a temporary shelter, it can’t keep anybody for more than 90 days.
But while hominess is important, so is roominess, so the shelter and its supporters are in the midst of a campaign to move to a bigger building, bringing it from 2,300 to 6,300 square feet. While the current building has the family feel going for it, sharp angles between rooms make it hard for staff to supervise the teens, and the small kitchen means that cooking lessons are limited to one pupil at a time.
“Largely, it’s served its purpose,” Haney said. “We make it work, but it’s not as functional as it should be.”
Clockwork out of chaos
Really, though, that’s what Hawthorn Heights is all about: taking the nonfunctional and making it work. In her five years at the shelter, Haney has seen some mind-blowing — and heart-wrenching — stories play out before her. A girl whose mom had prostituted her out to get money for drugs. A teenager who had been through so many foster care families she had given herself up as worthless. The shelter helps kids take the messy parts of their lives and turn them into a foundation for a happy, fulfilling life.
“For the most part, a lot of the kids that complete this program, they go back home and they’re able to take the skills they learned here and apply them in the home,” Haney said.
The teens arrive through avenues as diverse as the individuals, some through referral from law enforcement or a counselor, some through a parent and others at 2 a.m., when they show up on the doorstep of their own accord. Hawthorn Heights takes them in, gives them a place to stay, a structured life and help preparing for the end of their 90-day stay.
“A lot of them have never experienced someone telling them they needed to do their homework,” said Sara Gray, chief development officer for Barium Springs, Hawthorn Heights’ parent organization. “Nobody cared.”
Residents have to complete daily chores and follow the rules well enough to earn behavior points for group outings to the bowling alley or movie theater. They work one-on-one with a case coordinator who develops a specific program to meet that child’s needs, whether they’re struggling with decision-making or studying, and they do skill-building exercises in those areas each week. Shelter staff ferries the teens to their individual after-school activities and, if the child remains enrolled in a school outside the Swain County system, they drive them to school. They also make a point to see that the children receive medical care.
“A lot of the kids coming in, maybe they’ve never been to the dentist, ever,” Haney said. “We’ve had kids that have needed glasses for 16 years, and their first glasses they get are with us.”
But all the while, that 90-day clock is ticking. Staff is always looking toward that deadline, communicating with families to figure out how to make home work better, or, if that’s not a safe option, finding a placement where the child can thrive.
Most of the time, Haney said, that’s successful.
“I’ve seen kids evolve from being angry, bitter, distrustful, maybe really shy, and I’ve seen them evolve into kids that are kind of at peace with things, know how to make good decisions, be in control, think they’re worth something,” she said. “It’s a constant evolution that we get to see here.”
It’s an evolution that keeps going, even after those 90 days are up. Hawthorn Heights has a dedicated staff person in charge of following up on residents after their discharge. That person checks on the teens and their families at least once a month for up to two years after they leave, and every Thursday the shelter hosts an after-care night. Staff picks the children up and bring them to the building for dinner, and after eating they do skill-building work in groups and then go back home.
“That’s pretty neat for the staff, because we get to keep in contact with those kids,” Haney said. “I think that’s a real rewarding part, because sometimes in residential settings you don’t hear from kids that this conversation changed my life in this way.”
So Haney knows that the shelter’s model works. She’s gotten communication from former residents as long as four years after their discharge, letting the staff know where they are, what they’re doing and what their experience at Hawthorn did for them.
When three months is not enough
Sometimes, though, it’s not that simple. Sometimes, there’s nowhere to go back to.
“We keep our fingers crossed a lot of times that sending them back home will work out,” Haney said. “Seeing that not be successful is hard for me to see.”
It’s hard for the children, too. Haney remembers one girl in particular who came through the shelter three separate times. Home was not an option, so she kept being taken in and out of foster care, a placement that can be difficult to find for teenagers in this area. Most foster parents prefer to take in babies and young children.
“She definitely had that sense that she was the throwaway kid,” Haney said.
But Hawthorn Heights’ track record shows that it’s possible to overcome steep odds. In fact, the very girl who once considered herself worthless will be one of those sharing her story with the audience at Hawthorn Heights’ upcoming building fundraiser in April.
Then there are the cases when post-shelter placement isn’t even possible. Though Hawthorn Heights is only licensed to keep teens for three months, one former resident ended up staying there for five and a half. After being adopted to an abusive father and a drug-addicted mother, she went to live with her adoptive grandmother, who eventually kicked her out. Six months shy of her 18th birthday, she had nowhere to go.
“Her 90 days were fast approaching, and we were scrambling to figure out where to send her,” Haney said.
So, Hawthorn Heights got the OK from the state to keep her till she turned 18, and after that they helped her get lined up with a job in Georgia and find a place to live. She eventually finished high school down there and invited the Hawthorn Heights crew to her graduation.
“I remember her saying we’re her family because we took her in and we taught her all these things,” Haney said.
Too often, though, children who age out of juvenile programs like Hawthorn Heights still lack the steady footing they need to start their adult adventure out right. That’s why Barium Springs, Hawthorn Heights’ parent organization, hopes to turn the building into a resource for young adults once Hawthorn Heights moves into its new digs.
“A lot of kids have nowhere to go at 18,” Gray said.
She envisions the new shelter as a place where teens could go after they turn 18 and live while they learn practical skills like money management, cooking and cleaning.
“But in addition to that, they either have to be in school or they have to have a job,” Gray said. “If they have a job, they’re required to save 50 percent of what they bring in so when they’re discharged from that program, they have a good nest egg to start their life.”
Gray oversees a similar program in Statesville, and, she said it’s invaluable for those who need it. One young man, she recalls, graduated from a group home program there but had no family to return to except for his brother. His brother was a drug dealer.
“He said, ‘If I go back there, I know I’m going to get into drugs again,’” she said.
It can be hard to get funds for those programs, though, because dollars are limited, and programs serving younger children tend to get precedence. That’s an obstacle Barium Springs will look to tackle after Hawthorn Heights’ move is squared away.
Because, ultimately, nothing magical happens when a child turns 18. The magic happens when that child gains the tools to overcome his circumstances. In that moment, he can shed the baggage of his past and trade it for the confidence and self-assurance that will take him toward the future. That can happen at 18, 19, 20, or, as in the case of former resident Alyssa, at 12.
“I am going to get all my education and have a great life ahead of me,” the sixth-grader wrote. “I want to have my own house and not have to live with any of my family members. And I don’t want to be homeless and I don’t want my kids living in a negative household. My family is going to be a happy family.”
Learn and support
Hawthorn Heights will host its second annual fundraising breakfast from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. April 24 at Southwestern Community College in Sylva. The organization has already started work on the house using a $40,000 grant from the Evergreen Foundation, hoping to move its children in to a bigger building by the end of the year. But Hawthorn Heights still needs $200,000 to finish work on the house. Organizers hope to get $80,000 of that from the breakfast.
“[Attendees] will help make a brighter future for our teens in the seven western counties who come through this program,” said Kaye McConnell, event chairman.
The breakfast will feature yogurt, coffee, fruit, muffins and orange juice, but, more importantly, testimonies from community members, former shelter residents and Barium Springs CEO John Koppelmeyer. The event will use a table captain format, with community members volunteering to invite enough guests to fill an eight-person table.
The event is free, but donations will be requested at the end. Evergreen will match donations dollar-for-dollar up to $65,000. To attend or captain a table, RSVP as soon as possible to Katie Queen at 828.231.5413.