Center works to give more to chidren

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 19, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; New services prompted a name change at the former Sunshine Shelter for Children.

&8220;We are becoming far more than a shelter,&8221; said Matilda Stephens, director. The agency now is the Sunshine Children&8217;s Center, she said.

&8220;From the moment I came to the shelter, I started wondering what else we could do,&8221; said Stephens, who has worked in nonprofit agencies for more than 20 years.

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Sunshine Children&8217;s Center was designed as an emergency shelter for at-risk children &8212; those caught in abuse or neglect environments &8212; from 13 counties in southwest Mississippi.

The new programs include some different ways to aid those same kinds of children as well as ways to help families with special-needs children.

One of the most recent start-ups at the Sunshine center is a respite care for children. &8220;There are no state funds for this. But thank God for United Way,&8221; Stephens said. &8220;They are providing $5,000 a year for the next two years. That pays for 100 days and nights a year.&8221;

The center already has used 27 days, she said. &8220;Obviously, there is a need,&8221; she said. &8220;I don&8217;t know what we&8217;ll do when we run out of money. We&8217;ll find it somewhere.&8221;

The respite program offers stays of up to 14 days for children who need temporary residential care.

&8220;People who have used this program include a grandmother whose grandchild needed a place to stay while his mother had surgery,&8221; Stephens said.

&8220;It might be a parent who is at her wit&8217;s end with a teenager and knows someone is about to be kicked out of the house.&8221;

Her work at Youth Court gave her a window into the need for families to have a temporary place for cooling-off periods between parents and teens.

&8220;What I saw at Youth Court made me think &8212; this is communication; there has to be a way to work this out.&8221;

The respite care also provides therapy with a licensed counselor at Sunshine Children&8217;s Center. And the service is open to all children, not just the ones in the Department of Human Services system.

An outpatient counseling program grew from the respite care, Stephens said. The program provides counseling to children and their families.

&8220;And this program feeds into our Boys and Girls Club, which meets here in the afternoon,&8221; she said.

Alfreda DiStefano is the tutor for the club program. &8220;We have kids from AJFC, ACCS and the public schools,&8221; Stephens said. &8220;We are getting so many after-school referrals that we may have to hire another teacher.&8221;

Finally, the Sunshine Center is working toward joining Safe Place, a nationwide program sponsored by the YMCA.

&8220;A women&8217;s circle at Jefferson Street Methodist jumped on the idea of sponsoring this for me,&8221; Stephens said.

&8220;It takes about $2,000 for the training and a certain fee for YMCA for technical information.&8221;

The program calls for cooperation among community businesses, where distinctive signs are placed to alert children that they are sponsors in the Safe Place program.

&8220;Of course, this takes some educating,&8221; she said. &8220;Kids learn that if they see this sign in a window or in a fast-food restaurant, they know they can go in and the owner will call someone to come pick them up and take them to a safe place.&8221;

Stephens said the new programs are prompting a need for new space. &8220;We&8217;re about to bust out of this building. We desperately need more space.&8221;

The Sunshine Children&8217;s Center is stepping up its efforts to help children and families, but there remains much to be done, Stephens said.

&8220;We have throw-away kids in our society. Kids reach a certain age, and parents can&8217;t deal with them,&8221; she said. &8220;One child was living in the press box at a football field.&8221;

The problems cut across all ages and socioeconomic levels, she said. &8220;We want to provide the services so kids don&8217;t go into the juvenile justice system or the DHS system,&8221; she said. &8220;And we want people to know our services are free.&8221;

Keeping an optimistic attitude &8212; despite the heartache she witnesses daily &8212; is second nature for her, she said. &8220;I believe with all my heart that if you do things for the right reasons, everything will be OK.&8221;

Anyone with questions about the shelter is welcome to call, Stephens said. The number is 601-445-2223.