Sunshine Center loses chunk of funding

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NATCHEZ — After losing almost half its funding, the Sunshine Children’s Center is asking the community to rescue an organization whose daily operations are the lifeline for children who have lost it all.

The nonprofit’s Executive Director Matilda Stephens said the Victims of Crime Act assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Public Safety cut $46,000 in funding from the center for abused and neglected children July 1.

Fighting tears, Stephens said she is willing to step down from her paid position if it means the nonprofit can stay open.

“I’d sacrifice my job if that would save the agency in a heart beat. But we all hope it doesn’t come down to that,” Stephens said.

She said she is willing to sustain a pay cut at the very least, as well, because there is no other place like Sunshine Center in Mississippi.

Stephens said the shelter is different from most in the state because it takes high-risk children most places turn away due to mental health or behavioral problems.

For instance, Stephens said the center recently took in a 16-year-old girl, who tried to burn down a house, strangle a roommate and whose hatred for herself caused her to cut more than 20 half-inch scars onto her own arms.

Stephens said when she came to the shelter, she was looked at by the staff as if she had never done anything wrong, even though the Department of Human Services could not find a shelter or even a psychiatric facility to take the teen before, the Sunshine Center welcomed her to Natchez.

“They have done bad things, but that doesn’t make them a bad person,” Stephens said of the children who walk through her door.

Stephens said once the teenager was shown kindness and learned to accept it from others, she was further suited to move on from her past.

Now 17, the teen has been in foster care in Yazoo City for five months after an extended 70-day stay at Sunshine shelter. She has had no problems, and keeps in touch with the staff at Sunshine.

Stephens said the shelter takes an alternate approach to discipline. She said the children walk in the door with privileges, such as talking on the phone or outdoor trips, and are held accountable for their behavior after they enter — not before. The system allows children a clean slate while forcing them to take responsibility for their behavior at the shelter.

“I guess we all share the same belief that everybody has good in them regardless, and we all choose to look at the good first,” Stephens said.

The Sunshine Shelter temporarily houses children for up to 45 days who have been taken into protective custody by DHS because of allegations of abuse or neglect. The shelter serves 13 counties in Mississippi and recently acquired the ability to serve children in Vidalia.

As many as 12 children can stay at the center a night, and Stephens said it is usually filled.

Stephens said while she is looking for other grant sources, the center will try to raise at least $20,000 from the community to account for half of their loss from the grant.

The budget has already been cut from $136,000 to $90,000.

Stephens said she and the social workers and child care providers will work as fundraisers as a supplement to their current jobs.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services reimburses the center $55 per child a night, but the actual cost is $128.

Partners Against Abuse is a new fundraising agency, which kicked off July 1 and allows local companies and individuals to become members by pledging $500 for two years. However, Stephens said the partnerships will accept pledges for any amount of money at this point.

“If you can get 200 people to donate $10 for two years, that’s great,” Stephens said.

Stephens said the fundraising push is a short-term solution to prevent the shelter from closing until a more permanent funding source is found and negotiated.

Stephens said all but one of the 14 people on staff work with the children. The secretary, who does not work in child care, doubles as the bookkeeper.

“The majority of these people are people who do not make high end money. I can’t say enough about these people,” Stephens said.

Proceeds from a fishing rodeo hosted by Eddie’s Marine on Lake St. John will go toward the Sunshine Children’s Shelter and Kyle’s House. The fee to enter is $100 and it will be from 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., with weigh-in at 3:45 p.m. Saturday.

Entry forms are available at Eddie’s Marine and the Sports Center in Natchez.

Kyle’s House will not be affected by the loss of the federal grant money.

To join Partners Against Abuse, call The Sunshine Children’s Center at 601-445-2223.