Our House Unveils $5 Million Youth Center

Our House Unveils $5 Million Youth Center

500 donors help pay for addition

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

By Cammie Bellamy

Georgia Mjartan says seeing homeless children turned down for space at Our House is one of the hardest parts of her job, and something that happens several times a day.

But the executive director of the homeless shelter and services center says a new, $5 million Children’s Center will mean Our House can help more children than ever before. The center, which will have its grand opening today, will have space for 150 children — three times the capacity of Our House’s current Children’s Center in Little Rock.

As it stands now, the center occupies a renovated ambulance garage for a veterans hospital that used to sit up the hill. With 7,000 square feet and just two bathrooms, the narrow building makes for crowded conditions for Our House’s children’s programs.

The new space’s 19,000 square feet will significantly relieve that crowding, with a number of activity rooms for Our House’s out-of-school and summer programs and for its Little Learners licensed child-care program for pre-kindergarten children. All of the programs are tailored to the needs of homeless or near-homeless children.

The new Children’s Center features an art room, commercial kitchen and two playgrounds. A computer room boasts two dozen desktop computers, iPads and a smart board, as well as a recording closet for children to tell their stories or to make music.

In the Little Learners wing, 60 children, ages 4 and under, will have rooms to learn and play. Across the building, as many as 90 youths, ages 17 and under, can do homework and socialize during the center’s summer and out-of-school programs.

Mjartan said the children’s programs are open to current and former shelter residents, as well as to children whose families are at risk of homelessness.

“This is not a normal child care, this is not a normal after-school program,” she said. “What it is is a place where both children who are homeless and children who are not homeless can come together as equals and have an amazing experience.”

Fundraising for the center was a two-year process, drawing nearly $5 million from 500 donors. The new center was funded entirely by donations, save for a government grant to clean up asbestos and remove fuel tankers buried at the site — another remnant of the veterans hospital.

Mjartan said expanding children’s programs has meant huge growth for Our House.

When she started as director eight years ago, Our House, then a $420,000 organization, had the fundraising slogan, “Help us keep the doors open.” Today, the nonprofit is creating volunteer and permanent positions to help staff the new Children’s Center, and fundraising for children’s programs has raised Our House’s value from $1.8 million to $2.2 million over the last couple of years.

Mjartan said the larger center ties in to the organization’s mission of addressing the roots of homelessness. She said resources for the homeless, especially families and children, are lacking in Arkansas. In 2010, the National Center on Family Homelessness ranked the state the third worst in the nation for child homelessness, both for the proportion of homeless children in the state and for the services that Arkansas offers to address the issue.

“One of the reasons why families are struggling is that they don’t have a safe place for their children to be after school,” she said. “They live in unsafe neighborhoods or unsafe housing where they have very young children who are child care-aged. Child care is incredibly expensive, a lot of the child care centers that cater to very low-income, near-homeless people are not quality centers, are not good, are at very minimum licensing standards. And so we said, ‘What would it look like if we helped both the parent and the child at the same time?'”

Nevaeh Hendrix, a 7-year-old Our House resident, knows something about unsafe neighborhoods. Before coming to Our House, she lived in the McAlmont community near North Little Rock, where she often witnessed violence.

“There’s too much killing going on where I used to stay,” she said. “One day, I was riding my bike … and I heard gunshots and then we ran and then we found the body on the floor.”

Black mold finally forced her and her father out of their home and brought them to Our House. Nevaeh said she’s much happier now, visiting the Children’s Center often with best friend Abigail Woodall, 7, who lives just across the hall.

“It’s fun. Big ‘F,’ big ‘U,’ big ‘N’ — FUN,” Nevaeh said.

Mjartan said the best thing the Children’s Center can offer homeless children is a sense of continuity they don’t get elsewhere. She said that when a child leaves Our House, he may be scared about returning to the outside world. Our House encourages families to keep their children in the programs even after moving out.

“We all looked at it as, ‘Congratulations, you’re moving out of homelessness. Everyone must be so happy.’ But for the child … there’s this huge fear of, ‘Am I going back to a place where I’m not going to get fed? Am I going back to a place where there are scary people or where I’m not going to be talked to for days or where I’m going to be locked in a closet? Am I going back to that?'” Mjartan said.

“We try to, with this place, provide just the same teachers and the same classroom and the same art on the wall … so that even as they’re moving out of our shelter and moving into their own place and making all those transitions, the child has that stability.”

Metro on 06/07/2014

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