The saying “It takes a village to raise a child,” has been proven to be accurate by the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter (NWACS). NWACS is the largest children’s shelter in the state, and it is dedicated to caring for children who have encountered abuse and neglect, providing them with a caring, stable, high quality environment.
Since 1993, the NWACS shelter has taken care of more than 8,200 children from many different areas in Arkansas, and it continues to provide a home for children in need. The shelter takes in children up to age 17 and has a total of 48 beds, providing the children with on-site counseling services, on-site schooling and tutoring. The establishment sits on 90 acres and has a cafeteria, an on-campus golf course, a fishing pond, a volleyball court, a gym and a basketball court. The NWACS is an emergency shelter and houses the children for a span of 45 days to 6 months until the state makes a decision on whether it is more suitable for the child to be reunified with their parents or taken to a proper foster home.
Annually, there are approximately 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect in the United States. In 2015, the Child Welfare League of America reported that Arkansas had a total of 52,240 referrals for child abuse and neglect, with 33,251 cases being investigated. Though the number of child victims has decreased by 17.1 percent since 2011, 4,548 children in Arkansas lived apart from their families in 2015 for out-of-home care. Of these children, 55.3 percent were neglected, 22 percent physically abused and 20.7 percent sexually abused. Despite the circumstances of their arrival at the Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter, the staff at the shelter welcomes these children with open arms, helping them to understand that what they’ve gone through does not define who they will become.
Not only does NWACS provide care to children affected by child abuse and neglect, but it also enlists the help of the community around it. Not too far from the shelter is the Hanna Family Ranch, owned by Will and Waltina Hanna. Married for 31 years, this couple began working with the shelter as volunteers, and then started working with the organization full time, allowing children from the shelter to visit and interact with their farm animals.The children sometimes walk over to the farm with a therapist, and this has helped many children open up and express their feelings. The children marvel at the pigs and piglets, Katahdin Hair sheep and lambs, and chickens and dogs. The animals help the children build trust and empathy, and remove them from their surroundings at the shelter for a short time. They enjoy interacting with the animals, and Will and Waltina sometimes assign the kids small jobs to help take care of the animals, such as feeding them. The fresh air and change of scenery creates important down-time for the children and the Hannas have grown to truly care for the children from the shelter, along with the staff and other volunteers.
Will Hanna understands that the displacement these children face can affect them emotionally and psychologically. Many children were taken from their homes by law enforcement and some have a bad perception of police. One important thing the shelter emphasizes is that it remains a safe place, providing the children with a sense of security. Will Hanna – a veteran, former firefighter and current part-time police officer – works to change the children’s perception of police officers by wearing his police uniform to the shelter and by informing the kids about proper ways to interact with law enforcement. Waltina Hanna can often be seen working at the front desk of the shelter and interacting with the children during various activities.
The Northwest Arkansas Children’s Shelter offers many different programs catered to the children in an effort to help them maintain and adopt behaviors beneficial to their future growth. One program is called Cooking Matters – a program sponsored by Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance that teaches kids how to prepare and cook food readily available to them – that emphasizes the importance of eating healthy foods and acquiring good life skills. This program also combats the problem of food insecurity that many Arkansans currently face.
Another program at the NWACS is dedicated to acquainting the children with authoritative community forces through the shelter’s Hero Camp. This program is held in the summer and invites first responders and law enforcement officers to come to the shelter and build positive relationships with the children; Will Hanna also participates in this program. The officers have dedicated time with some of the children by having dinner with them, providing them with positive role models.
The Sophia Scott Expanding Horizons Program allows the children to go on a variety of community field trips. The shelter has a comprehensive case management plan for each individual child. On-site and off-site schooling is provided, and the shelter has partnered with the Bentonville public schools to help maximize the acceleration of the students.
Many of the children haven’t had regular medical or dental care in their young lives, so the NWACS partners with local pediatricians and pediatric dentists to provide these important health services. Some children come to the shelter with only the clothes they are wearing, but each child goes to their next destination with at least six weeks’ worth of clothing, along with toys and games. While at the shelter, the children receive a small allowance to purchase whatever they want from the shelter’s store, which is filled with fun things. The shelter also has received an outpouring of community support, with contributions from major corporate groups. Some organizations have offered to assist in starting drives for the shelter, volunteering with the children and donating needed supplies.
Initially, the idea of a child going to a shelter can seem very sad, but NWACS does not allow the experience to be negative for too long during the child’s stay at the facility. The staff does their best to provide the children with a good experience: giving them everything they need, providing them with a happy and positive environment, making them feel cared for, and giving them both material items and emotional tools that will support them in the future.
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Author Zhane Gibbs is an AETN Programming Department intern and University of Central Arkansas Student studying writing and journalism.