Adapting to coronavirus is latest challenge overcome by EmberHope Youthville

David Burke

7/21/2020

Like everything else in the world in 2020, EmberHope Youthville has had to make changes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Nickaila Sandate, president/CEO

On March 13, all non-essential staff at the United Methodist-supported facility in Newton, Kansas – which serves at-risk children and teens through foster care, adoption, residential programs and counseling for individuals and families -- were instructed to work from home, with no outside visitors, including parents and vendors, allowed on the grounds.

“A lot of these kids had not seen their parents except for video, Skype, Zoom, or talking to them on the phone” for several months, Nickaila Sandate, president and CEO of EmberHope Youthville, said. “None of us had a handle on how we were going to control visits. When you have that many girls on the campus, if someone was COVID-positive and didn’t know it, they would bring that into the cottage, and obviously the other kids and the staff in those cottages would be vulnerable to that.”

EmberHope is following Harvey County’s executive order regarding required facemasks and limiting two family visits per cottage per day.

So far, she said, EmberHope Youthville has been COVID free. Staff must report their temperatures daily and notify superiors of any out-of-state travel.

“That does affect and impact our ability to serve,” Sandate said. “We’re crossing our fingers.”

 

Youthville history

The roots of Youthville go back nearly a century.

It began in the early 1920s with a gift from the estate of Edward P. Libbey, combined with funds from the city of Newton. The gifts enabled the purchase of 30 acres for what was called the Kansas Methodist Home for Children. Libbey Hall opened in 1929.

Libbey Hall is named for the donor of the land in Newton, Kansas. Contributed photos

“During poor economic times, families struggled to care for their children during the Great Depression,” Lisa Capps, chief advancement officer, said. “The church would take in the children and care for them, and the goal was to return the children to their families.”

The name changed to Methodist Youthville in the 1960s, serving adolescent youth with emotional or social adjustment problems. Several group homes with the Youthville name went up throughout Kansas, and the Dodge City location was the last to close, leaving the home base in Newton.

“What we try to do is care for children while families heal, always with the goal of trying to return children to their families,” Capps said.

In 2006, Youthville acquired a group that enabled outpatient mental health services, expanding to Seattle and Texas.

The name was changed in 2013 from Youthville to EmberHope, with the Youthville name returning to its identity in 2017.

“That name rebrand was confusing for many people,” Capps said. “We lost a lot of credibility, especially within the church.”

EmberHope Youthville continues to provide services to vulnerable children and families in Kansas and Texas, serving thousands through the years. It was recently accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, a nonprofit organization that assists human services organizations who are committed to continuous quality improvement. The process does not prevent deficiencies and services, but does allow for review, correction and improvement, Sandate said.

Mike Shockley of Wichita, chairman of the EmberHope Youthville board, said returning the name brought back the institution’s identity.

“Leaving the Youthville name, which had such great name recognition, might not have been the best decision by the former board of directors,” he said. “But that’s what it is. We’ve tried to embrace it by going with both names now.”

 

Methodist connection

Throughout its history and regardless of its names, EmberHope Youthville has retained a connection with United Methodist churches in the state.

“We never left the affiliation of first Kansas West and now Great Plains,” Shockley said, noting names of annual conferences over the years. The Great Plains Conference was formed with the unification of the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences in 2014.

Some confusion may have developed, he said, after discussion on the floor of the Great Plains Annual Conference sessions in 2015 included approval for talks regarding a merger with TFI Family Services, a foster care agency serving Kansas and Nebraska. The merger did not take place.

Methodist Youthville, a former name of the facility, is still remembered on its campus.

Currently, Capps said, nearly 20% of EmberHope Youthville’s budget comes from a combination of the Great Plains Conference, local United Methodist churches, and the Kansas Area United Methodist Foundation.

“People do seem to have a lot of confusion with what our connection is with the conference and with the church,” she said. “’Is it still Youthville? Are we still connected?’ We’re still the same organization. Churches still support it, and we still need their support, now more than ever.”

United Methodist churches in Kansas and their pastors who are longtime supporters of EmberHope Youthville are big believers in the mission of the organization, then and now.

Wichita Aldersgate UMC has supported EmberHope Youthville for decades, including an angel tree for Christmas presents and an annual holiday party for foster children and their families.

“We try to partner with agencies we know are making an impact and that have a Christian background, and Youthville is, of course, a Methodist group with Methodist ties. That fit perfect with what we try to do for our missions for our church,” said Gwen Whittit, chair of the missions team for the church.

“We feel like we’re supporting not just the foster child themselves, but those people who have agreed to be foster parents,” she added. “That’s really important to us, that we’re making an impact on more than just a child’s life. We’re making an impact in a family’s life.”

Both the Rev. Dr. Kevass Harding and his Wichita Dellrose UMC have been longtime supporters of EmberHope Youthville. The congregation rents rooms at the church at a “very, very cheap, cheap rate” to EmberHope, Harding said, for four employees to work in training potential foster care parents.

“I have a couple of members who are foster care parents, and I’ve seen the value of taking care of those foster kids,” Harding said. “When those kids are with them … you can see how the kids love when they come, the church, the recreation, the VBS, and all the things we would do in a normal circumstance.”

Dodge City First UMC has been a supporter of Youthville since 1947, when a campus was built on the south side of Dodge City for a location that had been referred to as “The Farm,” “Boys’ Home” and “The Ranch” until it closed in 2017.

The church has given space on its second floor to a foster parent to make a home for a family since that closing, the Rev. Jerre Nolte said.

Dodge City First has raised money for many years through a Christmas ornament benefit, Nolte said, and was ready to raise more awareness for Youthville through a project that was supposed to take place this spring. “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” was supposed to display decorated tennis shoes painted by EmberHope residents as “a picture of their life as a foster kid,” Nolte said, with the shoes being shown downtown and in the church.

The project was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were really exciting about re-engaging the Dodge City District and Dodge City First United Methodist Church with what ministry is and what mission is with EmberHope,” Nolte said.

 

Hurdle overcome

Accounts of sexual abuse and impropriety made by former residents of Youthville against former staff members is worlds away from the experiences today, EmberHope officials say.

An article in early June in the Topeka Capital-Journal, which also appeared in other Gannett newspapers in Kansas, focused on a young woman who claimed she had sexual relations with an employee from 2007 to 2010, before she turned 18. A previously undisclosed lawsuit was settled in 2015.

EmberHope Youthville has made sweeping changes in the past few decades, staff members say.

Sandate has been with the foster care facility for 21 of the past 25 years, beginning as what was then called a youth care worker in 1995 and returning to Youthville in various positions in 2003. She became interim president and CEO in July 2017 and was appointed to the position in January 2018.

“It’s vastly different than 1995. It’s vastly different than 2003. It’s vastly different from 2010. It’s always evolving,” Sandate said.

“We’re growing and learning all the time about the more information and experiences we all have,” she added. “We learn from those. We adapt our policies and procedures and the way we do business so that we do better.”

A big difference, Capps said, is that EmberHope Youthville has adopted Trauma-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), “meeting kids where they are,” and recognizing the fact that children from various backgrounds of trauma will have different reactions to different situations.

“It’s understanding that their reactions and their behavior are going to be different from our own,” Capps said. “It accepts that and understands that.”

Sandate said that TBRI helps the staff better care for clients.

“We bring our trauma experience into the workplace, and we need to be very cognizant of those and then turn around and try to help those who are traumatized,” she said.

Clients now fill out a monthly survey, asking if they feel safe, cared for, and what they would change — everything from living conditions to the food served in the cafeteria, said Lori Gonzales, chief programs officer.

“Our foremost, A-number-one priority is ensuring the safety of our clients,” she said. “Our clients have already been through traumatic events, and nobody wants to think of somebody coming here for help and then getting hurt.”

There is now video and audio surveillance in each of the cabins, Sandate said, with the exceptions of bedrooms and bathrooms. Staff members are encouraged to communicate with residents in the milieu of each building, a commons area that is constantly monitored.

Staff members are given much more instruction about interaction with residents and boundaries, Sandate added. Background checks and fingerprinting are required for new hires.

Employees are urged not to be alone with a client, she added.

“Never put yourself in a situation when it’s a ‘client said versus you said’ or a ‘this versus that’ situation,” Sandate said. “We have to be very intentional about that.”

The allegations staff members read about in early June are ancient history, they said.

“It’s hurtful and painful for us because we’re caring for these girls. It’s hard to read and think that some people think this kind of thing is still happening here,” Gonzales said. “It’s not.”

 

Challenges today

For several years, EmberHope Youthville has served all-female clientele after a long history of co-ed housing. As of mid-June, the client census showed 37 girls from grade school through high school.

Although the clientele is all-female, there’s a ratio of male employees as well

“You can’t not just employ females. It’s not realistic,” Sandate said. “We are very thoughtful, when we can, about what those ratios look like.”

Staffing at the facility aims for one staff member for every five clients, she said, although in some circumstances the ratio is one-to-seven. Both, Sandate said, are lower than what the state of Kansas prescribes.

Finding personnel is a constant concern, Sandate said, and since EmberHope Youthville is not reimbursed by the state, it’s not able to pay what may be considered a competitive wage.

“We’ve been working at this pretty intensely this past year and a half,” she said. “We were paying what fast-food restaurants were paying. You’re caring for kids, and kids that are vulnerable and already removed from their homes for abuse and neglect, you’re caring for other peoples’ children, we take that seriously. It’s not easy work.”

Because of the number of staff vacancies, the number of clients has been reduced, she said.

“We care more about their safety than we do putting kids in beds,” Sandate said.

 

Moving ahead

As an employee of Youthville during the late 2000s, Sandate never heard any rumors about any impropriety going on between the staff and clients.

That’s why she was shocked to learn the Topeka newspaper was writing a story about the incidents.

“Our job is to keep them safe,” Sandate said of the children in the organization’s care. “These are other people’s children, and we have the honor to care for them while their families are getting their lives straightened out. To hear that they’ve experienced hurt or pain is devastating for them. I feel terrible for them.”

Board president Shockley said that while he can’t change the past, he can make sure nothing like the alleged actions ever happen again at EmberHope Youthville.

“Our board has full confidence in our executive leadership team. They’ve come up with a wonderful organization,” he said. “I don’t know what happened 10 years ago, but I can control what’s going on now.”

Shockley, a member of the Great Plains Conference Connecting Council, said he was contacted by several people about the Topeka newspaper article, most of whom had not read beyond the headline and were unaware that the incidents were more than a decade old.

“If somebody reads the headline and not the detail of the paper, they missed the nuance that this was an incident that happened 10 years ago. From that standpoint, it certainly doesn’t help us any,” he said.

“People who know who EmberHope is and what EmberHope stands for will say that’s not what EmberHope is today,” he added. “That’s not the model that we stand for.”

The future for EmberHope Youthville includes Opportunity Academy, a partnership with the Newton school district that will mix trauma-informed seventh- through 12th-graders, male and female, in a classroom setting.

“I see us growing, moving forward, continuing with our movement into trauma-informed services,” Capps said. “We’ve been around since the 1920s and I think we’ll continue to do a really good job with foster care kids and serving clients.”

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.
 


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