Rear-view of five children jumping in the air wearing backpacks
33 children. 33 children are victims of confirmed abuse each day in Georgia. While the statistics are sobering, there is light in this darkness through a special non-profit in Cartersville: Advocates for Children.
Since 1983, Advocates for Children has cared for Bartow County’s most vulnerable residents with three locations and seven distinct programs, ranging from early intervention to post-abuse care. One such program, Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter, provides a safe place for children in The Division of Family and Children Services to temporarily reside. They are also given medical care, clean clothes and loving support. In 2018 alone, 36 different kids were able to call the shelter “home.”
This home is a warm and comfortable space with two wings: one for the boys and one for the girls. Each child is given a separate bedroom and supplied with living necessities. In the large common room, the children can sign up to watch T.V. or help make a meal in the large kitchen.
“We put a lot of thought into the meals,” says Development Director Nathan Kongthum. “Every day there’s a different meal being prepared. [The chef] also teaches the kids how to cook. For example, he taught them how to make bacon, which is pretty amazing to me.”
The main living space opens to a screened-in front porch and large backyard, which also houses a separate educational building, where an educator gives the residents special tutoring and guidance in their studies. They are also given access to resources to help them apply for jobs, participate in sports and take the next necessary legal steps in their cases.
Kristin Steinberg, who helps with case management, believes strongly that providing these resources in a safe environment makes a difference in the residents lives. “It’s not a normal situation, but we try to let them be teenagers,” she says. This includes a weekly allowance.
“The shelter staff will make sure they get their chores done, and then we give them a small allowance to use any way they please,” explains Kongthum.
Kennesaw State University student Molly Southern currently interns at Advocates for Children and is constantly inspired by the difference the organization makes in children’s lives. She particularly enjoys walking down the hallway inside the shelter that features photos of the current residents. “The pictures that are hung in hallway are the only pictures of [the children’s] faces. And you know, when you walk into your house, your parents have pictures of you…so the pictures in the hall make the shelter feel like their home.”
And it’s not just the Flowering Branch Shelter that is making a difference for children in need. Advocates’ program CASA stands for “Court Appointed Special Advocates” and is a division of the organization that trains community members to advocate for children inside and outside of the courtroom. First Steps is another program that provides support, parenting information, referrals and services to any new mother at the Cartersville Medical Center. And through the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), Advocates serves children and youth who have made allegations of sexual or severe physical abuse. CAC is a safe space for forensic interviews of children in possible neglect or abuse cases. These interviews, which are conducted by a trained forensic interviewer, are recorded to reduce the need for the child to tell his or her story over and over again.
In these and many other ways, Advocates for Children prove they truly have children at heart; and in 2018, they were able to serve more than 3,000 children and families.
Rachel Castillo, who is the newly appointed President & CEO of Advocates, is proud of the different ways the organization reaches the community. “I’ve been with Advocates for a little over seven months now. Day to day is never the same. I love our programming….So some days I might be with the children in the shelter, seeing how that is going, learning about our parenting program, visiting our forensic interviewing center, our court-appointed advocates, and then also working with administration and building community relationships,” she says.
As for becoming a partner in Advocates’ work, Castillo encourages all community members to get involved in various ways: “One of those [ways] would be to come out and support us at our Spring Benefit, which is ‘Children at Heart.’ And I think that theme really represents who we are, because everyone has had a childhood, and each childhood has been very unique, and you get ot come and celebrate with us so that we can give the children of our community a better childhood and a hope for a better future.”
Additionally, the annual Duck Derby fundraiser is coming up on May 11. “We will be doing duck adoption very soon. So please purchase a Very Important Duck (VID), and come celebrate with us at Sam Smith Park!” She smiles.
“Also, we are always looking for mentors to come and mentor in our shelter program…and we’re looking for CASA volunteers. It’s a time commitment of 40 hours of training and going through court observation training. But then you can really become active in a child’s life for as long as they are in the foster care system.” She continues: “And then bring a meal, bring clothes, support us in any way your heart is telling you to support us.”