More Than a Shelter, Advocates for Children Reaches ThousandsMarc Schultz | Centerview, December 2012
For nearly 30 years, GCN member Advocates for Children has been working to prevent child abuse in Northwest Georgia and provide its victims with stability, treatment and dedicated protectors. Through programs that include counseling for children and parents, community engagement initiatives, volunteer mentoring programs, Court Appointed Special Advocates training, and its flagship Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter, Advocates addresses the problem of child abuse from multiple angles, reaching more than 2,600 children annually across 17 counties.
“We have expanded our mission to be much more than just a children’s shelter,” said Advocates for Children Executive Director Patty Eagar in a recent interview with GCN. “We are anything and everything that has to do with preventing child abuse and helping those who are already victims.”
A Sheltered Past
In 1983, a Bartow County community needs assessment called attention to the housing predicament of children taken from negligent or abusive homes—in almost every case, there was no place for a child to stay except with their Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworker, either in their home, a motel room, or even the DFCS office. For victimized kids facing such enormous upheaval, a stable, secure living environment was identified as vital to their recovery and well-being. In response, a group of concerned community members—one of whom, Nancy Newman, still serves on Advocates’ board—established the nonprofit to obtain the house that became, with two years of dedicated fundraising, Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter. Today, Flowering Branch houses as many as 13 kids at a time, for as long as is takes to place them in permanent homes.
Advocates addresses the problem of child abuse from multiple angles, reaching more than 2,600 children annually across 17 counties.
“Many people hear the word ‘shelter,’ and they think of cots lined up in the Superdome,” said Eagar. “That’s not us. Flowering Branch is a wonderful home. The kids who are staying here have individual private rooms, lots of attention, and services that wrap many layers of love and support around them while we try to get them back to a semblance of normal lives—whether they get reunited or whether they get put in a new forever family.” Besides providing secure living quarters and 24/7/365 attention, Advocates arranges horizon-expanding activities for its residents, like visiting Tybee Island for a weekend and publishing their own newsletter, The Bud.
Though Flowering Branch remains the most visible of part of Advocates, a growing roster of programs reaches far more children and families than can be handled in the shelter, where kids get intensive round-the-clock attention—some for months, or even years. Advocates has started a mentoring program for adults and a volunteer program for teens, and adopted several nationally-syndicated counseling programs, including Rainbows, a support group for grieving kids; First Steps, an in-hospital support system for new moms; and Transparenting, a program to help divorcing parents ease children through the transition and aftermath.
Since 2000, they’ve also been running Bartow Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), part of a national program that recruits and trains volunteers to act on children’s behalf in the juvenile court system. CASA volunteers receive 10 to 12 weeks of what Eagar calls “very intensive” training: “These kids really need an individual who knows what they’re doing.” CASA volunteers help kids maneuver through the system, let them know what to expect in court, and meet with teachers, counselors, judges and others; their recommendations are vital to ensuring the best possible decisions are made regarding a child’s future. “It’s a serious volunteer commitment,” said Eagar, but word of mouth has largely been enough to keep Advocates in the CASA volunteers it needs: “We’re proud to say this year we will have enough CASA volunteers for every single child in custody in Bartow county.”
Though Bartow isn’t one of the largest counties in the state, Eagar noted, it has the state’s fourth largest number of children in custody—all facing serious issues, ranging from family drug problems to neglect to physical and sexual abuse. To help kids reporting sexual or severe physical abuse, Advocates opened A Better Way Children’s Advocacy Center, a one-stop site for the intervention, investigation, prosecution and treatment of these cases that aims to minimize the trauma involved in recounting allegations of abuse.
Advocates counts on private donations for half of its $1.6 million budget, and has found generous corporate sponsors in global companies like Gerdau and local businesses like Heatco. Their partnership with local car dealer Honda Carland North provides the grand prize for Advocates’ most popular (and labor-intensive) fundraiser, the annual Duck Derby Weekend, where they race 20,000 rubber ducks on the Etowah River. Derby-goers can claim a racing duck for five dollars each (“We also sell Quack Packs and Quackers’ Dozens, and all kinds of gimmicks,” said Eagar), and the first duck across the finish line wins a new car. “We’ve been blessed by some car dealerships in town, we’ve always had a car to give away as a prize, so that has really helped us,” said Eagar. “People are willing to take a chance buying a half dozen ducks if they may win a free car.”
Duck Derby Weekend also includes a 5k Duck Dash—also with prizes—and a full day of festivities culminating in a “Rockin’ on the River” concert. Over the past 11 years, it’s become the unofficial kick-off to the summer in Bartow, a big draw for the county of 100,000 and a huge outreach opportunity for the nonprofit. Unfortunately, it typically brings in just half a month’s budget, and leaves staff “wiped out” at the end of the weekend: “Sometimes we think that kind of works against us,” said Eagar, “because people think, ‘They have the Duck Derby! It’s so well known, it’s so well-established, the community is way behind it.’ It’s a wonderful event for the community, but for the amount of work… So we have to be much more creative about how to get funding.” The other half of Advocates’ budget comes from highly competitive governmental or “quasi-governmental” sources; currently, Eagar reports, they receive funding from one federal grant and “three or four pieces of state funding.”
Advocates’ oldest fundraiser, the “Every Child’s a Star” talent show, is still going strong in its 20th year. Auditions for the February show will take place on Dec. 15, and the organization is currently accepting registrations for its first annual Jingle Jog fun run, held in association with the Cartersville Christmas parade on Dec. 6. Supporters who aren’t interested in stage shows, fun runs or family festivals, on the other hand, can sign up for the No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament, held in the fall, or the Spring Benefit.
Hope for the Holidays
“Many people hear the word ‘shelter,’ and they think of cots lined up in the Superdome. That’s not us.”
— ED Patty Eagar
Eagar, who has been executive director at Advocates since 1997, calls the holiday season “a wonderful time for Advocates.” Even though Advocates doesn’t typically hold fundraising events during November and December (the Jingle Jog will be a first), that’s when “the community pours out their support” in donations of money and time: “People want to bring cookies, or want to come make a meal, or trim the tree. People reach out and say they want to adopt a family, or provide iPods for all the children in the shelter. Sometimes I wish we didn’t get so much in just those two months, but it’s always a fun time to be doing this kind of work.”
That community commitment, Eagar said, is inspired entirely by the dedicated work of Advocates staff and volunteers: “If you just surround yourself with really great people who have the passion to get the work done, and empower them to do it, you can really help a whole lot of children.”
Having spent decades as an entrepreneur and volunteer before landing at Advocates, Eagar describes her job as “a really good and lucky fit.” Others don’t always see it that way, said Eagar: “Every time I speak to a group, someone says, ‘Oh I would be so depressed if I had your job.’ And that’s so not the case—it’s very uplifting work. It makes everybody who’s doing it—staff, volunteers, board, and everybody—feel good to get to do good.”
Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.