Safe and sound
Youth Services’ Safe Place program has emerged as a national model for providing help for youth in crisis.
They come for a variety of reasons. Some have been in a fight with a peer or significant other. Some have been kicked out of their homes by their parents. Some are suffering abuse at home.
What they have in common is the need for a place to go. A haven where they can find safety, a listening ear and the potential to find help for the challenges they are facing.
These young people, usually high school-aged, have come to a Safe Place — a QuikTrip store, fire station or bus station, signified by a yellow and black, diamond-shaped sign showing an adult embracing a young person. At these locations — 163 in the Tulsa area — a volunteer will meet them and help them find the assistance they need.
Youth Services has coordinated Tulsa County’s Safe Place program for 16 years, and was one of the first organizations in the country to adopt the model, Youth Services Executive Director Jim Walker says.
Youth Services has worked with QuikTrip and the fire stations since the beginning because they are available 24 hours. Each has agreed to train all employees in Safe Place practices.
“It’s assisted us in keeping it a real strong model,” Walker says.
So strong that Walker was recognized as National Safe Place Administrator of the Year at the national Safe Place training conference last fall. Indeed, representatives from other states have often sought him out for advice in implementing their own Safe Place programs.
Safe Place originated in 1983 as a youth outreach program of Shelter House, a short-term residential and counseling center for youth operated by the YMCA of Greater Louisville, according to the national Safe Place Web site.
Safe Place began in response to calls from young people who were in crisis situations but were unable to get to Shelter House.
To address the issue, businesses and community buildings were designated as Safe Places, locations where youth could easily access help.
The program was so successful that Louisville officials wanted to take the model to a national level and contacted the Family and Youth Services Bureau in Washington, D.C., for assistance.
That organization connected them with the National Resource Center for Youth Services, which was based in Tulsa and which Walker oversaw.
He then set out to develop a manual for implementing Safe Place in other cities and recruited QuikTrip to participate. QT now supports Safe Place nationally, and the program is offered in nearly 100 cities in 36 states.
In 2008, 406 youth visited a Tulsa area Safe Place, which is available to youth ages 12-18. Walker says a full range of young people with an array of challenges visit Safe Places. But in each case, a volunteer arrives to speak with the youth and connect him or her with Youth Services’ support services, providing help sooner than if the youth had to seek help on his or her own.
“It’s a well-thought-out but simple concept,” Walker says. “We see it as adding currently 163 doors to our services.”
Volunteers are a vital part of the Safe Place program. The program has about 85 volunteers, but Walker says more are always needed. Volunteers undergo eight hours of training through which they are taught how to speak with the teens and what challenges those teens might be facing. Walker says volunteers generally receive a few calls a year, which can come at any time of day or night.
One longtime volunteer is Sharon Gallagher, vice president of community investments for the Tulsa Area United Way, who recently ended a 12-year stint as a volunteer for Safe Place.
Gallagher says she was drawn to Safe Place because it was a volunteer opportunity that fit with her schedule — she typically received calls on weekends about two times a month. She also appreciated the ongoing training that Youth Services provided.
Additionally, having grown up in a two-parent home in a small community, Gallagher says she had opportunities many of today’s young people don’t, and she wanted the chance to give back.
“I thought, I have a strong feeling we owe children of the next generation everything we can give them,” she says.
And she had plenty of opportunities. Gallagher recalls a particular situation when a girl had been kicked out of her home on her 16th birthday, as was also the case with her two older sisters. The girl was most concerned about finishing school and asked Gallagher to wait in the reception area while she talked to a Youth Services counselor to make sure she would have that opportunity. Gallagher waited, and everything turned out fine.
“That was probably the one (case) that stuck in my mind,” she says. “It was something I didn’t expect.”
After traveling to the indicated Safe Place, volunteers take youth to Youth Services’ Emergency Shelter, which then works with Youth Services’ family counseling services to set up appointments with parents in an effort to find solutions. The shelter also provides health checks and a temporary refuge for youth.
“(The shelter) is temporary, but it’s a place where if they’re truly in crisis, it allows them to feel safe and get re-centered,” Walker says.
Youth Services also offers a Street Outreach Program, which serves youth who have left or been sent from their homes and are struggling to find a place to live. Additionally, the Drop-In Center for homeless teens provides a hot meal, a place to clean up and a computer bank so teens can look for jobs or education opportunities.
From these programs, homeless youth may enter the Transitional Living Program, which provides an apartment for up to a year as they are finishing school or undergoing job training.
Walker says that in extreme situations, Safe Place and the resulting services have saved teens’ lives. In other cases, Safe Place provides assurance that help is always available when teens need it.
“Some kids are able to make it in their home because they know there is a safety valve,” he says. That if it reaches more than they can stand or if it becomes too dangerous, they know there is a place they can go.
Also, Walker says Safe Place serves as a reminder to adults that teens still need comfort and protection.
“I really believe society has lost focus of what a teenager, adolescent is,” he says. “They used to be thought of as kids and now they’re thought of more as someone to be wary of or a threat, and I like to think that every time people see the Safe Place sign, it reminds them that they are kids; they need protection from an adult and community support to be safe.”