Children's Voice Sep/Oct 2006

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En Route to a Safe Place

In fast food restaurants, convenience stores, libraries, firehouses, and other nonthreatening places in communities nationwide, bright yellow "Safe Place" signs can be found in storefronts, letting teens know if they need help, all they have to do is walk in and ask for it.

Launched more than two decades ago in Louisville, Kentucky, as part of an outreach effort of the YMCA Shelter House, Project Safe Place has connected 89,000 youth, ages 12-17, to immediate help and safety through 15,150 sites serving 714 communities.

The program works by creating a network of "safe places"--businesses and public locations that display the yellow and black Safe Place logo, indicating their partnership with a local youth service agency. Through these agencies, young people receive supportive services, including individual and family counseling, goal setting, lifeskills training and tutoring, and educational assistance.

But what if a young person lives on the other side of town from a Safe Place location and has no mode of transportation or support system to get there? The National Safe Place headquarters in Louisville has tackled this problem by introducing a partnership program with local bus transit systems. At very little cost, bus systems in cities large and small have purchased and displayed Safe Place signs in their bus windows and received free training for their drivers and road supervisors from Safe Place staff. Since Safe Place introduced the transit program in the 1990s, 31 city transit systems--operating a total of 4,500 buses--have joined on as partners.

"Mobile locations create a different element for kids," says Sandy Bowen, Executive Director of the YMCA National Safe Place. "For some of these kids, it's a lot easier to actually access help via a bus than it might be to walk in someplace at a fast food restaurant or a convenience store."

To take advantage of the program, all a youth has to do is board a bus and tell the driver he or she needs help. The procedure from there is relatively simple. The driver takes the name and age of the youth and relays this information to a bus dispatcher, who then contacts the local partner youth agency. Staff or volunteers from the agency pick up the youth and connects the young person to the services she or he needs.

SunTran bus service in Tucson, Arizona, and Vista Transit, in the southeastern region of the state, are among the newest partners in the transit program, through Open Inns, a Tucson-based Safe Place partner that serves youth in crisis. SunTran operates 189 buses, covering 37 routes throughout greater Tucson, including an Indian reservation. Vista Transit, located in a more rural area of Arizona, operates nine buses covering six routes.

"Safe Place is a really good way to connect businesses that support young people and want to make a difference," says Jason Thorpe, Director of Community Education and Outreach for Open Inns. "[The transit program] provides them an oppor-tunity to do that. [Transit employees] don't need to learn all the crisis intervention skills to be able to help."

Barry Barker, Executive Director of the Transit Authority of River City, which operates 220 buses in the Louisville area and parts of southern Indiana, describes his company's 12-year partnership with Safe Place as a "no-brainer."

"What we're about is moving people. What they're about is helping folks," he says. "A kid who has needs, how are they going to get around? Typically, they're going to get on a bus, so that partnership has been a real healthy one."

Tulsa Transit in Oklahoma has taken its Safe Place partnership a step further; in addition to posting Safe Place signs on its buses, it also donates space on its buses to display Safe Place posters designed by elementary and middle school students who take part in a poster contest sponsored by Youth Services of Tulsa. Some bus employees serve as contest judges.

With these posters and the Safe Place logos in their windows, local buses help spread awareness about Safe Place across hundreds of miles in 41 states, Bowen says. "It's a constant reminder throughout the community, both to kids and adults, that this is one way to access immediate help."

Learn more about becoming a Safe Place partner.

Peach State Matches Kids in Care with Summer Jobs

With all the stresses that can come with living life in foster care, part-time work may not be the first priority for a teen coping with myriad issues, even though the summer job experience is an important way to prepare for life beyond the system.

Georgia's Department of Human Resources has found a way to make it a little easier for kids in care to take advantage of their summer breaks through the TeenWork Initiative. Spearheaded by Mary Perdue--wife of Governor Sonny Perdue (R)-- and her Children's Cabinet, about 600 youth in care participated in the initiative during summer 2005, working in a variety of entry-level jobs during June and July at Coca-Cola, Chick-Fil-A, Waffle House, and 35 state agencies, including the Governor's Office, the Department of Human Resources, the Department of Community Health, and the Department of Juvenile Justice. More teens and public and private companies were expected to participate in summer 2006.

"We've had a lot of positive experiences from it," says Ari Young, spokesperson for the Division of Family and Children Services, about the initiative. "For many of these children, it might be their first work experience, so we are mindful of that, and the companies we recruit are mindful of that as well."

The initiative is open to youth statewide, ages 16-21, who are in care or who may have recently left foster care but are still involved with the child welfare system. The teens receive minimum wage and higher for working at least four hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks. The teens also participate in a work skills class one day a week during the program. The program not only introduces them to the world of work and teaches them marketable skills, it also encourages the development of mentor relationships between the youth and their employers.

This year, all local Masons and Rotary chapters in Georgia also pledged to sponsor the employment of one TeenWork foster teen during the summer.

To apply for or advertise a job, teens and employers visit the initiative's website to complete the necessary forms. After they are hired, and before they begin work, teens participate in a weekend preemployment training sponsored by the Georgia Department of Human Resources that teaches work ethics and time management skills.

Building on last year's success, the TeenWork Initiative expanded this past summer to provide opportunities for developmentally disabled teens in foster care and an apprenticeship program for youth ages 6-19 from low-income families. Under the apprenticeship program, the teens receive mentoring and career coaching, financial literacy training, and health and nutrition information, and take part in sports, art, music, and technology activities.

"We have been presented with countless stories of bright, capable foster teens who were given the opportunity to succeed in an employment situation and rose to that challenge," Mary Perdue said in a statement. "I'm delighted to see that more private and public agencies have stepped in this year to help foster teens gain valuable life skills."

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