Building A Legacy: 4 Philanthropists Stick Together For Common Causes

Aristotle once said “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This statement certainly rings true for the Centers for Youth and Families, which this month celebrates the 25th anniversary of the 1987 merger that led to its creation.

The product of three different nonprofit agencies — the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center (EMCC), Stepping Stone Emergency Shelter (SS) and The Parent Center (PC) — the Centers for Youth and Families (CFYF) is the oldest continuously operating nonprofit in Arkansas.

The roots of CFYF can be traced back 125 years, to 1884, when Elizabeth Mitchell founded the Children’s Aid Society. In its early years, the organization served as an orphanage, but over time took on different roles — and names — to reflect and accommodate the changing needs of the community. By 1970, it was called the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center and offered residential and outpatient mental health services for emotionally troubled children and their families.

Another of the three agencies, Stepping Stone was an emergency shelter that mainly served as a refuge for runaways. It also provided counseling and crisis services for youth at risk, including alternatives to incarceration for offenders under 18.

The Parent Center was originally a program of the Junior League of Little Rock and focused primarily on parent education and training, including programs for teenage parents.

In the mid-1980s, the three organizations were all working independently, but consulting each other — and often referring each other — on a regular basis. “The Parent Center was located in a strip center next door to the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center. People would go into The Parent Center looking for services, and The Parent Center would send them next door to the Elizabeth Mitchell Children’s Center. Or, parents would come into the Children’s Center looking for parent education-type help, and we would send them next door,” says Kay Patton, a longtime EMCC board member and one of the five founders of CFYF.

(Learn more about this team of dedicated advocates, where they’ve been and where they’re going:

“Stepping Stone was providing emergency services for kids that were kicked out of their homes, those who ran away from home or those who ended up with nobody to take care of them,” Patton continues, “But frequently, SS would end up calling EMCC to see if they had any residential spaces available. There was an overflow and an overlap. All three organizations were dependent on some funding from the youth services arm of the human services dept., United Way and private donations. We all had limited resources.”

Along with Patton, the other leaders of the merger/founders of CFYF were Don Pfeifer, Donna McLarty, George Worthen and Bob Ross (deceased). All served on the EMCC board.

In 1985, the team of five began meeting to discuss how they could best integrate services to create a better, more comprehensive program. “The more we met, the more this idea of merging became the strongest move for us,” says Donna McLarty, who at the time served on both the PC and the EMCC boards. “When you put all three agencies together, you had a strong safety net of services that could meet whatever needs a family could have.”

Two years of discussions followed before the merger took place. “It’s very difficult to combine three boards and to allay everyone’s fears that their organization is somehow going to get lost in the process,” Patton says. “The first conversations were just a matter of talking to members of all three boards and saying, ‘This is a good idea, we need to be looking at this.’”

Those 24 months of meetings culminated in a merged organization that was named Centers for Youth and Families to reflect the organization’s expanded spectrum of services. Today CFYF provides a variety of prevention programs and behavioral health services, including parent training, residential care facilities, a youth emergency shelter, therapeutic foster care, school-based and outpatient counseling and day treatment programs for children and youth ages 3 to 21.

Carol Soulsby is just one of the organization’s many enthusiasts, and says CFYF is an invaluable resource for the community. As the guidance counselor at Williams Magnet Elementary School, Soulsby has referred numerous parents to CFYF’s Parent Center.

“When I started in this position, I went out into the community to see what was out there. I met Sharon Long [a Parent Center instructor], and she has just been a gold mine of information. I joked with her that it would be great if we could get an owner’s manual for our children. We don’t have that, but the next best thing is having Centers,” Soulsby says.

She emphasizes that CFYF’s Parent Center courses, which include classes like, “Parenting the Strong-Willed Child” and “Parenting the ADHD Child” are open to the public. Courses are usually six weeks long, cost around $15 and provide free childcare.

“Centers is helping these children succeed, not only educationally, but also in their social and emotional development,” Soulsby adds.

For McLarty, Pfeifer, Patton and Worthen, a statement like this is music to their ears and just further confirmation of the merger’s success. The four, along with Ross (posthumously), will be honored for their tireless work in establishing today’s CFYF on Thursday, Nov. 15, at a fundraiser, Legacy: An Appreciation of Change, at the Country Club of Little Rock.

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