Centers for Youth and Families (CFYF) has an ambitious mission: to provide specialized prevention, intervention and treatment services that promote emotional and social wellness for children and families of Arkansas. The scope of their mission is compounded when you consider the incredible range of services they offer, including providing accommodation for children with no guardians at their therapeutic family homes or youth emergency shelter, intervening in cases of child abuse, providing families with literacy classes, influencing state legislature, and even providing lunches to children facing food poverty.
Originally founded in 1884, its founder Sarah Elizabeth Latta Mitchell saw that widespread economic strife in her community was keeping many families from being able to care for their children. Unable to bear the thought of a hungry, homeless child in need, she began to take children into her own home, despite having seven children of her own, and organized a group of friends to do the same. By 1886, they had outgrown their capabilities and raised enough money to purchase a small cottage, creating a children’s home.
Conceived as the Children’s Aid Society, its name has since changed to Little Rock Orphans’ Home in 1907 and the Elizabeth Mitchell Memorial Home in 1947. In 1987, the organization merged with Stepping Stone Emergency Shelter and The Parent Center – two other local nonprofits that were offering similar services and working closely with one other – to consolidate their efforts and form Centers for Youth and Families. Operating continuously since 1884, CFYF is the oldest and longest-running nonprofit in Arkansas.
However, today the organization is dealing with very modern challenges, and in addition to its traditional services, is now also focusing on issues such as human trafficking and the astonishing number of victims that pass through Arkansas. In his annual report letter, CEO and President Doug Stadter said, “This year, we are using what we have learned about trauma-focused care to expand services to victims of human trafficking. This problem has reached epidemic levels nationwide and is on the rise in Arkansas. All aspects of our continuum of care will be involved, including prevention services, emergency shelter, residential treatment, therapeutic foster care and day treatment. We have already begun admissions of Arkansas victims into our residential treatment programs. Next year we will expand our services to accept victims from other states.”
With such an enormous task on their hands, CFYF needs all the help they can get. Luckily, they have some very dedicated friends onside. Board member Kelly Eichler has been a long-time supporter of the organization and is a compelling advocate. “I had heard about CFYF for years and had heard about them through my work,” explains Eichler, “As an attorney, I spent a lot of time in juvenile courts where judges were considering the best options for rehabilitating families dealing with serious issues. Time and again, the circuit judge ordered the child and/or family to seek treatment at CFYF. This was for delinquency cases, for Family in Need of Services cases and independent neglect cases.
“Regardless of the issue, Centers had much to offer to right the path of those who needed help. When the court system sends families that are troubled to an agency, then you know that they are a good agency. It is the quality of their work that really speaks volumes. They were obviously respected and reputable, so years later, when a friend who worked for their foundation approached me about chairing a women’s tennis tournament to raise funds for Centers, I was more than happy to do it. It resulted in a successful fundraiser, but for me, it offered the opportunity to serve on the boards for the agency and the Foundation. I’ve been doing so ever since and have found it to be so rewarding.
“CFYF has services for all walks of life; they provide parenting classes for young families, they have a Boy Scout program, and they offer services for troubled children all the way to adolescents, with in-house and out-of-house patient therapy. There is a shelter for those who have run away from home or have been separated from their family.”
Chris Shenep, executive director of the Foundation, adds, “We also have parenting classes that are made up of parents who are trying to get custody of their kids or trying to be better parents. We offer therapeutic foster care, which deals with foster kids who are a little more emotionally disturbed, and we work very closely with the foster parents when they are just getting started so that everyone is well supported.”
In fact, the spectrum of services that CFYF offers is so diverse that it’s hard to put them in any one box. “One of our biggest challenges at Centers,” says CEO Doug Stadter, “is explaining what we do. We have such a broad range of services for children, families and young adults. We work with young moms in our home visiting program to help them care for their child, attend school or find and keep a job. We offer parenting workshops to the public on all subjects related to raising their children. We provide counseling services for children and their families in our outpatient program. We provide therapeutic classrooms for children who cannot function in a regular classroom because of their emotional issues. We recruit, train and support over 80 therapeutic foster parents who, in turn, provide a safe and caring home for children who are emotionally disturbed and are the custody of the State. We operate a 20-bed emergency shelter for children who are homeless or removed from their home by the State. We also provide psychiatric residential treatment programs in Little Rock and Monticello for over 80 children and adolescents dealing with serious emotional disturbances.
“Many of our referrals come from the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services and from other behavioral health providers. We also have a ‘same day access’ policy. If you call our Access Center at 501-666-8686, we will see you and your child on that day if you can come in before 3pm.”
‘Those involved with CFYF also like to set themselves apart from other organizations in going the extra mile and adding a personal touch. “We do all the extra things that most kids aren’t afforded through DHS or state contracts or the lifestyle that they are living due to the unfortunate set of circumstances at the time,” explains Shenep. “Through special events and young professionals programs to raise funds, we really just try to go above and beyond so that the kids are taken care of during the holidays and for special occasions like their birthdays. For example, we gather donations for welcome bags for when they come into our care; it’s different from most organizations. We are trying to tell them, ‘We’re excited you’re here. We’re glad you’re with us. We’re sorry for what you’ve been through, but it’s going to get better.’” We try to help them move on into being a normal kid.”
Since its inception, the organization has grown and changed so much; it’s only fitting that its annual fundraiser is called “Evolve.” The forthcoming event, themed “Rooted in the South,” will be held on January 28th, and it’s something everyone at CFYF is clearly very excited about.
“The different theme each year really distinguishes it from events held by other organizations,” says Eichler, “as part of the fun is seeing the decor and the manifestation of the idea. It doesn’t feel like the same old tired event every year. We have such an energetic group of young volunteers, known as Emerging Leaders, who add innovation, labor and knowledge of technology that contribute to a really fun evening. If anyone is looking for a place to network, to contribute to their community, and to make a difference in someone’s life, CFYF is definitely the place to be.
“I am not a fan of asking people for money, but when things are dear to my heart, it’s worth it. From CFYF, I have learned that there are many people who are generous at heart, and all it takes is asking someone to help. I have been so encouraged by the good in people in this area. It is reassuring of the human race.”
Shenep puts it aptly: “Honestly, it’s through events like the galas that we are able to highlight the special children and youth we work with every day and the heroes that work the frontlines every day. Our job at the foundation is to make sure they have as many resources as possible. My favorite part of being involved is getting to interact with our kids and volunteering at the youth emergency shelter. It’s realizing what they have had to overcome and what normal kids they still are and the positive outlook they have on life. It makes me realize I grew up pretty blessed and all the things I took for granted. And for that one day when I have a family, it makes me want to hold them that much closer because these kids literally arrive with their life in a trash bag. Being able to see their progress and transformation when they come to us is truly inspirational.”
Statehouse Convention Center Patron Party: 6 p.m.
General admission: 7 p.m.
Tickets + info: 912.0763, CFYF.org/Foundation/Evolve