The Ouachita Children's Center takes in 250 children a year who may be homeless, abused or neglected, or with other problems that need help, Mark Howard, who recently took over as OCC executive director, said Monday.
Howard, who spoke to Oaklawn Rotary Club during its weekly meeting at The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa, said he assumed the role as director in September 2017 after relocating from Talladega, Ala., to Hot Springs Village with his wife. He is no stranger to this type of work, though; in Talladega he was president and CEO of Presbyterian Home for Children, and previously served with the United Methodist Boys Ranch under Oklahoma United Methodist Circle of Care for eight years.
Howard said OCC is the only children's emergency shelter in this part of the country, "and what that means is that we take kids from different places." Some of the children are referred to OCC by the Arkansas Department of Family and Children Services because they have been removed from their home due to neglect or abuse. In other cases, children are sent to OCC because their foster families need a respite due to a medical or personal emergency.
"They come to us from all across the state depending on their situations. Sometimes it's beneficial for them to be close to their situations and sometimes it's beneficial for them to be far away if it's an abuse case that's severe," Howard said.
Youths can also be referred from schools, community agencies, juvenile courts in Garland and Clark counties, local families, and even the youths themselves. OCC can take in runaway children, or children who are homeless until they can find a stable home or a better situation than their previous one.
"Some of the kids that come through are truly homeless," Howard said. "We have outreach workers that work here in Hot Springs looking for kids that are homeless, and we have some, believe it or not. Their job is to find them and see if they can build a relationship to try to get them to come in out of the streets."
Howard recalled a story from his first days with OCC about a group of homeless children in Hot Springs who made a shelter for themselves high up in an abandoned building, using a rope to climb in and out.
"When our workers first started in town they had gotten some advice from the police department as to where some of these kids might be. They went to the building and the kids had marked it off and they had rope that they went down, so what they would do is climb up and they created a safe place for themselves up high in this abandoned building," Howard said. "It took a lot of ingenuity to do that, but the kids were just doing what they needed to do. Our workers were almost too big to climb up there, but they've gone back several times to try to build a relationship with these kids."
Howard said youths 6-17 years old can stay in the facility for a maximum of 90 days, but the average amount of time a child spends at OCC is about three weeks. He said the goal at OCC is to provide a safe haven for the children "out of whatever circumstance that they have found themselves in."
OCC provides a variety of services to the children, including individual case management, educational support groups for both the children and their families, therapeutic assessment and short-term counseling, aftercare for paroled youths who have been released from incarceration, and structured opportunities for personal growth and lifelong success.
"We have anger management classes, we have life skills classes, we have classes about drugs, so the kids can come learn those types of things that they need to help make them successful," Howard said. "It's funny, the after-school programs have started expanding because the kids who were kind of mandated to be part of the program have started inviting their friends, so we ran out of room quickly and had to open up more space for the kids. It's great, and I think it's a testament to our staff and to our teachers who are teaching these programs that the kids like it so much that they want to invite some of their friends.
"We are grateful that God allows us the opportunity to be in the lives of these kids, and most of the time in their darkest hour, and they don't always love us for that because we're the people that they ended up with. Because we have them for this period of time, our obligation is to provide the best care that we possibly can."Local on 05/09/2018