“Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5b
The benefits and joys of growing up in a small town are endless for many. Yet as idyllic as life may seem on the surface, some children in small communities are abused and neglected. Reports of mothers prostituting their four-year-old girls to boyfriends in exchange for drugs, or young boys being starved by their parents as a form of punishment, have been recorded even in rural Western Kentucky. Stories like these drive organizations like Sunrise Children’s Services to do the work it does.
Sunrise is a non-profit, faith-based behavioral health services organization. It provides foster care and therapeutic services to children across Kentucky. The Paducah offices specialize in foster care, specialized therapy and an independent living program that helps those children aging out of the foster care system at the age of 18 as they transition into adulthood.
Phil Justice has worked for Sunrise Children’s Services for 9 years and was recently appointed as the Director of Philanthropy. By now he has heard and seen it all. According to Phil about 84 percent of abused children will become abusers themselves.
“Our main goal is to help break that cycle of abuse,” he says.
In the midst of all of the sad stories, Phil has seen the lives of children restored and changed by the love that they receive from the caretakers, case workers and therapists who serve them at Sunrise Children’s Services.
“We want children to have a good quality of life and to be successful,” Phil says. “When they can get to where they have their own jobs and an education, that helps their self esteem. That’s when the cycle of abuse stops.”
One of the ways Sunrise equips foster children to become successful adults is through an independent living program called VentureOn. The program is designed to help foster children, ages 18 to 21, as they transition from foster and residential care to mature, independent living.
“There is a high percentage of young adults (in the foster care system) who reach 18 and have nowhere to go,” Sunrise’s Independent Living Specialist Misty Reynolds says. “Many will either return to their biological families or basically become homeless, bouncing from couch to couch.”
In order to provide support for these young adults the VentureOn program invites young adults to remain in the custody of the court system until they are 21 years old. During this time the program provides a fully furnished apartment, a small monthly stipend for food and utility costs and regular mentoring as they begin college or select a career. Participants are assigned a Sunrise case worker who meets with them once a week to ensure that they are staying on track and have everything they need to achieve their goals.
“We have a high rate of teenagers in foster care who are not going to be adopted. Sadly, those teenagers reach adulthood all alone and with no support,” Misty says.
When exiting the foster care system one of the biggest challenges that young adults face is finding reliable transportation to school and to jobs. Foster children are not able to get a driver’s license while they are in the care of the state. So when they enter the VentureOn program they are not able to drive. Misty and the staff at Sunrise help participants to obtain their driver’s permit and teach them how to save money so that they can eventually buy a car and be independent adults.
“Transportation is a major challenge. Our local bus system is not conducive to those going to school during the day and working nights at entry level jobs,” Misty says. “Since they don’t have transportation, we try to set them up in housing that is as close as possible to their college or job.”
Finding a job can also be challenging for foster children. Many of those coming out of the system are limited in their skills and do not know how to seek employment. VentureOn assists clients with interview skills and filling out job applications. Phil says that several local employers have also partnered with Sunrise to help these young adults find employment suitable to their interests and skillsets.
“There are several mission-minded people in this area who have been happy to put these kids to work,” he says. “The business owners in our area make big sacrifices to help. They don’t make any fanfare out of it; they just want the kids to do better.”
Both Misty and Phil agree that while their jobs are often challenging, the work they do and the successes they witness are worth the journey.
“This job is truly a ministry,” Misty says. “I truly believe in hope and I know that God can change people. No matter how hard it is, or what I see, I know that God has a plan for each of them.”
There are a number of ways for individuals and businesses to support Sunrise Children’s Services. The organization is currently seeking “hole” sponsors for its annual golf tournament this month. Gifts can also be made in the form of gas cards, grocery store gift cards, cleaning supplies, gently used furniture and monetary donations made at www.sunrise.org.
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