A young boy, Jimmy, was left alone in the South Los Angeles apartment he shared with this mother. Addicted to drugs, she often left him alone. He would regularly awaken to strangers in his home or an empty home without a trace of his mother. Although she always came back, he never knew what to expect. She might sleep for days or be irritable or euphoric. This time, his mom would not return. She had overdosed and was lying in a hospital, unable to tell anyone that her son was home alone.
A neighbor found the boy and called the police, who arrived with a social worker. Jimmy was skinny and wearing dirty clothes. He cried when he learned his mom was in a hospital.
The social worker needed a safe place for Jimmy while a foster home was being identified. She brought Jimmy to The Cottage, Wayfinder’s transitional shelter for children who have just been removed from their homes due to neglect or abuse. In the social worker’s car, Jimmy sat stunned and crying softly.
Wayfinder’s primary job in The Cottage is to stabilize children so they can be placed as quickly as possible with a family member or foster family. It’s an important—and sometimes difficult—task.
The Cottage offers a warm, loving atmosphere to ease children’s fears. Mary, one of The Cottage’s residential counselors, met Jimmy at the car and asked what he liked to eat. When Jimmy walked into The Cottage, all the staff and children greeted him and introduced themselves. Jimmy felt like he was entering someone’s home, not a shelter.
After taking a shower, Jimmy received three sets of new clothing plus his own laundered clothes. His eyes lit up when he saw his new sneakers. Then he joined the other children for a delicious dinner that included one of Jimmy’s favorite foods, macaroni and cheese.
As Jimmy settled in at The Cottage, county social workers were searching for a foster family. Often, they can place a child with one of Wayfinder’s expertly trained foster families.
Cottage staff are trained to understand each child’s personal story and perspective in order to create a nurturing environment. After dinner, Jimmy continued his journey toward healing by meeting with The Cottage’s mental health therapist. The therapist assessed the level of trauma Jimmy had experienced and discussed his needs with the staff.
The residential counselors tailored their interactions to the boy’s needs. “I emphasized to him that it wasn’t his fault he was here,” Mary recalls. “And since he was so used to being his own parent, I wanted him to be able to be a kid.”
That night before going to sleep in his clean, cozy bed, Jimmy carefully placed his new sneakers next to the foot of his bed. He told Mary that he had never received any new shoes before. New clothing and toiletries give many children joy in the most difficult moment of their young lives. The new items make them feel valued and give them confidence for the next chapter in their stories.
The following days, Jimmy talked to the therapist, played basketball, read books, watched movies with the other kids, and worked on educational materials matched to his abilities. Never having had enough food at home, Jimmy heartily ate his three meals and snacks every day. (continued below)
DID YOU KNOW?
Only four nonprofits in Los Angeles County offer transitional shelter care.
Wayfinder’s Cottage is the only one that accepts infants and toddlers and both boys and girls.
The Cottage, By the Numbers:
Open 24 hours,
7 days per week
1,534 children served
birth to age 5: 37%
ages 6-11: 29%
ages 12-17: 34%
55 highly-trained counselors, therapists, social workers and program assistants, all with bachelor’s degree or higher
Staff-to-child ratio: 1:3
When The Cottage staff learned that county social workers had found a foster family for Jimmy, they prepared him for the transition. Jimmy was very anxious about leaving The Cottage, having just experienced the trauma of being removed from his home. To ease his fears, the mental health therapist and Mary gave Jimmy all the information they had about the foster family. Learning the number of children in the house and the names of his foster parents helped relieve some of Jimmy’s concerns.
“We don’t do a big goodbye to avoid making the departure more emotional than it is,” says Theresa Foster, director of transitional shelter care. “We try to give them a warm feeling and make it about their next stage.”
Jimmy left The Cottage with a duffel bag of new clothes, proudly wearing his new sneakers. After his time at The Cottage, he no longer felt he was to blame for being removed from his home. He had gained confidence and begun the journey to healing. He was ready to meet his foster family. •
Stock images were used in this story to protect the privacy of children in The Cottage.
September 4, 2019