Posted on March 18, 2016
A Home of Her Own
The Salvation Army’s Family Intervention Services Emergency Shelter in Hilo has served thousands of the Hawai‘i Island’s troubled children in the last 20 years. The shelter functions as a sanctuary for children ages 11 to 18 who do not feel safe or cared for at home. It’s also a home for foster children transitioning between families, and a place that can provide youth with the necessary skills to become successful, independent adults.
Note: The children often call The Salvation Army Family Intervention Services (FIS) staff ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ as a sign of endearment and respect, signifying the sense of ‘ohana that FIS seeks to instill in each child that walks through its doors.
A Child of the State
Twelve-year-old Nellie M. was in the back of a police car when she arrived at the Emergency Shelter in Hilo. She was upset with her parents for many reasons: they used drugs in their home, hit each other often, and abused her and her younger sister. Nellie made some bad choices such as smoking marijuana and running away from home. Despite her own vices, her mother called the police to take Nellie away, saying she was beyond parental control.
The police handed Nellie over to the Emergency Shelter staff, who asked her to detail the series of events that led to her arrival. Nellie wanted no part of it. “My own mother didn’t want to bring me home. I felt like no one cared about me, so why should I care? I didn’t need to explain my reasons for being there,” she said. Minutes later, a crisis worker walked in, “She asked me to call her Aunty Gabi. I don’t know what it was about her, but she made me feel like I could trust her with my story and assured me that my parents were not able to hurt me anymore. Those were the most comforting words I had heard in a long time.”
Running from “The System” and towards a better future
Nellie stayed in the FIS Emergency Shelter for a few weeks placed under protective custody immediately and later into a foster home. “I ran away after a week and returned to the shelter. I was sure that they would keep me safe, but as a child of the state, I had to be placed with another family,” she said. It was a cycle that would repeat itself for the next five years.
By age 17, Nellie had been in a total of 20 foster homes, was labeled ‘a runner,’ and believed her chances of a life outside ‘the system’ were better than growing up with strangers. She was one of a handful of juveniles sentenced to Juvenile Drug Court on the Big Island, a restrictive program to get drug addicts and dealers on the right path. After a few more failed placements, Drug Court was able to get Nellie placed back at The Salvation Army FIS Emergency Shelter under their long term program where she was given a bed, taught how to cook, clean, and plan for her future. This was the first time she had been back at the shelter since she was 12 years old.
That was when she met Uncle Kalani, the FIS Independent Living Program coordinator, who helps foster children in securing financial aid, scholarships, teaches them life skills, and guides them towards a brighter future. “He made me realize I didn’t want to live the life I was living. In less than a year, I was going to be an adult and he made sure that I was going to be prepared,” said Nellie.
“My job is to get these kids an education, teach them life skills and manage finances, and make them realize that they can reach for opportunities that will give them a better life than what they have now,” said Uncle Kalani. “They come to my program thinking they’re going to be living a life of freedom once they turn 18-years-old. I present them with reality and educational opportunities, showing them that true freedom only comes from being educated and career driven.” “I wanted to go to college and be something when I grow up. Uncle Kalani and Uncle Glenn, The Salvation Army FIS Program Manager, were the first people that made me think about how I would accomplish my goals – not just let me dream. They were with me every step of the way,” said Nellie. “They did everything they could. They pushed me to apply for housing, scholarships, and more. By the time I left the shelter, I was accepted into a community college, selected my major, was awarded $8,000 in scholarships, and I didn’t have to worry about paying for school or anything else,” said Nellie. “They helped inspire me to get my Masters in Social Work (MSW) and become a counselor.”
A home she can call her own
Today, Nellie is 27-years-old, a happy mother of two and lives in Hilo. This May, she will graduate with her MSW and continue her work as a program coordinator at Family Programs Hawai‘i. She works directly with foster children and gives them resources, skill building, or recreational opportunities that they do not have access to. “I know what it’s like to be in their shoes. I want to be able to give them hope. Even though their lives are messy right now, I want to show them that they can be the change.” For Nellie, she can always count on her ‘ohana at The Salvation Army. “This is a place someone (like me) without a family can call home. That is a place I can always go back to no matter what I need.”
For more information on The Salvation Army Family Intervention Services, click here or call 808.959.5855.