Sixteen-year-old Christina (not her real name) needed a place to go.

Living with a foster family in another county, Christina said she “couldn’t handle it anymore.”

“They were treating me like I was a slave. I was trying to get a new family,” she said.

In between foster homes, she spent a week at Rogers County Youth Services last month.

“I went in thinking they were going to treat us like slave people,” she said. “But they turned out to be really nice. They all love kids and like to go out and play with them. I had fun.”

At the Rogers County shelter, Christina said she was able to play outside, watch movies, play games, talk with the staff and go out to eat.

“I did hair — I love to do hair,” she said.

Christina is now with a new foster family and is enjoying being a kid.

“Now that I’m with a good family, I don’t have to be a mom like I did with my brothers and sisters,” she said. “I get to do homework, play sports and go shopping with my foster mom.”

With her life more stable, Christina attends high school and hopes to get a job. She is looking forward to getting her driver’s permit this summer.

Rogers County Youth Services is marking 30 years of helping children and teens like Christina through a variety of programs and services.

“The key to all our programs is getting kids plugged in early on and helping parents keep kids out of further trouble,” said Herb McSpadden, RCYS executive director since March 2000.

1976: Meeting a Critical Need

The youth shelter and formation of Rogers County Youth Services grew out of a crisis situation, McSpadden said.

Legislation was passed which stated juveniles under 18 could not be placed in jail without the judge’s permission, and then only in separate facilities from other prisoners. This meant that youth in Rogers County could only stay in the female side of the jail when no females were present. Youth from Rogers County were placed in Wittacker State Home in Pryor, but the State Department discontinued use of that facility.

“It was really a grassroots effort to get Youth Services started,” McSpadden said.

On Aug. 17, 1976, the initial meeting of RCYS took place and in September the shelter opened at a three-bedroom home on College Hill provided by then Claremore Junior College.

RCYS was incorporated and a board of directors was named on Oct. 22, 1976. The next month, 20 citizens started a money chain to raise funds for the shelter. The first seven months of operation were totally funded by private donations.

2006: Making a Difference

Today, 30 years later, more than 5,000 youth have stayed in the shelter since it opened, McSpadden said. “I estimate 21,570 have received counseling.”

Through services such as the emergency shelter, counseling, parenting classes and Family Academy, RCYS offers support and education for youth and their families facing challenges.

“We’ve been on the cutting edge of many programs like the First Time Offender Program or Family Academy as we call it,” McSpadden said.

The program is intended for youth who’ve committed their first law violation, but is open to any family who wants to improve their relationship. The six-week course covers topics like anger management, decision making, communication and problem solving.

“Ninety percent of the kids who go through the program don’t commit any further offenses,” McSpadden said.

RCYS also provides school based counseling services in which a staff of three counselors covers every public school in the county.

“If we catch them early, there’s a good chance of keeping them out of trouble,” McSpadden said. “We eventually want one counselor dedicated to each school system.”

Of course, RCYS operates an emergency shelter — open 24 hours a day, seven days a week — which houses up to six youth, ages 8 to 17 years, at a time.

“We average almost five kids a day, with the average length of stay two weeks,” McSpadden said. “One-third come because of delinquent behavior; one-third due to abuse or neglect; and one-third because of family problems.”

The shelter provides a safe place for youth who are in crisis situation or in need of a “cooling off” period.

“We want kids to feel they’re in a loving, caring environment, so we try to do fun stuff with them, too,” McSpadden said. “Sometimes we’re the most stable family they have.”

Planning for the Future

In order to meet the ever-growing needs of youth and families in Rogers and surrounding counties, RCYS is making big plans for the future.

“Our main goal is funding for a new facility,” McSpadden said. “We are in desperate need of more space and more staff.”

The new building, McSpadden said, will transform the existing shelter from a six-bed facility to a 12-bed staff secure shelter to serve Rogers, Mayes and Craig counties.

“In Rogers County, we are currently locking up 15 kids a month at a tremendous cost,” McSpadden said. “We’ve identified that 85 percent of those could be served in a less secure facility if there was one available.”

McSpadden said that having an alternative to a detention center would keep youth in the community, allowing access to family, counseling, on-site education, and legal services.

“When kids are placed in detention they don’t receive treatment,” McSpadden said. “The average stay is 44 days, which could be shortened in an alternative shelter. Instead of sending them to detention and having them sit there, they will be able to access services right away.”

Having recently presented their plan to the Governor’s office, McSpadden said if they can obtain the necessary government funding, building of the new facility could start in July 2007.

“We’ll be kicking off a capital campaign soon,” he said.

So just like 30 years ago, the community will have the opportunity to help area youth by providing them with a way to overcome their challenges and reach their full potential.

“It’s very gratifying to get updates from former shelter residents,” McSpadden said. “We get invitations to graduations and they let us know how well they’re doing.”

Christina plans an update of her own soon. “I told them I’d go back and visit them, so I’m going to do that — if I’m not too busy.”

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