‘How can I help?’

Career / February 17, 2017

Ouachita Children’s Center executive director helps children in distress

Interview conducted by Lindsey Wells
Ouachita Children’s Center was incorporated in 1977 as a private, nonprofit organization to care for dependent and neglected youth and to better address juvenile delinquency with a focus on prevention/early intervention for problem behaviors. Linda Ragsdale has served as OCC’s executive director for six and a half years, but has extensive experience in social service management and administration and has spent her life serving others in crisis.

What is Ouachita Children’s Center?

Linda Ragsdale: We are a child advocacy center. We are here to look after kids and take care of children who are in distress, so we’re best known in this community as a shelter, as an emergency shelter for youth, but we also work with just as many children or more out in the community who never come to the shelter. We also, in the shelter, have a number of children who are referred to us by the state office of children and family services. They cannot go back home right now, so we are providing a temporary placement for them, similar to a foster home, only there is such a shortage of foster homes, which is a point I’d really like to be on record with. There’s a great shortage; we need more foster homes. All these kids that we have here should be in a foster home but there aren’t enough, so we’re providing the closest thing to a home for them for the 30-90 days that we can offer.

How are you involved with children who never come to OCC?

LR: We do what’s referred to as case management on a youngster that is referred to us, maybe by the juvenile court or the school or even the parents, where there’s problems going on with that youngster, either at home or at school or both, maybe indicated by some behavior issues — skipping school or getting into stuff they don’t need to be, like alcohol or drugs. So, where that is not a criminal offense, it’s certainly an indication that there’s a problem. Maybe they’ll wind up coming to the shelter for sort of a time out from home, and mom and dad get a time out, but we’re going to provide structure and guidance and kind of develop an individual plan of how they’re going to improve things.

Besides an emergency shelter, what other services do you provide to the children?

LR: We’re also going to make sure that they’re in school. They’re either staying in their regular school if they live in this county or we’re going to get them enrolled in the Hot Springs public school and we make sure that they’re doing as well as they can. Many of our kids have moved many times and every time they move they lose ground academically. We have a number of educational support groups that we get our kids involved in. One we refer to as the Boys Council and the Girls Circle, so they’re gender specific, but they are focused on helping adolescents navigate the troubling time of teenage years and what’s happening to them, what’s happening to their bodies and their brains and how important it is to make good choices during this period of time. It incorporates a heavy duty amount of reproductive health, sex education and protection, because this is a critical time for them to make choices that could create problems for them down the road.
We also have parenting groups; we have a parenting education class that is ongoing, that’s open to anyone in the community at no charge. All of our groups are provided at no charge to anyone in the community. Now we’re doing anger management classes for our kids because our children have dealt with a lot of hurt and they, many times, are very angry. They have a lot to be angry about. One other group that’s fairly new for us, but very important for our kids, is what we call Life Skills. So many of our kids have not had very engaged parents for whatever reason and they haven’t learned a lot of basic things and simple things, and now they might be 15-17 years old and they’re about to be out on their own and they’ve got to figure out how to manage, how to live, how to rent an apartment, get a job and pay bills and keep your clothes clean and all those things. And cook, for heaven’s sake.

We have a wonderful partnership with the Ouachita Behavioral Health and Wellness program, formally known as Community Counseling Services. We’re kind of in between therapists but they try to provide a therapist on site for us to see some of our kids. So we work with them and other community-based professional services.

How many children stay at OCC per year?

LR: About 250, generally. We have the capacity for 20 kids, boys and girls, We can take them as young as age 6 up to age 17. The average is about age 15, 10th grade — a tough time. Some will be here for a few days for something, just very temporary placement, and others will be here to kind of work our program and they may be here for 40-45 days. We are licensed as an emergency shelter which has a 90-day cap. We are looking to trying to extend that, but we’d have to have some internal changes. But there are many kids that do well here and we see some progress and they connect to us and we attach to them and they’re at a critical stage, and if we had the ability, the license, to keep them until they are aging out, we think we could do some good, so our board and staff are looking at that as a future expansion opportunity.

Why is this work so important to you?

LR: First of all, I think the most honorable opportunity that we get is the opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life. It doesn’t take long to be here to see that our kids need so much. They are hurting, they are angry sometimes, almost all of them have been through tremendous hurt and harm and what we call trauma, and we really try to educate ourselves about how that affects them and their behavior and their thinking and we try to counteract that. As the director, I get the opportunity to not only help kids but bring in other people, the right people, who also want to make that difference, and then try to create a team approach to giving each child as much support and encouragement as we possibly can. Give them hope for their future.

What do you like most and least about your job?

LR: I like to see that we are making a difference for kids. I love to be around people and to encourage people at all levels, whether it’s our kids or our staff that are working with them. I thoroughly enjoy working with our staff. I don’t get to work with the kids that much directly, but I’m aware of what’s going on with them and I’m very mindful that they need individual attention. When I came here six to seven years ago I was concerned that we sort of had a little more punitive approach and a pretty rigid approach and my experience and training has taught me that you’ve got to meet people where they are, and that goes for kids too. Every child is different and their experiences are different. So it’s incumbent on us to do our homework and kind of solve the mystery on, ‘What’s happened to you? How did you get here? How can we help?’ and what can make a difference now. So that becomes our goal and I’m very proud of the staff that are with us now, that are helping us do that, that that’s routine now where it didn’t always used to be. That’s a fun part because I see growth and improvement for the kids, and I see professional growth for our staff there.

Maybe one of the hardest things is trying to figure out — a lot of times you have competing concerns, like we had a child recently that had a lot of behavioral problems that we were struggling to manage here and keep her safe. We wanted to, but we weren’t sure we could keep that child safe and meet that child’s needs and still keep everybody else going OK. Because when they are in a group living situation, different moods kind of take over, and cultures, and so you have to kind of measure that. So it’s really painful for me to know that we’ve got to maybe have a child leave us, discharge, as we say, because we can’t meet their needs or we can’t meet them adequately or safely. We want to, but we’ve got to consider the safety and the needs of all the kids.

What is the Mystic Krewe of Liberi Ball? How did it come about?

LR: It started as sort of the imagination of a few of our key board members from almost five years ago. We have a wonderful woman that was involved with us, Michelle Harrison, who liked the idea of Mardi Gras and New Orleans and so we followed her suggestion and, sure enough, we had a fun event the first year. So this is our fourth one to do, very similar motif. We have plenty of beads for everybody. Krewe of Liberi is, I think, Latin for ‘protector of children,’ so it sort of fits. We have it now at the Hamp Williams Building, which is a really neat venue. We encourage people to come in costume or dressed up, but just to have fun. It’s become very helpful to us because, before this, we did not have a signature fundraising event and we need to raise more and more of our funds from the community because the state money is not as secure as it used to be, and it’s never enough. It costs us just under $160 a day to house a child here for one night for all the services that they are going to get while they’re here.

The fourth annual Mystic Krewe of Liberi Ball is set for 6 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Historic Hamp Williams Building. Tickets are $75. Visit http://www.occnet.org or call 623-5591 to purchase tickets.

Lindsey Wells

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February 17, 2017