Women And Families Program Turns Around ‘Lives In Chaos’

10527850_10152460946417517_4348103283002159556_nBy John Celock

SALINA, Ks. – The Victorian house just outside the downtown retail district in this central Kansas community looks like any other residence. People come and go, dinner is being prepared in the kitchen, while others watch the “CBS Evening News” in the living room.

A look at the signs in the house tell another story. They talk about mandatory classes and groups being offered every day and what needs to be done around the house. The house in fact is part of a larger campus spanning several homes and buildings just off Salina’s downtown. Staff and residents shuffle between the buildings, getting to a class or a group session, maybe taking their child to one of the play areas. The campus is Ashby House, a non-profit seeking to help homeless women and families in Salina, along with women struggling with addiction.

“The uniqueness of this program is that women can bring their children to treatment with them,” Kathy Allen, program manager of Ashby House said, while giving The Celock Report a tour of the facility earlier this month. “The whole background of this program is that moms who did not think treatment was possible because they did not know where they could safely leave their children, can get treatment.”

Ashby House was founded in 1991, starting in the single Victorian building. A larger apartment building across the street is now part of the complex, along with other single-family homes around the intersection that the original house sits on. The non-profit has spread services across the campus, with Allen and others staffers shuttling between buildings helping those who are living in the space.

The original home continues to serve the homeless population of Salina and neighboring communities. Allen said it is serving as transitional housing for newly homeless families, so they have a place to go to in the first days and weeks. The house is short term in nature, as families work to get back on their feet, and potentially relocate into other spaces on the campus. The main goal of Ashby House is to get clients out as soon as possible with increased life skills.

“Every family that walks in, the grown-ups walk out with a resume,” Allen said.

For those who come into the program with financial difficulties, Allen said they are given financial management class, budgeting assistance and mock job interviews, in addition to the resume work. Residents without jobs are required to fill out six job applications a day, seven days a week in the search for employment. Allen noted that many local employers have had success with Ashby House alumni who work for them and have come back looking for new employees.

Residents who obtain jobs are then counseled further by Ashby House staff in budgeting and saving in order to address past financial issues. This includes working to get families out of debt and back into homes of their own. Allen said that residents cannot leave until they have $1,000 in savings. Allen said that providing this stability is needed, since many of those who come to Ashby House may not have had it before.

“A lot of the lives of the families we encounter are lives in addiction, lives in chaos,” she said.

Ashby House staff works with women with addiction issues who are there. Many share apartments in the building, living independently, but part of the structure set by the staff. There are required group therapy sessions, meetings with counselors, skills class and other programs. Attendance at these programs is monitored and missing classes can result in expulsion. Classes span everything from parenting to computer skills to finance to budgeting. Community volunteers drawing on their own expertise teach many of the classes.

Childcare is provided for women who are part of the program, allowing them to be with their children while working to end their addiction and get back on their feet. The homes include childcare rooms, programs for children and play areas. The staff works to help children who have been exposed to addiction.

Allen noted that while the program is normally a success, there have been heartbreaking stories of women who could not end their addictions, including a case where a woman had her children taken from her by state child welfare officials.

Several of the staff are Ashby House alums, seeking to give back to the facility that gave them a second chance. Allen noted that other alums volunteer at the facility and help to support others going through what they once went through.

In one home, just a block from the original home, young mothers are busy getting ready for a group session, but take time to showcase the home they are calling their own while at Ashby House. Young and single, either mothers of newborns or pregnant, they are living there to address their personal issues and get back on their feet, while providing a safe place for their children. The home includes a breast-feeding area, space for each mother and their child. Presents for a newborn dot the space.

Ashby House has launched a recent program to provide a safe space for those who are seeking to transfer custody of a child from one parent to another. Allen said that many of the custody transfers have occurred in unsafe spaces or in spaces that can cause trauma to a child.

She said that while some of the custody exchanges needing to include monitoring and potential history of domestic violence hovering over the exchanges, space was needed in the city.

“There is not a safe place in Salina for those exchanges to happen,” Allen said. “It is frightening when you hear the stories of where children were being exchanged, in the parking lot of a McDonald’s or in front of the sheriff’s office.”

Allen said that police officers or deputies from the Saline County sheriff’s office are on hand for safety when the exchanges occur and the parents do not encounter each other. She noted that the children can have monitored visits in a safe space with toys and a parent, instead of having those occur in a parking lot or a fast food restaurant or a sterile government building room. Allen noted that this helps foster interaction between parent and child and helps the children’s long-term mental health.

The move has prompted praise by one local lawmaker.

“It is such a change to shift the interaction between a child and a parent from a parking lot or a sheriff’s station to a safe environment,” state Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina) told The Celock Report of the new program. “It is such a change and it gives them good memories with their Dad, playing a board game or having fun.”

Allen is quick to point to the assistance Ashby gets from those in the community, including Dillon’s supermarkets and other local businesses. She said that people are quick to volunteer and praised Claeys for his support for the program, including highlighting the efforts to other lawmakers and the media. She also noted that Salina residents help donate more than time, but have donated services for a store staffed by Ashby residents to help Salina residents in need.

Allen said the store work is part of the four hours a week of community service that Ashby residents need to complete.

Claeys continues to try to highlight the work of the program. This week he provided a brief tour to a visiting legislative candidate from another part of the state.

“Many of the women who come in here have children, have addictions and have suffered abuse,” he said. “The people at Ashby House become their family – their support system – while they recover and gain the skills to take care of their family. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Kathy and the entire staff at the Ashby House save lives and aren’t recognized enough for the work they do turning troubled lives around. But the women who come in here, who make the tough decision to get clean, to get off the streets, to give their children a better life, they’re the real heroes.”

While touting the community involvement, Allen noted that there is much that needs to be done in Salina long term.

“The chronic issue in Salina is the lack of affordable low income housing,” she said. “The waiting lists for Section 8 housing are very long.”

While noting the issues that Salina is facing long term, Allen prefers to focus on the work of the women who live in Ashby House.

“We have a very high success rate in this building,” she said. “I don’t think that has much to do with me or the agency. That has to do with them. The moms have this magic inside them and have the potential.”