YAP partnering with DHR to create calming space for children

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Youth Advocate Programs of Jasper is in the process of completing a special project to benefit the Walker County Department of Human Resources.

Anthony Sellers, the new director of YAP-Jasper, and Tina Aaron, a YAP-Jasper program coordinator, told the Daily Mountain Eagle that a calming camp will soon be placed at Walker County DHR, as well as a pantry for youth to get basic needs for free. 

YAP-Jasper started a single calming camp in 2019 at Sumiton Elementary School to serve as a safe space for youth with mental health needs or for students who simply need a place to unwind and explore their emotions. Fast-forward two years and calming camps are now in every elementary school in the Walker County Schools' system. 

The calming camps are indoors but with an outdoor theme that encourages exploration with several sensory activity stations — an idea that Sellers conceptualized shortly after he joined YAP as a youth advocate, before his promotion.

"I just think that we're so captured in all of our technology today, and kids don't know what it means to be connected to nature and the outdoors. I just wanted to do it outdoorsy, like a campsite," he said.

YAP-Jasper works closely with Walker County DHR as part of its mission to provide and advocate for community-based youth justice, child welfare and other services as alternatives to out-of-home congregate placements.

According to the YAP website, "YAP Advocates meet program participants and their parents and guardians where they are and provide them with tools to lead and direct their individual and family service plans."

The idea to create a temporary calming space at Walker County DHR seemed fitting, Sellers said, since children may recognize a calm camp from their individual schools.

"Honestly, the kids in the schools are the same kids in our county. Think about that. If they're going to DHR and go into a calm camp, it's the same thing they see at school. It's the same comfort. It's seamless," he said.

YAP leaders also recognized the need for children to have a calming environment in the DHR office.  

Aaron explained, "If a child is taken out of a home, they have to go back to DHR with a worker, and the worker then starts the process of trying to find that child a placement. That might be an hour — it might be overnight. Meanwhile, that child is sitting there in a sterile office environment, sometimes having to hear the conversation the worker is having about trying to find this child a placement — things children shouldn't hear."

She continued, "They're already traumatized by being removed, and there's nowhere for them to go or nothing for them to do. This space is going to be for the children that are coming into care, and they'll have a healthy, positive distraction. It will have all the different things they can do."

All the calm camps in county schools are designed for elementary students, but Aaron said the calm camp at DHR will have areas to meet the needs of all youth age groups. The designated space will also have a refrigerator filled with drinks, and snacks will be available.

In addition to the calm camp, YAP-Jasper is organizing a Secret Pantry at Walker County DHR that will house commonly needed items. The area is modeled after the Secret Pantry initiative that began as a Leadership Walker County Project in 2016 to provide a space for children in need that attend Jasper City or Walker County schools to access. Aaron, who was then a homeless education consultant for the Walker County Board of Education, was part of the LWC group that started Secret Pantry. 

The pantries are filled with grooming supplies, food, clothing and items needed for school, and there is now a Secret Pantry in every school in Walker County. 

Children who come to DHR will also be provided with a travel bag filled with some of the same items that can be found in the Secret Pantry, as well as comforting goods, such as toys or art supplies.     

"We want them to know they're loved and feel special in the midst of a very traumatic situation that they're going through at no fault of their own," Aaron said.

The community support for YAP-Jasper's effort with DHR has been great. In two weeks the DHR calm camp/Secret Pantry went from an idea to a working project that should be completed in the coming weeks. Area businesses and organizations have made monetary donations for the cause, and individuals have made in-kind donations.

Items such as socks, pajamas, travel pillows and extra large duffle bags (all new) are still needed. Anyone who wishes to donate is asked to call YAP-Jasper at 205-471-0411.

Aaron said the Walker County DHR project is also being done with the staff in mind.  

"We're just going to go in and create this awesome space for not just the kids but also for the workers," Aaron said. "If they need a mental health break, they're going to be able to go in there for some respite themselves."

She added, "I just feel for our DHR family over there. Their job is so heavy. They need workers, community support, and they need encouragement. I'm hoping this is what that will do for them."

To Aaron's knowledge, the type of comforting space that the calming camp will provide is not common to have at DHR offices.

"We're really hoping that this is a model that might inspire other DHR's to do the same thing," she said.