With all the alarming news about violence, crime and drive-by shootings and increasing gang activity in Savannah, it’s comforting to know that there’s at least one safe place in the community for desperate teenagers who feel they are alone and need help and protection.
It’s the Park Place Outreach Emergency Shelter at 514 E. Henry St. Thousands of motorists probably pass by the nicely restored, but unassuming, two-story converted double-residence just east of Habersham Street every week without knowing what’s behind the clean, freshly painted exterior.
That’s their loss. This 12-bed shelter, which serves boys and girls between the age of 11 and 17, is a rock in an angry sea of hopelessness and violence. Its existance is a shining tribute to this community’s desire to save weak, innocent and often naive young people from themselves and from others who might prey upon them.
This shelter is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week refuge for youths who are in trouble, which today comes in many forms — dysfunctional families, schools, the law, gangs. All services are provided free to residents during their stay, including individual and family counseling. The average stay is about three weeks. That sounds like a long time, but is really a blink of an eye when it comes to making sure a child has a stable, safe, nurturing environment when he or she is discharged.
“We provide a safe, healthy place for kids to stay while we help stabilize their support services,” said center director Julie Wade, a lawyer who traded a career of advocating for paying clients to one of advocating for young people who often don’t have two nickels to rub together. Spiritually and morally, it appears that Wade, who’s also an elected member of the Savannah-Chatham County School Board, got the better end of that deal. As did the young people who wind up in her care at Park Place Outreach.
Park Place may have a low public profile, but it enjoys a solid reputation as a valued service provider in Savannah’s social service community. Indeed, it is the only residential facility in Savannah and Chatham County that serves the teenage population and it works closely with Greenbriar Children’s Home, another important rock in the storm.
If you don’t think this is important, put yourself in the shoes of a police officer who just picked up a teen-aged kid who was doing something stupid or dangerous at 3 a.m., like breaking curfew or trading sexual favors in return for food, housing or drugs. Taking the kid home or to jail or the station house aren’t always options. And you can’t adopt the child out like a lost puppy. Where do you take him? Chances are, to Park Place Outreach.
This invaluable center has been around since 1984, when it originally opened as a shelter for runaway teenagers, a true labor of love of its founder Linda Hilts and supported through the years by a group of generous community benefactors with the Marshlands Foundation, including the late, and truly great, Joe Dobransky, the original UPS truck-driver-philanthropist.
According to Wade, the center is a healthier alternative to the Youth Detention Center or even a kid’s own home for some troubled young people. “Sometimes, returning children to their parents is not in the child’s best interest,” Wade said. As is often said, it’s complicated.
The rooms at Park Place are surprisingly cheery and look less like a grim institution and more like a college dorm room without empty pizza boxes cluttering the corner.
Georgia’s YDCs provide an essential public service but have a notorious reputation as proving grounds and boarding schools for future criminals. In contrast, Park Place Outreach offers meals, lodging and counseling to help steer kids in the right direction. School attendance is mandatory. Extra tutoring is available to help students catch up with their lessons.
Wade said that with more resources, her agency could easily expand its services to more than 12 kids (really, the maximum is just 10 kids, as the rules require that two spaces — one male, one female — be kept open at all times). Given the number of young people who could use such help, this number is just a drop in a depressing and hopelessly big bucket.
“One day, I’d like to be able to offer scholarships for kids to go to college,” Wade said. When it comes to giving what many of these kids need the most — hope — that day can’t come soon enough.
Tom Barton is the editorial page editor of the Savannah Morning News. firstname.lastname@example.org