Sally Kate Winters outreach coordinator Abigail Stricklin, left, and community educator Ashton Woodson, talk with children Monday outside the Sally Kate Winters organization about Safe Place sites, which are places where homeless, abused or otherwise needy children can go for help. Stricklin and Woodson hope to raise awareness of the 35-plus sites Sally Kate Winters oversees in northern Mississippi. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
November 15, 2017 11:03:18 AM
In youth centers, fire stations and convenience stores throughout the Golden Triangle, teenagers can see a diamond-shaped yellow sign saying simply: "Safe Place."
Whether the teens know it, the sign promises the building they're in -- from the Boys and Girls Club buildings in Columbus and Starkville to Kellogg Hardware in West Point -- is a place they can go when they need help.
"It gives every community different places around the community that kids can go if they're in need of a safe place," said Abigail Stricklin, outreach coordinator at Sally Kate Winters in West Point and who oversees Safe Place sites in much of northern Mississippi. "That could mean having family problems, just any sort of youth in crisis need they can go to safe spot. That's going to be anything like fire stations, other family support services, police departments, libraries. ... Basically anybody can become a safe place spot."
More than 21,600 Safe Place sites are scattered throughout the nation. Sally Kate Winters, a West Point-based organization that provides housing, counseling and other resources for at-risk children in the Golden Triangle, oversees 37 of them.
It's part of the organization's Runaway and Homeless Youth program, which provides temporary housing for teenagers who don't have a stable home to go to or are having problems with parents or siblings and need to be away for a while.
The idea behind the Safe Place sites is kids will see the sign and know they can ask for help from someone there, Stricklin said. Employees at the site are trained to take the kids to a corner or room where they can sit comfortably while Sally Kate Winters employees or law enforcement officers are contacted.
Ashton Woodson is the organization's new community educator. It's her job to go from site to site, training employees in how to deal with children and making sure the signs are in a place where kids can see them. She hopes to start visiting each site twice per year. In the upcoming weeks, she'll be training employees of a Starkville grocery store that recently reached out to become a site.
"As a Safe Place site, they're not going to ask any questions," Woodson said. "Their goal is to make sure the child's comfortable, maybe get them a glass of water, a snack or something, just until we get there."
Kellogg Hardware, just off Main Street in West Point, has been a Safe Place site for about three years.
"We have never been called on since we've been a member," owner Bucky Kellogg said. "... But we are prepared -- if some child should run in here and need us -- we are prepared to help them."
The hardware store became a Safe Place site when Sally Kate Winters representatives reached out to Kellogg. He thought it was a good idea.
"We normally have at least three or four men in here who could protect (a child) until the police got here or Sally Kate Winters got here," he said. "Really anybody's good in a situation like that."
Still, he thinks probably more people are aware of places like fire departments and youth centers as safe places for kids than local stores.
That's something Stricklin wants to change.
"I just want people to be more aware," Stricklin said. "Awareness is at the forefront of what we do. If people don't know about our programs and don't know about Safe Place, don't know that these things are in place to help them, then how can we help them?"
Sally Kate Winters gets phone calls from Safe Place sites about 25 or 30 times per year, Stricklin said. Sometimes the children in those cases end up in the RHY program.
One child she remembers was a 15-year-old girl who arrived at Sally Kate Winters pregnant and a victim of neglect.
"The house was infested with roaches," Stricklin said. "There were six kids living in the home. They didn't have any clean clothes, nowhere to sleep, about as bad as you can imagine."
The somewhat happy end to the story is that the girl was able to go to a foster home with her sister, Stricklin said. It's always a plus for foster kids who are able to stay with siblings or family members.
But there are more kids out there. In the 2015-16 school year, there were about 9,000 homeless children in Mississippi alone, Stricklin said. That doesn't just include kids living on the street, she added -- they can be couch surfing, going from friend's house to friend's house.
She and other Sally Kate Winters employees are planning to go into schools and other youth-oriented organizations to talk not only to the kids but to the adults who work with them. They've been to local Boys and Girls Clubs, the Columbus Air Force Base Youth Center and schools -- Fifth Street School last month and West Point High School this month.
"If you can get a head-start on maybe a situation or a crisis that might be happening in someone's family, let them know that there are these resources available, then that could help eventually save a life," she said.
Area Safe Place Sites
Lowndes County Safe Place Sites
■ Boys and Girls Club of Columbus, 1815 14th Ave. N.
■ Columbus Arts Council, 501 Main St.
■ Columbus Fire Department #1, 205 Seventh St.
■ Columbus Fire Department #2, 1802 Martin Luther King Dr.
■ Columbus Fire Department #3, 416 31st Ave. N.
■ Columbus Fire Department #4, 249 Airline Road
■ Columbus Fire Department #5, 729 Lehmberg Road
■ Columbus Housing Authority, 914 Fourth St. S.
■ Columbus Housing - Sims site, 1515 Fourth St. S.
■ Columbus Housing - James site, 1501 Martin Luther King Dr.
■ Columbus Housing - Jesse Carter, 1713 12th Ave. N.
■ Columbus Housing - Roberts Site, 247 William Roberts Road
■ Columbus Housing - Washington, 2201 Eighth St. S.
■ Father's Child Ministries, 104 Brickerton St., Columbus
■ Woodsmen Financial Services, 413 Fourth Ave. S. Suite 8, Columbus
■ YMCA - Columbus, 602 Second Av. N.
■ YMCA Wellness Center, 2225 Fifth St. N., Columbus
■ YMCA (New Hope) - 2080 Lake Lowndes Road
■ YMCA - Caledonia, 9652 Wolfe Road
Oktibbeha County Safe Place Sites
■ Boys and Girls Club of Starkville, 911 Lynn Lane
■ B-Quick, 1018 Louisville Road, Starkville
■ Emerson Family Resource Center, 1504 Louisville St., Starkville
■ Starkville Fire Department #1, 503 E. Lampkin St.
■ Starkville Fire Department #2, 118 Airport Road
■ Starkville Fire Department #3, 109 Garrard Road
■ Starkville Fire Department #4, 523 Academy Road
■ Starkville Fire Department #5, 1215 West Garrard Road
Clay County Safe Place Sites
■ Sally Kate Winters, 801 Division St., West Point
■ Bryan Public Library, 388 Commerce St., West Point
■ Kellogg Hardware, 120 Commerce St., West Point
■ North Mississippi Medical Center, 835 Medical Center Dr., West Point
■ West Point Fire Department, 417 E. Brame Ave.
■ West Point Fire Station #2, 120 Dunlap Road
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