A sanctuary: Austin’s House gives children in crisis a safe place to rest
Special to the Tribune
GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – Less than a month before 11-year-old Chandler Nash Elliott killed himself, a social worker wanted to place the fifth grader in foster care or at Austin’s House, a Douglas County shelter for abused and neglected children.
Chandler never went to Austin’s House. He died Dec. 14, 2009, in his father’s Kingsbury Grade home. His death was ruled a suicide and no charges were filed against his father, with whom he lived.
The children who live in the north Minden shelter have been removed from their homes by state child welfare agencies. They come from throughout rural Nevada and out-of-state, including Alaska, prior to their relocation. The children have a history of abuse, neglect or both. Some arrive from foster homes after a “failed placement.” They stay for two to three weeks.
They all have one thing in common: “When we have a child walk through that door, the main thing we take to heart is they didn’t have any other place to go,” said Kathleen Miller, executive director of Austin’s House.
“We try to have compassion in everything that we do,” she added.
Austin’s House is named for Austin Kirby, a 15-year-old Carson Valley Middle School student who died by suicide in October 2005. Austin’s family is the driving force behind the initial and ongoing financial support of the shelter. Austin’s House, also known as the Carson Valley Children’s Center, opened its doors in 2007, built entirely by community donations of cash and labor.
Since September of 2007, more than 130 children have taken refuge there.
The 5,300 square-foot emergency shelter is designed to care for up to 10 children. Typically, about six or seven children are there at any time.
Sometimes the children arrive in the middle of the night. The staff members, who work around the clock, will turn on the lights and put on a Disney movie so the house isn’t quiet.
If a child is about 8 or older, the staff will give a brief explanation as to what is going on: “We will tell them, ‘The grownups are going to take care of the grownup problems right now, and we’re going to take care of you,'” Miller said.
The staff assesses the child’s immediate needs. The process of removing a child from a home is lengthy, and often they arrive hungry, tired and sometimes dirty.
The children always want a snack, Miller said. If the child is dirty, Austin’s House workers try to give them a bath or have the older children take a shower. They receive new pajamas and undergarments. Sometimes they go right to bed because they are so tired.
“The main thing is to help them feel welcome and understand it’s not a scary place,” Miller said.
And if a child needs to talk in the middle of the night, someone is always there to listen.
“No one sleeps when they’re working,” Miller said.
There are 10 bedrooms at Austin’s House. Some rooms have bunk beds, used for siblings who arrive at the shelter together. The staff makes an effort to make the rooms warm and welcoming, Miller said.
“The rooms are really cheery,” Miller said. “We only use brand-new stuffed animals, those are on the bed. We have journals if they want to write, lots of toys and activities, so when kids first walk in they feel like, ‘wow, look at this place.'”
The walls are a soft white, the furniture is light oak and in pristine condition. The beds are covered in quilts with bright patchworks featuring every color of the rainbow.
The nurseries could like a typical baby’s room in any home: a new oak crib, a matching changing table and glider, and a whimsical moon and stars stenciled on the walls.
In a great room designed for older children, there’s an air hockey table, large-screen TV, DVDs, a piano, a sewing machine and fabric, games and loads of books.
The playroom for younger children features a Thomas the Tank engine train table, a child-sized play kitchen, dolls, rocking horses, stuffed animals, action figures and toys of all types.
The kitchen is can serve 10 residents and staff and holds two refrigerators. A fresh fruit bowl sits on the kitchen island, always full. There’s two large dining tables with bench-style seating, as well as high chairs.
The visitation room, used for visits between families and children, has a superhero theme. The walls are decorated with comic books, Superman and Wonder Woman emblems are painted on the walls with messages that celebrate children.
“Every child is a hero,” is written across the wall in red, white and blue.
The backyard features two play structures, garden plots, a sand box, a basketball hoop and net and picnic tables.
The staff tries to continue a child’s routine. Children are bussed or driven to their own school, if possible, and continue extracurricular activities.
“Generally, teachers are pretty well aware of children who have a difficult home situation,” Miller said. “We’ve taken kids (to school) as far away as Dayton and Virginia City. Our goal is that they do not miss any school.”
On the weekends, there are outings to the Carson Valley Swim Center, the movies, Petco in Carson City (since pets are not allowed in the shelter) and local fast food restaurants paid for with donated gift cards.
After a day or so at Austin’s House, some children say, “I want to live here forever,” Miller said.
She once heard a 7-year-old say to a relative on the phone, “You can eat here anytime you’re hungry.”
“There are children who have been left alone and have no access to food,” Miller said.
The kids will talk excitedly about their holiday wish lists. They tell the staff, “No one’s ever asked me what I wanted for Christmas or my birthday,” Miller said.