Eight years ago, LaMeshia Mitchell found herself in what she calls a crisis housing situation. She needed time away from her children to seek assistance with rent and utility payments, so she pulled out a brochure she’d received from a friend and dialed Ark Crisis Child Care Center.
With her children safely in day care, Mitchell resolved the emergency, but as she says, “life is full of many obstacles.” In 2002, her husband, Leon, sustained a head injury that left him with language difficulties. Mitchell, the mother of seven children ages 2 to 22, currently is seeking employment while completing a business management degree online through the University of Phoenix. She’s eager for the new possibilities the degree will bring, but with so many responsibilities, Mitchell occasionally “needs a break from such a large household,” she says. “I have a pretty big plate. And it’s full.”
Nancy Gump, the executive director of Ark Crisis Child Care Center, credits Mitchell for acknowledging that sometimes, parents need time to themselves. Still, too many families don’t ask for help when times get tough, and the results can be disastrous. “The only common denominator of any child abuse or neglect case is high stress,” says Gump, who’s on a mission to prevent those children from becoming statistics. This April, during National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the longtime children’s advocate is spreading the word that prevention doesn’t happen in the courts or with police intervention: It starts with families.
In 1981, Ark Crisis Child Care Center was founded as a signature project of the Junior League of Evansville, a women’s charitable organization. Statistics showed that child abuse and neglect were serious problems in Vanderburgh County, and the number of cases was on the rise. What’s more, a 1974 Evansville Press story reported that more than half of parents who ended up in court for abuse previously had been involved with a social service agency, but their high risk for abusing their children went unaddressed. As Junior League members researched ways to confront the issue, one theme seemed apparent: Tackling the root cause of child abuse may prevent future cases.
The group opened Ark at First Presbyterian Church in Downtown Evansville, offering free, short-term child care for families facing life-altering challenges. That could be unemployment or a job search, unexpectedly gaining custody of a child, seeking counseling for mental health or addiction issues, or a multitude of other stressors, says Gump, including the natural stress of raising a child.
Nearly 30 years later, the state-licensed center (which now occupies a building on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Governor Street) is one of just 11 crisis child care centers in the United States. It provides emergency child care for children 6 weeks to 6 years old, accepting drop-ins and never turning away an emergency. Ark’s role is to give children a safe haven, isolating them from family stress. “Most of the children know there’s something going on,” Gump says. “They know there’s that high level of anxiety.”
That’s why Ark provides a setting and activities focused on fun, from the playground out back to the bubbling aquariums throughout the center, says Gump. Two “foster grandparents” (retirees who came to Ark as part of a national program for seniors) and the center’s employees provide plenty of affection for the children. So do Mobie and Zebie, two Newfoundlands who regularly visit. On a recent morning at Ark, toddlers fawned over the docile animals, stroking their fur and straddling them like ponies. “Hi, doggies! Hi, doggies,” chanted one girl, chasing one of the dogs around the room. The smiles on the children’s faces gave no hint of the struggles their families face.[pagebreak]
Ark, too, faces challenges of its own. When Gump took the helm in 2005, state funding provided approximately three-quarters of the operating budget, and community support accounted for the remaining 25 percent. In 2008, a slash in state funding reversed those numbers, making donations from corporations, foundations, and individuals even more crucial. Although state funding since has increased, Gump points out, “Ark has no opportunity to generate any type of revenue.”
On top of the financial need is an increase in demand. Since the economy slowed in 2008, more families have faced unemployment and time-consuming job searches, Gump says. Consequently, the hours of child care provided by Ark jumped more than 15 percent from 2008 to 2009. “There is an increased community awareness about Ark,” says Gump, “It’s proactive just to say, ‘I need a break so I can be really great with my kids.’”
Child advocacy is a longtime passion for Gump, an energetic Detroit native who relocated to Evansville 13 years ago. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she decided to pursue a career in nonprofit development and moved to Chicago to work for Youth Guidance, a nonprofit serving at-risk youth. The fluent Spanish speaker then became a bilingual teacher with Chicago Public Schools. Her success with English as a Second Language students from kindergarten through middle school drew the attention of Truman College, which tapped her to teach ESL classes for adults, and Northern Illinois University, which hired her as an adjunct instructor for workforce training.
In 1997, Gump moved to Evansville, the hometown of her now-ex husband. She was hired to work in development at St. Vincent’s Day Care Center, and there, she found her niche working with young children. In 2004, she welcomed a child of her own: From China, Gump adopted her daughter, Fui Xin (now 6), whose name means “bright blessing.”
The next year, Ark’s board hired Gump as executive director. She had developed a rapport with the organization during her time in Evansville: “I always felt very aligned to their mission,” Gump recalls. And while proving outcomes can be a challenge (“Anytime you don’t hear of an abuse or neglect case,” she says, “there we were”), recent statistics offer a reason to believe something is working. Last year, the Indiana Youth Institute reported that the rate of child abuse and neglect per 1,000 Vanderburgh County children was 15.5 in 2008, down from 22.5 in 2005.
Still, area rates are higher than state and national averages, and Gump has big long-term goals for the organization, including 24/7 child care availability and therapy services for children who have been victims of abuse and neglect. In the short term, she’s eager to build an outdoor playscape with help from volunteers. The project will transform the back parking lot into a playground that integrates learning centers and the natural landscape.
Her biggest goal, however, is to raise awareness about the importance of prevention — even if that requires “penetrating the family bubble,” she says, pointing to the high-profile death of Kalab Lay as an example. The 3-year-old Evansville boy died in April 2008 at the hands of abusive parents, who now face lengthy prison sentences. In the mobile home park where the family lived, “they’re in very close proximity of others,” Gump says. “Somebody heard something. We worry about (intruding) as a society; we don’t want to feel like the grandmother peering through the windows.” But just as LaMeshia Mitchell’s friend handed her a brochure for the child care center, “if a family’s facing some stressful issues, just mention Ark,” Gump says. “We have to feel comfortable to reach out and help.”
Ark Crisis Child Care Center (415 Lincoln Ave., at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Governor Street) offers free, emergency care for children 6 weeks to 6 years old. To learn more, call the center at (812) 423-9425 or visit www.arkcrisis.org.