It’s late afternoon at the Flathead Youth Home, a shelter for local kids in crisis, but on this particular day the only apparent crisis seems to be that the house’s sole ping-pong ball is dented. The five kids staying at the house are back from working at Purple Frog Gardens, but dinner preparation has yet to begin – leaving a little bit of time to play some games and relax, which can be hard with a lopsided ball.
The staff supervisor on duty, operating on the advice of one kid, drops the ball in boiling water, in hopes that the air inside it will expand and pop out the dent. It doesn’t work, and now the tea tastes like plastic. It doesn’t matter, the ball is forgotten, and besides, there is foosball and air hockey and board games to play.
On the menu tonight: grilled chicken wraps with bacon. Dinner is served promptly at 5 p.m. every night on the brightly colored wooden table in the open kitchen.
“For a lot of kids who come from chaotic environments, it’s good for things to be routine,” said Lance Isaak, the Flathead Youth Home’s program director. “It’s a good basis to start with: a safe place to be and a good meal.”
Those two elements – a stable shelter and nutritious, regular food – are at the core of what the Flathead Youth Home has been providing for 11 years to roughly 1,200 of the valley’s children when they suffer from abuse, neglect, a family crisis, emotional problems, or are referred there from the county youth court.
“That’s a lot of families that are directly affected by a crisis with their kids,” Isaak said. “It’s our co-workers’, neighbors’ or a friend’s kids that are coming here, it’s not someone else’s kids.”
The Youth Home can take eight children at a time, between the ages of 10 and 18, for anywhere from a few days to several months. Almost all of the kids there are from Flathead County, with a handful from Lincoln County. Because the Youth Home serves local kids, parents can visit, students can continue to attend the school in their community, and relationships with counselors are maintained.
But despite the stability the Youth Home provides, it has undergone a number of unexpected moves in recent years. Isaak hopes by next year to have a permanent home for the shelter in downtown Kalispell, in a house soon to be built for the specific needs of the Youth Home. The lot is selected on Eighth Avenue East North and Oregon Street; the 10-bedroom house is designed, and the construction cost went out to bid July 20. The Youth Home recently won a federal grant for $450,000, and received grants from Plum Creek Timber Company and the Gallagher Foundation. But the home must now raise nearly $500,000 to meet the campaign’s goal of $1.1 million, which would allow the kids to move into the new house without a mortgage.
Isaak and Development Coordinator Hannah Plumb hope the contractor will offer some of the building materials at cost or donate them outright, and encourage subcontractors and other suppliers to do the same, to keep the cost of the building down.
The Youth Home’s current location, a sprawling yellow ranch house between Kalispell and Creston, is ramshackle but cozy, and meets the staff and kids’ needs adequately. There’s a fat cat named Patches and a big backyard. But it’s far from town, and the gas spent on trips to schools and medical appointments and grocery stores is putting a serious dent in the budget. The Youth Home is funded mainly by fees from the Department of Child and Family Services for the kids placed there, but even at full capacity, the shelter runs an annual deficit made up for through donations and fundraisers like the Glacier Challenge.
The Youth Home has been in Creston since being forced out of its previous location on Four Mile Drive with 30 days notice in 2006. The home moved there after its first location was condemned in 2000 due to a fuel leak, and there was no shelter for eight months. In those eight months, Isaak said, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department spent $157,000 to house juvenile offenders, using local taxpayer dollars, instead of the money coming out of state funding for youth court placements.
A new house for the Youth Home – one not in danger of being condemned or forcing a move on short notice – would send a clear message, Plumb said, to troubled local kids dealing with difficult situations that they have somewhere to go.
“If there’s a permanent place for the kids, it lets kids know that: ‘This community is here for us – they want to give us some tools to work through this,’” Plumb added. “I would love to see all these communities come together and say, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
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