For staff at Girls Town, a precious, fulfilling mission

Monday, December 20, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Elise Bennett, public relations and development coordinator for Missouri Girls Town, laughs with one the residents in the kitchen of the McClain house. Bennett said working with the girls and seeing their lives change gives her joy.

KINGDOM CITY — Elise Bennett was in the audience when a 15-year-old resident of Missouri Girls Town addressed the facility's sponsors at an annual luncheon.

As a staffer, Bennett had been to several Girls Town events, but she remembers this teen's story best.

Missouri Girls Town

  •  Missouri Girls Town is a nonprofit, private residential facility for abused and neglected girls between ages 8 and 21.
  • Up to 56 girls can live on campus at a time.
  • There are 70 full-time employees and 20 part-time employees.
  • Girls end up at Girls Town through the Missouri Division of Family Services, Department of Mental Health and juvenile courts.
  • Two-thirds of Girls Town's budget is provided by the state; the other third depends on community donations.
  • The facility costs roughly $2.6 million a year to operate.

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The girl came to Girls Town eight months earlier, addicted to cutting herself as a way to deal with her past.

“When I first came here I hated life, and I decided I did not want to go to school,” the girl told the crowd of women, starting to cry as she spoke. “I just wanted to stay in my bed and sleep. I thought hospitals were my home, but they were my escape place. ... Now, I have my first real job and believe in myself.”

This story particularly touched Bennett, 24, because her first day on the job at Girls Town was the girl's first day there, too.

"Here's a child who wouldn't say five words," Bennett said. "Now she's one that the other children look up to."

Set on 22 acres outside Kingdom City, about 24 miles east of Columbia, Missouri Girls Town is a residential facility for abused or neglected adolescent girls. Most have lived in several foster homes. Girls come from around the state and are sent to the facility through state agencies and courts.

The staff of Girls Town, however, do not see the residents they call "our girls" as victims. They see them as survivors.

Elise Bennett: Remembering Christmas

Bennett’s favorite time of year is Christmas. She grew up in a home in which positive affirmation and hugs were served up frequently, as often as the home-cooked meals her family enjoyed together. Christmas was a particularly special time.

Bennett, the public relations and development coordinator, recalled handing out wish lists during her first Christmas at Girls Town last year. The week before Christmas Day, a few new girls moved in. One girl stared blankly at the list. The words “Christmas list” seemed to baffle her, a foreign concept.

Bennett teared up as she relived the joy she saw in the girl's face when she later thanked Bennett for her presents.

“It made everything completely worth it,” Bennett said, smiling. “Even getting up at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.”

Getting up at 5 or 6 a.m. is commonplace for Bennett and her coworkers. This is not a 9-to-5 gig. Bennett's job is to share the role that Girls Town plays in the lives of young women with the people who sponsor them and the mid-Missouri community. The girls consume her thoughts.

“The first couple of weeks here, I realized how much I take for granted,” Bennett said, her blue eyes watering again. "If I had known how tough other kids had it, I would’ve treated my parents better. Some kids come to my office after school and say, 'Miss Elise, can I have a hug?'”

Bennett gives them hugs. She gives them attention. She gives them girl talk. But what stands out most in her mind is what they give her: joy in the smaller things in life.

Marty Henness: Staying young at heart

Joy overflows in Marty Henness. Sixteen years ago, she signed up for a yearlong job as a house mom at Girls Town. In her mid-50s, she had been thinking about retirement. She had five successful children and a loving husband and had worked several fulfilling jobs. Still, Henness felt restless. She figured one more year of work wouldn't hurt.

“I thought, what do I want to do with my life? I didn’t want to just make money," she said, a sparkle in her eye. "I wanted to make a difference somewhere.”

Now almost 70, Henness says she recently asked her doctor, tongue-in-cheek, whether she should still consider retiring. He told her no, that all these young people are keeping her young.

Henness lives and works at the red-bricked McClain Home at the entrance to campus. She’s made the place her own, bringing in decorations and collages of past years at Girls Town.

The basement is where her youthful vibe shines. She created a rec room whose walls are covered in vinyl records. To the left is a pool table, to the right a couch and big-screen TV.

But it’s the small classroom down the hall from the rec room where residents leave their marks.

Henness remembered a snowy afternoon a few winters ago when she and the girls were stuck inside, bored and restless. At a loss for what to do, Henness found herself thinking of the empty classroom. She gave the girls paint, brushes and free rein of the blank, white walls.

They stayed for hours — painting, creating and feeling emotion. Now, inspirational quotes and designs run up and down the drywall:

"Believe in yourself when no1 else does ..."

"The only regrets you should have r the chancez u didn't take!"

"Never give up on some1 you can't go a day w/o thinking about ..."

The girls left a blank wall for those to come.

Henness, whose job is to serve as a parent for the girls, cooks, cleans and supervises. Girls earn privileges such as shopping or going on outings if they show responsibility and respect. Henness uses a point system to keep track of their behavior.

Ultimately, these girls have to want to rise above their pasts. Henness recalled a girl who came to Girls Town with anger issues as a result of an abuse. After she left, she leased an apartment, went to school, graduated, found a steady job and married.

“She has never fallen back into what kept her family from succeeding," Henness said, smiling. "She’s making it because of her great work ethic.”

Although hard work and ethics are the backbone of Henness’ approach to her job, a mothering spirit also contributes. Some girls want goodnight hugs; some don’t. But Henness said the ones who ask for hugs after months of not wanting one are the ones whose shells are breaking.

“That’s what keeps me working here,” she said.

Sue Myers: Rewarded by small successes

Parents who abuse, abandon or neglect these girls leave a footprint of damage. One of the biggest issues the girls here face as a result is reactive attachment disorder. When young people don’t make proper attachments to their caregivers, they have trouble forming relationships later on.

Girls Town counselor Sue Myers recalled a young woman with reactive attachment disorder. Myers said she tried “every trick” she knew to grow closer to the girl. Talking, encouraging, befriending — nothing seemed to work.

The director at the time had told Myers to “start where the client is.” She took that advice to heart, playing basketball each day with the girl until she responded and started to come to Myers' office. Day after day, she came back and just sat, until one day she felt safe enough to open up.

Myers has found her reward in the small successes that ultimately point to big changes in the lives of the girls they serve.

“At Girls Town, I had meals," a girl once told Myers. "I didn’t have to hide. There was someone to help me with my homework."

Bennett recently learned she will be moving to Kansas City for her husband's work. "I hate to leave the kids. This place has changed who I am," she said. "To leave is very bittersweet."

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