As an agency that exists solely to respond to the needs of youth who are hurting, neglected, or abused, it's important to remember that healing is not an easy job. The circumstances that bring kids to youthSpark are beyond their control, and sometimes, it feels like there's little we can do to change that reality. But there are a few things we've learned to do well: turn lemons into lemonade... And pink lemonade... And lemon meringue pie! And when we can't make something sweet, we've learned how to juggle.
For the past couple months, youthSpark has been back in-person and it's hard to find the words to share what we're experiencing. We've received more referrals for youth who are currently missing than ever before in our history.
In working these cases, and building off of our research in the Atlanta Homeless and Runaway Youth Count, we've identified a significant services gap: there are insufficient support systems for these kids and a lack of knowledge regarding how many are vulnerable to traffickers or may be experiencing undisclosed abuse in the home.
Our goal is to build a collaborative model with a variety of community partners, to not only locate and stabilize youth, but also to reduce future out of home instances, or prompt faster CPS involvement when absolutely necessary.
Our young people are displaying hypervigilance at an all-time high. This is a result of community trauma — including the fallout from the pandemic, racial injustices, political unrest, and having to witness violent acts of crime and cruelty repeated in the media. It's impossible to effectively address trauma without addressing all of their needs. We're only able to do this work by holding hands with so many wonderful community partners and our Fulton County Juvenile Court family. youthSpark is no longer hoping to go back to being who we were pre-Covid, nor do we want to.
You've probably wondered where we’ve been and why we've been so quiet. We’ve been trying to establish the "new youthSpark," and we’ve been watching our kids and families live in their reality. We see it. Our children are in crisis. Exploitation did not cease. Abuse did not go away. It's been exacerbated in a way we cannot simply describe.
How can we "stick to the old mission" when life is happening? How can we remain bipartisan and appeal to ALL supporters when we have a 16-year-old pregnant by her pimp and her mom is unsure what decision she will legally be able to make when the time comes? Or the parent crying in our Center because her daughter is missing from the very places that were supposed to offer healing and it appears public outcry and police are shining light on stolen cars. Cars vs Kids? Make it make sense. Gang violence is at an all-time high and we’ve spent the past year learning how it hit close to home with one of our own recognizing that the love, care, and support that should have been inherent wasn't there but was offered by other adults in the community guised as true family and protection. How can we compete with that?
Whether this is a gun issue, a policy issue, a mental health issue, a racism issue, or a money and power issue, we don’t care. All we know is that we are angry. We are scared. We are frustrated. And if we feel this way—what must our children be feeling?
There is no blame to be placed on any one entity for today’s reality. Our federal and local government, our child welfare, juvenile justice, and school system, our nonprofit and social services community, and dare even say our social media platforms. This is on all of us to own.
If you were to ask us right now what youthSpark needs? The answer would be different every single day. Some days certain needs are greater than others. But one thing that remains consistent and obviously clear, is that we need you to be with us. We're in this together and the solution lies in all of us. Not just policing and politics. Not diversity and inclusion training, not another hashtag, and certainly not judgment. The road ahead might be a bit unclear, but we are committed to paving the way.
It is time that we all take action and talking isn't going to help. We need to ACT.
ACT like Judge Coy Johnson at Juvenile Court and try a new solution to keep a 13-year-old from being exploited.
ACT like Probation Officer Mustafa Mahdi and advocate for a parent with no authority to make the system work for them.
ACT like Probation Director Cassandra Hines who helped spearhead juvenile courts largest LGBTQ+ training in the court's history.
ACT like Community Ambassador Angela Brown and donate your therapeutic talents to our kids every single week.
ACT like the Atlanta-Suburban Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and donate games and pizza for kids to have family fun night.
ACT like the Fulton County Sheriff's Office who donates their time to share love on holidays like Valentine’s Day one of the most important days in our youth center and invites us to walk with Sheriff LaBat in the PRIDE parade.
ACT like Philanthropist Enid Draluck and allow her donated funds to be used where we need it most-whether that means keeping the lights on or providing bonuses to our front-line team offering almost 60 hours of case management services every single week.
ACT like Mrs. Edwards, a parent who picks up the phone when one of our missing kids was spotted in her community.
Whatever it is that you are going to do, whatever power you have, whatever resources you encounter, that’s up to you. But we are pleading ... someone, anyone, everyone: DO SOMETHING. Because the frontline workers are tired. And if we are, how are our children?