Everyday heroes: Helping those in desperate need

Published 8:55 am Monday, February 13, 2017

They came for a job and stayed because of the children.

The five women who comprise the staff at the Warren County Children’s Shelter collectively have 112 years experience helping abused and neglected children who come to the shelter for their safety; some staying as long as 45 days.

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They care for the children, work with them and help them regain their lives after leaving an environment where they have been abused or neglected by working to provide a family atmosphere.

“They bring they bring those kids back to life is what they do,” said shelter director Cindy McCarley. “You see them come alive again; we see them giggle and see them smile. See them just being a kid.”

“It really is, this type of work, so needed. What we do for them — it’s almost like another world; you’re almost like a parent away from home to others,” said Ola Johnson, senior child and youth adviser who has been with the shelter for 26 years.

“I used to work at the battered women’s shelter under Susie Chatham, who was the director,” she said. When Chatham left to open the children’s shelter, Johnson started working part-time.

“It didn’t take long before it became full time,” she said.

Other members of the team came to the shelter from different areas.

Bernice Murphy left nursing school and intended to work at the children’s shelter “a little while, regroup and get myself back together, and return to nursing school. Twenty-two years later, I’m still here. All of this is by God’s design. I wanted to be a nurse, but he wanted me to work with children and he won.”

Loretha Dudley, a relief child care worker who’s been with the shelter 22 years, divides her time between it and Christian Acres, a youth home in Tallulah, where she has been a teacher and counselor for 34 years. “I love kids.”

Mozell Guy, a childcare worker at the shelter for 18 years, was a certified nurses aide in a nursing home until she had a different calling.

“I decided I wanted to work with children,” she said, adding she saw an ad for a job fair, went and applied for a position with the shelter.

“I love old people and children,” she said.

Carla Jones worked in customer service at Walmart. “I got frustrated there and went looking for a job and put in an application here, and got the job. I love to work with kids.” A child and youth advisor, she has been at the shelter 22 years.

Ask them what has kept them at the shelter for so long, and they answer in unison, “The children.”

“The way we came up is different from the kids we see at the shelter, because they’re being neglected, and it’s a different side we didn’t know anything about,” Jones said, “And we’re learning just like they’re learning. Everyone’s got issues and problems.”

Jones added, “Some of those children know better how to survive than you do. They’ve been out there on the street. You’re amazed at what some of the children know, and work harder to help them.”

All the women have children of their own, and they said it’s not hard to get attached to the children they care for at the shelter. They also learn they have to approach the children at the shelter a little differently than their own.

“When I first came here,” Guy said, “I thought I was coming to babysit. But it was a whole different story, because I didn’t know the children had been abused. I always thought that they were supposed to stay, and I fell in love with them and it hurt my heart. I have two children of my own, and I couldn’t talk to these children like I talk to mine. I had to learn that the children come first.”

“It (dealing with attachment) has gotten better since I have gotten older,” Johnson said, adding 15 years ago she tried to get a child out of foster care.

“I tried to get her to go to church with me when I went. The times she would come and leave, I literally had to go to back of the house, cause I couldn’t stand the feeling.”

“When you’re attached to them, when they cry, you automatically cry, because you don’t want them to leave,” Dudley said.

“Everybody’s going to get attached, even when you don’t want to,” Johnson said. “Some kids just kind of cling to you; y’all just kind of bond in the spirit. It’s just kind of hard not to.”

“It also made us to appreciate our kids and to start appreciating them better,” Dudley said.

“That’s right, because some of them don’t have anything,” Guy added.

“It makes you grateful,” Johnson said.

The experience working with the children at the shelter, also affects how the women care for their own children.

“It puts you on guard with your own kids, because before I came here, I had no idea of all that was going on in Vicksburg. Some of the same things we practice here carries over into our homes.”

The best part of their job, Dudley said, is seeing the smiles on the children’s faces, “And that feeling that they do appreciate what we do for them.”

“It makes us know we’ve made a difference in their lives,” Murphy said. “We can’t change what has happened in their lives, but from the moment they get here, we try make it different for them. Better.”

The worst, Murphy said, is seeing the abuse some of the children have received.

She recalled the case of a little girl who was sexually abused by a family member and contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

“To see her walking to get around, and all the medicine she had to take, and all visits to the doctor every other day, that was rough,” Murphy said.

Dudley remembered a little boy who was burned.

“The nurse had to come in and scrub (him), and he hollered, and we hollered,” she said.

And there are the babies who are born addicted to crack.

There are also the emotional periods when children periodically leave the shelter to visit family and don’t want to leave.

“We have children who either don’t want to leave or are afraid,” Johnson said.

“It doesn’t surprise me any more,” Murphy said, “after you know what they’ve been through, you understand why they don’t want to go.

“But some kids have unconditional love, no matter what has happened. I’ve had children tell me, ‘When I get older, I’m going to take care of my mama.’”

And despite the joys and tears, the five women who make up the staff at the children’s shelter say they want to continue their work with the children.

“We are a family,” Johnson said. “We have to be in order to help the kids. The family within the family.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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