Just a few days before Los Angeles County issued its “Safer at Home” order, effectively shutting down all youth activities after schools themselves had closed, a petite feline crept her way unto Hathaway-Sycamores’ El Nido campus and into the hearts of the boys who reside at the facility for foster and homeless youth.
Soft and friendly, she commanded attention, and the boys were happy to reciprocate her cuddles.
Staff put out some food for the collarless critter, hoping the distraction might help soothe the boys as the campus shut down from outside visits to obey the social distancing order, meaning the youth would not see their families for supervised visits — part of the legal process they undergo to return to permanency with their parents or extended family.
It was a tough order to swallow in the midst of cabin fever, but then, something unexpected happened. The wayward cat, dubbed “Mollie-Marie,” bore kittens — six of them, to be exact, and everyone’s hearts exploded. The surprise arrival of such a large entourage left the staff scrambling for products, but the boys rallied to foster the babies.
“They were incredibly invested in taking care of them, getting them into ‘permanency’ as we call it here,” said Joe Ford, Hathaway-Sycamores senior vice president. “Watching the boys learn how to hold the kittens like a baby and getting them to purr, seeing how the affection was just filling them up emotionally was pretty moving.”
One boy, in particular, known for exhibiting some aggressive tendencies toward the others, was especially drawn toward the newborns.
“When you see that even a boy who has bullying tendencies is capable of so much love and affection, well, we realized the benefits of something like pet therapy,” said Ford, noting that staff will work in the future with community partners to find a program that could alternate having animals on campus. “Foster youth fostering critters is pretty special.”
There have been many challenges of offering services at the campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Hathaway-Sycamores CEO Debbie Manners, but the arrival of kittens there was a silver lining.
“The boys quickly learned to care for them and are truly invested,” she said. “We have found that something as simple as comforting and connecting with a kitten helps the boys relieve their anxiety. Our incredible staff took this unexpected circumstance and turned into a meaningful life lesson.”
Typically, the El Nido campus is a residential home of up to 60 boys, aged 6 to 18 years. The programs on campus include foster care and adoption services, shelter care and out-of-home care for boys with challenges that prevent them from living safely at home. While they prepare for a more permanent foster care placement or reunification with their family, they are cared for at the facility in a positive environment.
The realities of COVID-19, however, put many of the boys’ reunification plans on hold due to the lockdown. After one of the newly arrived students tested positive for the virus, staff had to quickly isolate him and take measures to protect the rest of the staff and youth.
Staff was able to procure several bungalows from the county and cared for the infected boy there until he was back to health.
Though the children typically leave for the day to attend public school, Hathaway-Sycamores has now created a home-schooling environment with support staff to help tutor the boys as they adapt to online learning.
“We are supporting our residents in their distance learning, scheduling engaging activities and also providing meals throughout the day in addition to our regular services. Our staff members are working incredibly hard to ensure the safety and health of the boys while keeping their rehabilitation and mental health services consistent,” said Manners, adding that the trailers on campus have become a place of refuge for staffers who chose to remain on campus rather than return to their homes.
The effects of the pandemic on the child and family services welfare organization have been tough, Manners admits, rippling over every single one of the nonprofit’s program operations. Counseling and therapy services have had to go online or over the phone, which complicates privacy for children living in multigenerational dwellings. In some instances, staff is still conducting on-site visits to make sure a child is OK.
“What we know about these times is that when there’s a lot of stress on a family, domestic violence goes up, substance abuse goes up, child abuse goes up … so we’re asking our clinicians to go out and get eyes on the kids,” she said. “Our staff has really stepped up to the plate, along with our board of directors.”
Like many nonprofits, Hathaway-Sycamores had to postpone its annual fundraiser — one of the largest ways to raise money for its homeless youth program — and board donors stepped up to participate in a matching fundraising challenge.
“There has been a wonderful sense of solidarity, so that we might continue to do this important work during a very challenging time,” she added.
Board chair Mike Galper also praised the nonprofit’s leadership and staff for stepping up activities quickly at El Nido and creating a full-time care facility.
“These are tough times, and the kids that are [at El Nido] are already facing very difficult situations, and the fact they can’t have visitors, it puts a lot of stress on the situation. But the staff has been wonderful; when you talk to them you realize they dedicate their lives to these boys and take great pride in them,” Galper said, noting that the board has been working hard to make sure the finances will come together for future programs. “Right now we feel we are in pretty good shape to confront the hard times ahead.”
As for the boys and kittens at El Nido, Ford added, a fun future is taking shape for what will hopefully be the remaining few weeks of social distancing. The campus will celebrate the promotion of four boys from middle school and the high school graduation of three young men, a feat only accomplished by some 40% of foster youth, he emphasized.
“We will really be celebrating that — you can imagine how hard a child living in residential care would have to work to accomplish that,” said Ford, noting that at least one of the kittens has been claimed by one of the graduates.
The other three kittens were placed in the community, he noted, but the last two are awaiting names through a contest on campus, where they have already made a home among young, loving arms.