Despite the Triangle’s well-known status as a family-friendly place to live, some children who live here struggle. According to 2020 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, more than 21,000 children in Wake County lived below the poverty line at that time, and almost 800 cases of child abuse were reported and substantiated that year. (This number was down from 1,320 reported cases in 2019, possibly due to COVID keeping children at home and not in schools or other places where any signs of abuse could be observed and reported.) Because children have no power to advocate for themselves, kids need adults looking out for them at every level, from their families, friends and schools, to broader social and governmental entities.
A variety of organizations have emerged to support Triangle-area children through different types of challenges. Here, we profile five nonprofit organizations that protect and enhance the lives of children in our area.
TRIANGLE FAMILY SERVICES
919.821.0790 | tfsnc.org
Triangle Family Services (TFS) has been providing families in crisis with assistance for 85 years. The organization offers 14 different programs related to family safety, mental health and financial stability. TFS addresses problems that, as CEO Alice Lutz puts it, “no one wants to talk about.”
Last year, for example, TFS’s Time Together Center supervised 622 visits between children and parents with whom the center’s staff had restricted access. Mike Zayas, who, several years ago, required supervised visits with his children after a traumatic brain injury, credits the center for preserving his relationship with them. “We were playing dominoes. We were playing video games … Whatever room we’d get, we had a good time,” he says. “It became so very, very close to regular for me and my kids that when the judge allowed [unsupervised visitation], the kids were ready.”
Assisting homeless families is another important TFS service. Last year, the organization helped 248 formerly homeless people, including 45 children, move into permanent housing. Other examples of TFS services include reaching out to families living on the street, domestic violence intervention and anger management training. TFS hopes to add a staff member to help families apply for disability benefits and a health care worker to diagnose homeless clients’ medical needs.
In addition to financial donations to TFS, Lutz says the organization’s homeless clients benefit from donations of water, blankets, socks, hygiene kits and warm clothes.
855.605.1267 | campcorral.org
Camp Corral is based in Raleigh but reaches out to kids across the country. Sponsored by the Raleigh-based Golden Corral restaurant chain, Camp Corral offers opportunities for children of military personnel who have been wounded, made ill or killed in service to connect with other kids who share their experiences through a free week at summer camp.
Camp Corral kids enjoy building connections with other kids who understand military life. Camp offers opportunities for “those natural conversations that occur when you know you’re in a safe environment with people who know what your world is like,” says Camp Corral CEO Phil Kowalczyk. Adding the loss, illness or injury of a parent to the mix means that these kids really benefit from interacting with others who understand their experiences. For example, 69% of participants do at least one caregiving task in their home—the types of responsibility their peers seldom undertake.
Camp Corral contracts with American Camp Association–accredited camps across the U.S. to provide an experience that Kowalczyk describes as “like summer camp, but a little different,” because campers build unique connections they often maintain after camp is over. What’s more, 70% of participants’ parents report that time at camp has improved their children’s mental health.
In 2021, Camp Corral began offering spring programs for families to enjoy camp experiences together. They hope to begin a junior counselor training program in 2023.
WONDER CONNECTION 919.914.0015 | wonderconnection.org
In 2006, Katie Stoudemire, then a science museum employee and hospital volunteer, founded Wonder Connection, an organization that brings the natural world to chronically ill and hospitalized kids. It also engages families staying at The Ronald McDonald House in intergenerational outdoor activities.
Wonder Connection volunteers engage in one-on-one, nature-oriented activities with pediatric patients at UNC Hospital. Frequently-hospitalized kids don’t get the same opportunities for hands-on interaction with the outdoors as their peers.
“We don’t know what their diagnosis is,” Stoudemire says. “And it’s not important, because what we want is to see them as the creative and interesting kids and teens that they are.”
Activities range from constructing baking soda volcanoes and battery-powered motorcycles to building butterfly wings. Last year, Wonder Connection provided 670 pediatric patients with individualized sessions.
Over the same time period, Wonder Connection also served 588 kids through group activities at UNC Hospital’s inpatient psychiatric clinic. Of those patients, 88% reported feeling happier as a result of their participation—a particularly significant statistic for kids fighting mental illness. One activity involved creating landscape designs for the hospital courtyard. Patients enjoyed the design project so much that Wonder Connection coordinated with the North Carolina Museum of Art to provide a patient-designed floral art installation for 2022’s “Art in Bloom” exhibit.
919.743.6140 | safechildnc.org
SAFEchild is the leading child abuse prevention agency for Wake County. It coordinates with the Wake County Public School System, with Child Protective Services, and with other nonprofit organizations to prevent and eliminate child abuse. Its goals are to support parents, educate the public and advocate for abuse victims.
On the prevention side, SAFEchild’s staff and volunteers encourage confused or frustrated parents to contact them for help. There are no fees or eligibility requirements. If there is one message SAFEchild Executive Director Cristin DeRonja emphasizes, it is that asking for help is an act of strength. “Every family needs support,” she says. “Families should feel safe and secure, like it’s OK and it’s celebrated to reach out for support. The first thing we do when families reach out to us is: We thank them for calling.”
Another prevention program, Funny Tummy Feelings, teaches children in Wake County Schools how to recognize and respond when something is wrong with the way an adult is interacting with them. The program has been adopted in every WCPSS elementary school.
SAFEchild’s advocacy program has become a national model for evaluating and advocating for abused children due to its emphasis on care collaboration. The organization’s advocacy team consists of members from the medical community and public school system, and other community members who can intervene in different ways and on different levels so children can understand what happened to them and receive support from many different directions. In 2021, SAFEchild was able to evaluate 385 children for signs of abuse and neglect.
Next summer, SAFEchild hopes to open a new facility on land that WakeMed has donated. The new space will allow the organization to triple the rate at which it can provide medical evaluations and double the number of children it can serve in other prevention programs.
919.779.9905 | afatherforever.com
Fathers Forever grew out of founder and director Glen Warren’s wish to give struggling men the support they need to be responsible parents. “I know what it is to have a good dad,” says Warren. “I also am a retired social worker … I’ve seen the devastation of adults still struggling with feelings of abandonment because their dad wasn’t there.”
Fathers Forever offers 12-session parenting courses for men who struggle to be stable figures in their kids’ lives. Maybe they’ve been in prison. Maybe they’re fighting addiction or unemployment. Fathers Forever works with these populations as well as dads in other crippling situations. Some men are referred to the program by the court system because they have been delinquent in child support payments.
A pre-pandemic Wake County–sponsored study showed that after taking the Fathers Forever parenting course, 66% of participants increased their child support payments. Fathers Forever also offers five transitional houses for men who have recently left prison, each with 38 beds. The program gives them three meals a day and a place to stay, and it helps them find sustainable, well-paying jobs. The organization also runs a food pantry, a clothing closet and a temp agency that works with the transitional housing program.
Currently, Fathers Forever is working to get “Dads at a Distance,” a textbook version of Warren’s parenting class designed for men in prison, into Wake County’s 1,500 jails—each with a handwritten note of encouragement.