HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - There were more than 8,000 children reported to the Harrison County Youth Court for allegations of abuse and neglect in Harrison County in 2017. In a best case scenario, those children are cared for by relatives while their parents are investigated. Others, don’t have that option.
Instead, they're taken to Harrison County's only emergency youth shelter. The home can house anywhere from 25 to 30 children every month. The shelter staff go out of their way to make the facility feel like a home. Shelter director Dianna Kuns says, that's what the children who end up there, need most.
"When it's 11 o'clock at night and you need a safe place to put a child, we're here." No matter what time of day or night or how horrifying the circumstances, children who have been abused or neglected in Harrison County are sent to this shelter.
Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso visits often. “What the shelter does here, as you can see, it’s very much family-oriented. It’s always a clean happy, cheerful place.”
"We provide fun activities here for the kids; providing basic needs, taking care of the kids as a mother would in a home," explains Kuns.
She’s been the director at the shelter for the past 12 years. She and her staff do everything in their power to help the children who come to the shelter feel loved and safe. Kuns puts it perfectly: “You’ve got to have the heart. If you don’t have the heart, it doesn’t work. And I have to say, the shelter staff here is just wonderful.”
Meal time, activities, school, and bedtime - everything is kept on a structured schedule. But Kuns admits, the ladies at the shelter also tend to spoil the children while they’re there. They want to be a light in one of their darkest times.
“We hope somewhere along the way we are touching these kids heart and letting them know that there is somebody there to take care of them during this time of need.”
Andrew Strachan is proof they are making a difference. He was sent to live at the emergency shelter when he was just 16.
“I was put into foster care with my brother, Christopher, because of some conflicts with our father at home, which had been developing overtime,” he says. “And it was mostly related to I’d say drug abuse, predominantly on the opioid side.”
Though most children leave the shelter within 30 days, Andrew lived there for three months. He still recalls fond memories of his time there.
“The ladies were always so kind. They keep you safe and they keep you well-fed. I was so happy to be there.”
Fast forward nine years, Andrew is now 25, and putting himself through medical school at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
“I know my situation was unique in the fact, it worked out. And a lot of these kids don’t have that. It’s an opportunity for me to be that voice.”
He’s now working on a project that could potentially help other children with parents battling opioid addiction.
“We’ve put together an opioid crisis counsel with some of the administrators at the school. the medical school, along with the director of the Bureau of Narcotics, John Dowdy.”
Andrew is just one of the many success stories to come out of the Harrison County Emergency Youth Shelter over the past 50 years. He’s proving what makes this unique facility South Mississippi Strong.
“We hope that we’re making a difference,” says Kuns. “It’s a challenging job, but it’s rewarding.”
Children from birth to age 17 can spend anywhere from two days to a month in the emergency shelter, or in some cases like Andrew, even longer. The shelter is funded through the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and it’s the only one in the state like that, which Kuns says is a blessing.
The shelter also relies heavily on donations of supplies like diapers, bottles, toys, furniture and clothes. Gift cards
are also helpful so they can take the children on field trips to the movies, Lynn Meadows, or even McDonalds. If you’d like to make a donation or volunteer to help these children, you can reach Dianna Kuns at firstname.lastname@example.org.