When the police took five-year-old Bonita White from her apartment, she was more relieved than scared. Her drug-addicted mother had left her alone with an infant brother for a week. There was no father involved.
The two little ones were taken to Our Little Haven (OLH) in St. Louis, Missouri, a home for the youngest victims of abuse and neglect. “Everyone assured me that I would be okay, and I trusted them,” Bonita said. “I remember it was a delightful time. I had my first birthday party and Christmas there and went fishing for the first time. They were so loving!” Our Little Haven was home for Bonita and her brother for a couple of years until they transitioned back with their mother following her treatment for drug addiction. Things were better, although there would be other programs in their future as safety nets for a family headed by a mother with mental health and addiction problems. “My mother loved us the best she knew how, but she was sick,” Bonita explained.
Today, 28-year-old Bonita credits Our Little Haven with having had a major impact in her life. She has a degree in psychology with a social work emphasis, works with Head Start for early childhood intervention, and plans to attend graduate school in psychology next year. Her 23-year-old brother, Terrence, plans to graduate with degrees in mathematics and engineering next year.
Serving Children for 25 Years
It has been 25 years since Scott and Kathleen Hummel made the leap from their social work jobs to creating a program caring for young children from troubled families. Scott is now the executive director and Kathleen is the therapeutic director.
The couple met at Rockhurst University where they received undergraduate degrees and then earned masters in social work and received honorary doctor of philosophy in humanities degrees from St. Louis University. They both knew well the results of abuse and neglect during early childhood. Scott worked at a homeless shelter for families, and Kathleen worked with pre- adolescent girls having serious mental health problems.
“We noticed there was a significant similarity in the families we served that boiled down to a need for early intervention,” Kathleen said. “We wanted to help children from traumatic homes and not wait until they were 12 years old when so much damage has already been done.”
In the early 1990s in the St. Louis area, Scott said that not a lot of people were working with children from birth to 10 years old. The idea grew to create an early intervention program for children from abuse and neglect situations, to heal—mind, body, and soul—while living in a secure, loving environment. Since nothing existed like they envisioned, they created it themselves, establishing relationships with other social service agencies, recruiting a board of directors, hiring staff, finding office and residential treatment space, and securing funding. It was a five-year process from idea to reality. “We’d try to push it away and God in his awesomeness, kept pushing it to the forefront,” Scott said.
The Cookie Jar
Inspired by Dr. William Brennan, retired social work professor from St. Louis University, a cookie jar analogy became the inspiration for the Hummels. It goes like this: when we are born, we are all given a cookie jar. Throughout our formative years, we are given cookies in the form of good experiences and praise. Around the age of ten, the cookie jar is sealed up and that is what we have in life.
“When I was three years old, trauma was losing my red crayon,” Scott said. “We see children who have no cookies in their jar, who come from violence and neglect. For us, that is why we are doing this—to fill up their cookie jars. It’s a response to the gospel of caring for each other.”
Scott pointed out that programs such as OLH become opportunities for others to live out Jesus’ command that we love one another by giving through volunteering or donating to support their work. “It is our honor to invite people to participate,” Scott said. “We are invitational not expectational. If there’s any success, it’s because we are getting out of the way and letting God and the community help.”
By the Numbers
According to Scott, statistics indicate that without intervention, many of these kids end up dead or in prison. “Those are two options not consistent with the Gospel,” Scott said. “Had the community not helped children like Bonita, pulling her out of the cycle of abuse and neglect, we would have lost her God-given talents. That’s not God’s design for these young people.”
There are also pragmatic costs, he pointed out. “Longitudinal studies, from the child welfare to juvenile systems to the adult system, indicate that they will die at about age 62 — what kind of a life is that?” Scott asked. “And it costs about $1 million per person instead of putting that money into better schools and parks and highways.”
Our Little Haven (OurLittleHaven.org) helps around 600 kids and their families a year; either reunifying them or finding more suitable placement. In 25 years, 18,849 children have been helped. They are private, not-for-profit, partners with Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services to provide services which include a therapeutic preschool, a pediatric mental and behavioral health outpatient program, and the Taylor Family Care Center, which runs the foster-care program. The in- house residential program that was home to 25-40 children ended 10 years ago in favor of foster care.
The Hummels raised their own children alongside running OLH. Maggie, now 26, was born the same year OLH opened, Peter is 24, and Sarah 21. It was the pregnancy of their first child that pushed the Hummels to take the plunge. Kathleen either had to put in for maternity leave or let her boss know she would not be coming back. Scott had to resign from his position at the family shelter also. They took a deep breath and began at the cusp of their own beginning as new parents and have never looked back.
“We pray and rely on the community and continue to be grateful,” Kathleen said. “This has all been God’s doing.”
“There are frustrations at times, but then an alumnus like Bonita stops by,” Scott said. “I think God sends those people at just the right time.”
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.