Awesome Foundation Grant Winner: West Central Regional Juvenile Center (WCRJC)

Written by: Brandi Malarkey
Heather Nesemeier (left), Jenna Kahly (middle), and Nicole Williams (right)

BY Brandi Malarkey, Owner, It’s All Malarkey

When a teen who had recently stayed at the West Central Regional Juvenile Center (WCRJC) described the available selection of books as “Chicken Soup books and about a million Bibles,” Jenna Kahly knew it was time to help the center refresh their collection.

Located in Moorhead, the WCRJC is one of the shockingly few resources available in Minnesota to provide services for juveniles with behavioral, protection, dependency and delinquency issues. Increased regulations on corporate foster care and group homes have decreased the options available for youth in need of short-term emergency placement. As a result, WCRJC is inundated with requests to the point where they are forced to turn many away due to lack of space. Designed for short-term emergency placement until social services can find foster care, with foster care in short supply WCRJC is finding themselves in the position of housing some of their youth for a much longer time frame.

“Clay County is really lucky to have a facility available,” Jenna Kahly former County Commissioner said, who has continued to volunteer her time to WCRJC as an invested community member since leaving that role. “We have a great facility, but these kids have some big needs, and we are stretching what these programs were initially designed for, so there’s a lot of adjustments happening.”

With so many large challenges to face, updating the reading selection may seem a frivolous endeavor. However, Superintendent James O’Donnell stresses that it is just as valuable as the many other services they try to provide.

“The youth here are trying to cope with whatever situations brought them here, and we’re trying to make the experience the best we can. Good books are a really big hit. They allow them to get away in their mind, to provide a much needed respite.”

The need to refresh available media is a recurring one, as old selections get destroyed through hard use, and each new resident has their own unique needs. Fortunately, WCRJC was able to rely on volunteer public librarian and media specialists from Moorhead Public Schools to help identify popular books and series the kids will actually want to read.

“It was also important to us that the collection of books selected had characters and stories representative of the population of kids staying here. We made sure that different cultures and religious backgrounds were represented in those materials,” Jenna, who has also worked as a public librarian for the last 15 years, said. “The center staff have appreciated the book selections are recommended by professionals who are very familiar with the content and able to lend their expertise.”

WCRJC was given a small boost toward their goals when they have announced the January 2023 grantee of the Cass Clay chapter of The Awesome Foundation, who gifted them with $1000 toward the purchase of books and other necessary materials.

“We’re trying to adapt to what our kids need. Many of them have large sensory needs and getting sensory-type objects that fit each unique case is one of the ways we try to do the best we can for them. We try to provide a safe learning environment, help them learn skills to move them ahead in life, be available to answer questions even after they move on,” James said. “Unfortunately, we’re getting requests from all over the state and we don’t have the space for them all. Many kids are left without options, and it is very dangerous for kids who end up couch hopping and being exposed to random people at different houses.”

As a community volunteer, Jenna stresses that there are several things individuals can do to help address the challenges WCRJC and other facilities are facing.

“We’re really lucky that Clay County is a great community, with great people, who are greatly supportive of youth that a lot of people like to pretend don’t exist. Donating or purchasing items off the Amazon Wishlist is one way to help support the needs of the kids here. Another way is to talk to state legislators about the continuum of care needs that we have for mental health in the state for youth. WCRJC is being flooded with requests for kids from other counties and that means we could be doing more for our kids here if there were more resources available. Finally, checking into possibly being a foster family or providing respite care is huge. There are a lot of misconceptions about what you need to do in foster care. A lot of people think you have to be married and own a home. You don’t. You can be single, you can be in an apartment, you can be in a variety of different living situations. Due to the diversity of needs that we have, short-term and long-term options are needed. There are so many ways to support these kids.”

The Cass-Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a nonprofit. Applications can be made at chapters/cassclay

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