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Children’s Harbor a safe port in the storm for chronically ill children and their families

In 2020, while the world battled a pandemic, Children’s Harbor continued to do the important work it has done for 31 years: lightening the burden on families who have a child facing a chronic illness or disability.

That work is ongoing at its on-site Family Center at the Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children in Birmingham, which provides a place for families to take a break, as well as receive counseling and other services, all at no charge. And it continues to be reinforced at the organization’s Lake Martin location, where camps and retreats give children and their families recreation and respite.

Nationally, there’s been a steady increase in the number of children struggling with mental health issues, and COVID-19 amplified it. When the hospital alerted Children’s Harbor to its growing demand for mental health services, the nonprofit stepped up.

Children’s Harbor shines a beacon for kids with chronic illness, disabilities from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Expanding support

With support from the Alabama Power Foundation, Children’s Harbor created its Pediatric Behavioral Health Family Support Program. In November 2020, the program received its first referral.

“Our goal is to reach the parents and the siblings and help them understand what is happening to their child or their sibling and how they can best cope with it. This is in keeping with what we do but also very different,” said Children’s Harbor CEO Cat Outzen.

“The Pediatric Behavioral Health Family Support Program is here to work with the family to help them process their fear, grief and anger, so they can deal with what their child is going through and then better serve and support their child,” Outzen said.

The need for this care is unquestionable, as Audrey Lampkin, Family Center director, explained. “The No. 1 reason families are referred to this program is their kids are exhibiting explosive, disruptive behavior,” she said. This can lead to hospital admission, but when children go home, parents are often ill-equipped to handle the emotions and stress – their child’s and their own – which can result in more inpatient stays. “We really want to reduce re-admission for these kids, and we can do that by supporting the families.

“We’re helping parents identify their own needs and arming them with strategies to face and meet them,” Lampkin said. “They need to learn the right coping skills so they can self-care and be there and ready and whole for their ill child and their other children.”

What the Children’s Harbor team learns while implementing the program benefits the organization’s other programs, Outzen said. “I think we’ll find ways we can do better across the board, and we are always looking to do better.”

Holding fast

It’s all part of the Children’s Harbor commitment to families it serves. It began in 1989 when founders Ben and Luanne Russell realized a long-held dream of opening Children’s Harbor on the shores of Lake Martin. It’s a special place, giving families a chance for fun and relaxation amid natural beauty.

In 2001, Children’s Harbor expanded its mission to more directly meet needs through the opening of the Family Center, where children and families have access to multiple layers of support. It ranges from offering something as simple as a place to play together in the game room to professional counseling.

Jaime Demick recalls watching her daughter Anya and son Nicasio reveling in the safe, label-free space at the Family Center. “They have one of those machines where you operate a metal claw to grab a toy or prize, and they have it set up so the kid can always get something,” she said. “You’d be surprised how much cheer it provides to ‘win’ a stuffed animal. They loved it.”

The Children’s Harbor camp at Lake Martin is a relaxing getaway for children who have disabilities or chronic illness. (Alabama Power Foundation)

Anya’s legs had to be amputated when she was 4, and her brother also dealt with health issues. They found a needed escape in the Family Center as well as at the Children’s Harbor Lake Martin camp. “It’s such a peaceful setting and great place for kids like Anya to gather,” Demick said. “We get a lot of looks, a lot of questions, when we’re out in the world, so it’s nice to go to a place where not only is everyone used to the differences, but we can celebrate them.”

Mary Kathryn Fletcher was introduced to Children’s Harbor in 2007 when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 14. It was benign, but she still spent 70 days in Children’s Hospital, and the Family Center became an essential element of her recovery. “I can remember playing pingpong with my parents and brother,” she said. “I could just be a kid again; there are no doctors or nurses – or needles – in there, so you can get beyond whatever health issue you’re battling for a bit and feel normal. I don’t know what my family would have done without it.”

Eventually, Fletcher and her family no longer needed Children’s Harbor services. But during a college internship, she found herself back involved with the organization when she helped with a family camp at the Children’s Harbor lake facilities.

“I was so impressed with how families were served there, getting that break they needed, and that I got at the Family Center,” Fletcher said. The experience motivated her to answer, “100 times yes!” when asked to serve on the Children’s Harbor junior board.

“I’m so happy to help spread the word and help further the mission,” she said. “It’s so important for these families to see they are not alone.”

The connection to other families facing challenges is therapeutic. But the dedication of the Children’s Harbor team is a healing balm, too, even when it’s something as simple as making check-in phone calls to a family.

“And perhaps that’s our biggest contribution,” Lampkin said. “What we’re really giving them is an embrace.”

This story is part of a series about nonprofits aided by the Alabama Power Foundation, based on the foundation’s 2020 Annual Report, “At the Point of Change.” Read stories about The King’s Canvas, Red Door Kitchen, CORE and ¡HICA!