Elsa Greenfield of the Community Service Programs Youth Shelter had to get creative after receiving a letter on Sept. 30, 2014, saying the $200,000 federal grant the organization relied on would cease–effective immediately. On Oct. 1, Greenfield, director of operations, who personally opened the shelter's doors eight years ago, called on some friends, both old and new.
The Panama native had to act quickly, using her passion for helping the less fortunate, a degree in social work and a Rolodex of friends of the shelter to keep the organization afloat. "[The part of the job] that is most dear to my heart is the kindness of strangers," she says. "The volunteers, the people who want nothing but to help–I am very blessed that I have a job where I meet wonderful human beings on a daily basis."
Greenfield says if you look around the crisp, six-bedroom Huntington Beach home that is the shelter, every item you see has a story of kindness behind it. The dated, worn midcentury-modern couch was reupholstered thanks to a local Girl Scouts troop. The stainless-steel refrigerator was donated by Lowe's. Every year, employees of the Huntington Beach Hyatt come over for a painting party and spruce up the walls. Kids blow off steam on the air-hockey and foosball tables donated by police officers.
The shelter's loss of funding unfortunately came during its busiest year. "We're seeing an increase in kids struggling," Greenfield says. "More and more, we see kids who just don't have anyone. They're kinda growing up by themselves." Greenfield and her team of about 20 employees now provide close to 200 homeless and runaway youth from ages 11 to 17 with services above and beyond a roof, a bed and food each year.
Her crew strive to bring safety and stability to these young, tumultuous lives. "We see a lot of depression, anger issues, cutting, suicidal ideation, drug use–those are typical things we see here in the house that we deal with," she explains. But usually, she says, in about a month's time, the daily routines of goal-setting, self-reflection, schoolwork and therapy meld together to build a solid springboard to launch the youngsters back into society and, in 90 percent of the cases, back to their families.
"This program is set up to make kids feel successful," she says. "It's not how they behave here; it's how they're going to handle life when they leave."
She keeps mementos from each child she and the shelter have helped over the years–some 900 kids by now. An immense binder is filled with letters from kids evaluating their time at the shelter. Most are overwhelmingly positive and talk brightly about their future, identifying their plans to become a nurse, a doctor or a teacher. "And of course the best [part] is when they call and say, 'Can you come to my graduation?'" Greenfield says proudly.
On the kids' final day at the program, they build a concrete stepping stone, decorated with doodles and glass beads, then set it on the Pathway to Success that outlines the perimeter of the beautiful front garden. (Just beyond the chain-link fence, you can see the Huntington Beach Main Library and the serene Central Park.) Kids will often come back to look at their stones. It's a remarkable garden, filled with flowers and palm trees and park benches.
"It's very cohesive to healing," Greenfield says. "And every night, 50 rabbits have a party out here."