MOUNT VERNON — As a way of saying thank you for their work and dedication, the Exchange Club of Mount Vernon and Knox County hosted a breakfast on Friday for the staff of the children services unit of Job and Family Services.
“This morning is for you,” Exchange Club member Thom Collier told the group of about 30. “We're honoring you and thanking you for the work that you do.”
Exchange's primary mission is the prevention of child abuse. Collier said that with April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, this was the perfect opportunity to show children services workers how much they are appreciated.
“I hope you hear from our hearts that we appreciate what you are doing,” he said. “We are a microcosm of the community. You truly are the first responders for so many critical needs in our community.”
Noting the high stress levels and PTSD associated with their positions, Collier said, “It's time that we stand up and represent the community. You need to know that the community is behind you and supports you.”
When children services workers must remove a child from the home, the situation is frequently emotional and happens quickly. Sometimes the children have nothing to collect their clothes in other than a trash bag.
At the breakfast, the Exchange Club presented 75 duffle bags to the children services staff for use in these situations. The duffle bags represent a semblance of dignity, something the child can hold on to in the ensuing days that provides a measure of stability in their suddenly turned-upside-down lives.
Matthew Kurtz, director of JFS, said that while some might consider children services a knight in shining armor, in reality the situation is more often like that of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez in 1999. Gonzalez's mother died in an attempt to bring him to Florida, and Elian became the focus of a custody battle between the United States and Cuba.
The courts ultimately ruled in favor of Elian's father, but Elian's U.S. relatives refused to turn him over. FBI agents raided the home and took Elian, reuniting him with his father several hours later.
“The terror on a child's face is what he feels when we have to make the decision to remove him from that home. It's such a nice token from you to try and help,” Kurtz told Exchange Club members.
Kurtz said he was humbled by the 66% of voters who supported the recently passed children services levy. Speaking to the children services staff, he said, “The community realizes that what you do is vital on a day-to-day basis. I think you should be encouraged by how much the community values what you do.”