South Charlotte

These kids deserve a merry Christmas

Some children have never experienced Christmas. They have never opened a gift, hung a stocking or made a wish list.

At Alexander Youth Network, staff, volunteers and sponsors are giving 350 children who have never had a Christmas the chance to experience it.

Every year, the nonprofit sponsors the Angel Network, a holiday program that pairs children enrolled in their programs with sponsors who buy them gifts.

The children at Alexander Youth Network, ages 5-18, often come from an abusive or neglectful background and have emotional and behavioral issues as a result of the trauma they experienced. Each child in the Angel Network works with a therapist to create a Christmas wish list.

"Many of them have never been asked what they want for Christmas, so the simple act of asking them is therapeutic," said Ann Church, vice president of advancement for the nonprofit. "It allows them to dream of a life that is different than the one they experienced before."

Not all of the children in the Angel Network have been sponsored yet. Church said there are still opportunities to sponsor and volunteer to wrap gifts. Each child gets three gifts, which creates 1,050 gifts to be wrapped. Volunteers and sponsors can access information on the nonprofit's website.

Alexander Youth Network, which opened in 1888 and is now located on Thermal Road in south Charlotte, also provides services year-round for children and their families. When a child first comes to the nonprofit, they are given a psychiatric evaluation to asses which programs and treatment plans are suitable. "We often need to determine if the issues are bio-chemical or if they are trauma-related," said Church. "Then we can determine what type of treatment they need."

Many of these children are referred to the nonprofit by their schools. The children have been categorized by schools as noncompliant and physically aggressive.

"Our kids are the ones who get sent out of class," said Church. "If you ask them to sit down, not only will they not sit, but they might throw the chair at you."

The children at Alexander Youth Network who cannot function in a standard classroom are entered into the Day Treatment Program, which provides a small, specialized setting with teachers who have been trained to teach students with emotional and behavioral issues. There are currently 30 students in the on-site location, and other programs are in many Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as well as in Morganton, Gastonia, and in Cabarrus County schools.

Alexander Youth Network helped more than 3,700 children in 2009 and is known as the place that takes children that no other facility can manage, according to Church. About 50 percent of the children have clinical depression and other ailments that prevent them from having personal relationships.

"They don't trust adults and are always in the fight-or-flight response mode," said Church. "They react on impulse, which has helped them survive the chaotic circumstances they came from, but prevents them from doing what they desperately want to do, like making friends or being in a normal classroom setting."

When children need intense treatment, they reside at the Psychiatric Residential Treatment facility. Alexander Youth Network's psychiatric facility is one of three in North Carolina. Children ages 5-14 from across the state are treated there. Currently, the nonprofit has 36 children in the Psychiatric Residential Treatment facility. "These children have heart rates and stress levels that are higher than normal," said Church. "The trauma they've experienced was very intense and they need a safe place to heal."

Alexander Youth Network also has intensive outpatient therapy, rapid response crisis homes, therapeutic foster home placement and training and the Relatives Crisis Shelter.

"This year we have seen at least 400 children come to the door of our Relatives Center," said Church. "With the economy like it is, many families have been displaced and gotten separated. The children at the center are often homeless...and don't have much more than a small paper bag of their things."

The center grows 10 percent every year according to Church, but its main source of funding may be compromised during the next fiscal year, which runs September 2010-August 2011. The annual budget is $21 million and covers the therapeutic services provided to the children.

"We get 85 percent of our funding from Medicaid, so we are watching the state's budget very closely," said Church. "Medicaid may be on the chopping block, and we may become more dependent on charitable donations than ever before."

Church said the nonprofit gets 10 percent of their funding from charitable donations. Though it doesn't sound like much, she said they heavily depend on it.

"The charitable donations help take care of the people who take care of the kids," said Church. "It pays for our bills, like the heat and electricity."

While the nonprofit has more than 1,000 volunteers, some of whom have been there for 50 years, Church said they could always use more. "Every child here needs a mentor," she said. "It benefits both the volunteers and the children because many of them have never had a consistent relationship with an adult."