Changing the Lives of Orange County children
Kara Scartaccini, Laguna Beach native and on-call representative for the CSP Children’s Shelter in Laguna Beach, shares her passion for changing the lives of Orange County children. – By Alli Tong
Many Lagunans may not know it, but there’s a small group of people doing big work in a quaint hilltop house in Laguna Beach. One of them is Kara Scartaccini, an on-call representative and former volunteer coordinator for the Community Service Programs (CSP) Children’s Shelter in Laguna Beach. We sat down with Kara to hear about how she and the staff at the shelter are building better lives for Orange County children every day.
LBM: How did the children’s shelter start?
KS: We started in this house in 1979 as a diversion program from the justice system, helping to keep youth—homeless, runaway and at-risk—out of the justice system. Now, we’re a short-term crisis intervention residential program for children ages 13 to 17, with the goal of family reunification. Currently, we have a staff of about 20, including three full-time therapists, and can house up to six children.
LBM: How did you find yourself working at the shelter?
KS: I started out as an intern over two years ago. I was studying psychology as part of my major at UCI, and I was really involved in research. During my senior year, I had to pick a field site, and I decided to go the clinical route to see if I was still interested in research. I chose the shelter, and after my internship I was hired as a youth specialist, which I did for a year, and then moved into the volunteer coordinator position.
LBM: Have you always known you wanted to work with children?
KS: No, when I was at UCI, I loved research. It wasn’t until I came here that I really opened my eyes—compassion and empathy can open people’s eyes. It really changed my entire career path. I’m actually going back to school this year to get my master’s in social work, but I’ll stay here as an on-call representative since I’ll be living in Laguna.
LBM: How do the kids get here?
KS: They typically get referred for a number of reasons: homelessness, at-risk for hospitalization or institutionalization, suicide attempts, early childhood trauma. There are a variety of reasons; we see a little bit of everything, even runaways. Kids come here from all over Orange County.
LBM: Can you tell us a little bit about the program?
KS: We’re a short-term crisis shelter, which means that we take kids through an intense three-week program. First, we speak with the parents and the child to make sure that they’re both willing to go through with it. We make sure that the children feel welcome and safe. Our program is highly structured—kids really benefit from the structure. They feel safe.
LBM: Can you go through a typical day at the shelter?
KS: Typically in the morning they have breakfast, and then they have a goals group and study hall. In the summer, they have a tutor that will keep them on track and help them work on whatever [they need] in summer school. Then they have quiet time and journaling to help them stay mindful. After study hall, they have lunch, and then group activities such as art or yoga. We also play a lot of games. We run self-esteem groups; we even do life skills like laundry and resume building, depending on the age and if that’s appropriate. Then, they have free time, journaling or art—we’re really big on art here—and then have dinner. After dinner, we do a group meeting. Around 9 p.m. is lights out, so they’ll go upstairs and wind down a bit. We make sure they’re feeling safe and calm and ready to go to sleep.
LBM: Why is Laguna Beach an ideal location for the shelter?
KS: Laguna Beach is a really therapeutic environment. It’s just really soothing; this is a really tightknit community. We have a lot of support from the local community, from surf shops to hotels. Obviously we’re in a confidential location, so sometimes locals don’t know we’re here. We don’t advertise our location for confidentiality reasons, but we try to get word-of-mouth out about what we do as much as we can. We have so many things at our fingertips, like hiking the canyon or art galleries, which the kids really enjoy. We have a ton of volunteers and tons of donations from local businesses and people. It’s just a really ideal place to be because people really do want to help here.
LBM: How does one go about volunteering for the shelter?
KS: They would call us and let us know in what capacity they want to help. We offer a mentoring program for the kids, so we’re always looking for adults with good boundaries that want to help out.
LBM: What’s one of your favorite memories?
KS: One of my favorite stories is with one of my kids. We were telling him about dog therapy because we have certified therapy dogs that hang out with the kids, and I was telling one of the boys about it and he said, “That’s fantastic, because my dog could really use some therapy!” That for me just really symbolizes the innocence but also that they have a lot of fun here. LBM