Waymakers addresses teen mental health during times of crisis.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Waymakers has a long history of helping children and teens in the region including Laguna Beach. Formerly called Community Service Programs, or CSP, the organization operates three youth shelters in Orange County, providing a safe respite for runaway, homeless and at-risk minors. That service continued even with challenges posed by the pandemic, a time when kids needed help more than ever as they struggled with isolation, fear and, for some, financial instability as family members lost jobs.
Originally started by a professor at the University of California, Irvine and a Costa Mesa police captain in 1972, Waymakers aims to build safer communities where clients can “advance beyond catastrophe.” The first Waymakers program in Laguna Beach was Juvenile Diversion Counseling Services at the city’s Police Department. Shortly thereafter, the Victim Assistance Program began and, in 1979, the Laguna Beach Youth Shelter opened for children ages 11 to 17.
The programs continue today, with shelters in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach and Tustin. Waymakers has provided invaluable assistance to the community since COVID-19 emerged last year.
“Children who may have already been struggling with mental illness, isolation, loneliness, bullying and marginal resources were especially vulnerable to increased stressors when they lost their support systems at school, could no longer see their friends, and then their family members were out of work,” says Carol Carlson, director of the Waymakers Children’s Crisis Residential Program, which includes Laguna’s youth shelter.
“Many lost their homes or moved in with other people in order to survive. The added pressure on their parents caused even more stress for them. The hospital beds were full with young people who attempted suicide in order to escape their pain and hopelessness. We were full with a long waitlist throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Helping Wayward Teens
According to Carlson, Waymakers works in five impact areas: sheltering children, supporting victims, counseling families, resolving conflicts and educating communities. Through these impact areas, the organization fosters its mission “to build safer communities by helping individuals make their way through conflict and crisis to a place of strength and stability.”
“Waymakers is uniquely equipped to support people with the tools and resources they need …,” Carlson explains. “For young people in crisis—they may have run away from a violent home, dropped out of school, deal with mental health concerns, or are battling substance abuse—Waymakers provides safe spaces and the support needed to learn coping skills, help them cut ties with gangs or address addiction or reconnect with their families. By meeting individuals and families where they are, we are fostering lasting change and making a positive impact on the entire Orange County community.”
Chelsea Burch, volunteer coordinator for the Laguna Beach Youth Shelter, says the Waymakers’ program success rate is incredible. More than 90% of children who complete their three-week program are successfully and positively reunited with their families.
“Many of the kids report a decrease in anxiety and depression, as well as other debilitating symptoms. They are able to better regulate their emotions and learn a multitude of various coping mechanisms and life skills to further ensure their success to healthier functioning,” Burch says. “We first try to meet their most basic needs—clothing, food, shelter and safety. From there, we provide a set daily program schedule for the kids in order to provide them with structure and routine. We also promote a safe, positive environment where lots of learning takes place.”
Burch explains the shelter program provides the needed tools and resources to help the kids overcome challenges and obstacles by helping them to identifying triggers, challenge unhelpful thoughts and overall transform behaviors. The staff coordinates efforts to provide a warm, compassionate environment and ensures that they have a safe space to be heard and seen, which is crucial and has a tremendous impact on their success.
“Part of our program requires families be involved in the child’s treatment, which includes family visitation on the weekends and family sessions twice a week, [although the process was modified with online Zoom sessions during the pandemic]. The benefit of this is for the kids to get a break from all of their environments to focus on themselves,” Burch says. “Yet, the family being involved allows everyone to express their needs and improve overall family communication.”
Burch says the program has helped children stabilize and decrease suicidal thoughts and behaviors, as well as boost self-esteem and learn essential life skills that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. The program has had a lasting impact on reunifying children and families.
Care During COVID and Beyond
Waymakers youth shelter managers found that youths had greater needs when the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Because they provide essential and emergency services, they took in children without COVID-19 testing, but were checked for fever or other symptoms and sent home if there were any signs of illness.
“We did have to immediately adopt new protocols, policies and procedures to keep the staff and kids in our care safe throughout the pandemic. … All staff and clients wore masks, and disinfected and sanitized the facility on every shift. We reduced the number of staff reporting on each shift so that we never had more than 10 people, including residents, in the house at the same time,” Carlson recalls.
“We instituted telehealth procedures to allow therapists and family members to interact by Zoom rather than having them come to the facility. Most staff are now vaccinated, but we do not always know if a client has been vaccinated, so we will continue our COVID-19 procedures until the state and Orange County Public Health have indicated we can work without masks.”
Carlson says the youth shelters receive referrals any time, day or night, every day of the year. Referrals are made by OC hospitals, counselors, schools, law enforcement and parents. Funding for Waymakers services to the children and families of Orange County comes from grants, contracts, donations and fundraiser events, she explains.
Waymakers is celebrating several milestones this year, including the 42nd anniversary of the Laguna Beach Youth Shelter. The Huntington Beach Youth Shelter celebrates 15 years of operation while the Tustin Youth Shelter has been open for five years.
“We now serve more than 300 children every year across the three facilities. We could not have done it without the continued support of the Orange County communities we serve,” Carlson says. “We greatly appreciate donations to make sure that we are always able to help children at their greatest time of need.”
“People often say they want to help, but don’t have the skills needed,” says Kelly Cornwell, a community volunteer with Waymakers’ Laguna Beach Youth Shelter. “It takes a community to help each other. All anyone has to do is be there [with a desire to help].”
To learn how you can help, contact Waymakers Volunteer Coordinator Chelsea Burch at 949-494-4311 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Some restrictions on shelter volunteer work continue due to the pandemic.
Photos by Waymakers