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'Hey, you're worthy': Lee County Youth Development Center stayed open despite pandemic and gave kids hope

'Hey, you're worthy': Lee County Youth Development Center stayed open despite pandemic and gave kids hope

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The Lee County Youth Development Center (LCYDC) is celebrating the fact that, despite the ongoing pandemic, its programs have received accreditation.

Both the Council on Accreditation and Cognia, a non-profit organization that accredits primary and secondary schools, recognized the center after site visits, studying the different programs and facilities the center offers and interviewing students, staff and board members.

Executive Director Laura Cooper said the recent accreditation – along with the work her staff has done by never allowing the center to shut down once over the course of the pandemic – was reason enough to celebrate by holding a luncheon and party April 2 for all those involved with the center.

“We have to thank those who made all of this possible,” Cooper said. “We want to thank the community that entrusts us to keep and care for the least, the last and the lost among us. We don’t take that trust lightly, and this is an affirmation to them that we’re taking their tax dollars and their children, who have been lost in the big sea of life, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, you’re worthy.’”

The nonprofit organization takes in children from all across the state and is funded through an allocation of local property tax dollars. The center provides a many programs for children under its care, including Project Uplift, which pairs children ages 5-12 with Auburn University students; a regional detention center for children who get into legal trouble and need to be detained; services to connect children with living options like foster homes and apartment living for older teens; and an accredited school through their learning center for children of all ages.

Cooper said that, on average, the LCYDC serves about 120 children a day, and despite the pandemic and the dangers the staff faced during it, the youth development center remained open for the children it cared for.

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“We never closed our doors and the lights never went off, 24/7,” Cooper said. “That took a lot of courage, because our staff didn’t know what they were walking into. We didn’t know what this scourge was or how it was going to impact us, but we continued to serve our children, and we have to thank our staff for being there.”

Despite being able to maintain its operations and remain as an accredited institution, the LCYDC has experienced an increase in need for the residential services it provides for its children as a result of the pandemic.

“A lot of homes are under pressure, and families aren’t working and the children aren’t getting out of the homes,” Cooper said. “There’s a lot more domestic violence and a lot more drug abuse and use, which is driving up the numbers.

“We cannot serve the number of referrals that we receive because we serve children statewide. … But for the children we receive into care, we have about an 80% success rate, meaning they leave here and don’t reoffend and aren’t part of the system once they leave.”

While Cooper acknowledged that people who work for the center aren’t there to get rich, she said those who worked there did so to ease others’ suffering and get affirmed that their life has purpose.

LCYDC Art Teacher Monica Foster, who started there in November, said all of the children she taught have special gifts, and she joined in order to bring something new to their lives through art.

“I want them to express themselves in every way they can,” Foster said. “I love art, and I’m glad to share it with the children. They are so talented. … Some people have a God-given gift, and they wouldn’t even know it if they didn’t have a chance to express it at an early age, and through art, [the children] can share a part of themselves to the world and with other people.”

Calandra Harris, LCYDC coordinator for fiscal and financial resources, said she felt like her job was to help show the children the center served that there was still hope for them in the future.

“Sometimes they make bad choices, but we want to show the kids there’s still hope and we believe in them,” Harris said. “That’s why we pour these resources into them to make sure they have what they need to be successful. A lot of the kids have great potential, but a lot of the time they just need to be shown love and encouragement to be able to blossom and grow.”

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