COMMUNITY SPOTLIGHT: Hope in the midst of tragedy

McKenzie's Hope offers an environment that is appealing to kids. (Photo by Michelle Embree)

The name McKenzie’s Hope originated in tragedy when two children, a 3-year-old named MicKenzie Brown and 2-year-old Justin McKinzie, were both murdered by family members 11 months apart. According to the McKenzie’s Hope website, “This name is a constant reminder to all touched by these tragedies that we must put an end to child abuse and neglect.”

McKenzie’s Hope provides a child-friendly atmosphere where children who have been victims of abuse can meet with representatives from law enforcement, the Department of Child Services and the prosecutor’s office. It provides a less intimidating alternative to police stations or the juvenile detention center for children to be interviewed about the abusive situation. These interviews are also recorded to avoid children having to testify multiple times or in court.

Wayne Stephan, executive director at McKenzie’s Hope, spends time with the child before and after the interview while the caregiver who accompanied the child is given information. During this time, the children are free to play games, have snacks or watch videos.

“It’s amazing to see the resiliency [of children] despite what they’ve gone through,” Stephan said. “Maybe for many years of their life they’ve been abused, and they come in and they play games … they’re laughing and joking just like every other child.”

These children have suffered various forms of abuse, typically at the hand of an individual they trust and are close with, Stephan said. He estimated that 90 percent of the victims had suffered sexual abuse.

According to a five-year trending report released in 2009 by the Department of Child Services, there has been an increase of sexual abuse cases in the past five years in Huntington County. The number of sexual abuse cases was higher in Huntington County than the state average. According to the McKenzie’s Hope website, 343 cases of child abuse and neglect were investigated in Huntington County in 2008.

“I know it’s a topic that people are very uncomfortable with because nobody likes to think about children being sexually abused, but it is a topic that needs to be discussed,” Stephan said. “The more awareness and the more it can be brought to the public light, the less likely it’s going to happen. Not being afraid to talk about this uncomfortable issue would be a huge thing.”

McKenzie’s Hope offers a course called Stewards of Children training. This course is free to the community and is designed to educate people on how to spot signs of abuse in order to prevent it and take precautions.

The training is a three-hour program, which can be broken up in multiple sessions. It is typically suited for groups of people.

“Don’t ever assume that it’s not happening or that it won’t happen at your church or your school because it’s typically people these kids know and trust,” Stephan said. “Have open, honest conversations about it.”

Some of the funding for McKenzie’s Hope comes through the Department of Child Services, the state and United Way. They also hold fundraisers throughout the year which are run primarily through volunteers.

Jessie Perry, a junior social work major, volunteered at one of these fundraisers this past September, McKenzie’s Challenge.
McKenzie’s Challenge is an annual event modeled in the style of the television reality show, “The Amazing Race.” Stations are set up at various businesses and organizations in the community with a challenge at each that gives insight to the purpose or mission of the location, providing what Perry called “a reciprocal relationship.”

“I volunteered to help co-man a station,” Perry said. “Dr. Babb and I led a station at the ReStore where teams had to power-wash toilets that would be given out in the store later.”

Perry said she was unfamiliar with McKenzie’s Hope prior to this event but has gained appreciation for it. She encouraged students to get involved with the organization or in this event next year. Students can volunteer to help run the event or sign up a team to participate.

“I’m hoping to put together my own team next year,” Perry said.

Stephan said that other than helping with events, volunteers do “anything and everything.” He has had people organize toys, put out their newsletter and anything else that is suited to the volunteer’s skill set.

One past volunteer project was the mural that now covers the interior walls of McKenzie’s Hope. Central to the mural are trees with wooden red hearts hanging on them. Each child who comes to McKenzie’s Hope is offered the opportunity to personally design a heart to be placed on the tree.

McKenzie's Hope executive director Wayne Stephan stands in front of hearts designed by children who have come through the organization. (Photo by Michelle Embree)

Stephan summed up the core of McKenzie’s Hope in a short phrase.

“It’s about the children first and foremost.”

McKenzie’s Hope is located at 1175 Etna Ave. and can be reached at 260-356-5730. In order to report a suspected case of child abuse contact Child Protective Services at 1-800-800-5556 or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

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