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Hope Haven provides new beginnings for abused children

Bay St. Louis — Hope Haven provides a homelike shelter for children who have been victims of abuse and neglect. It was started by four women who saw a need in Hancock County and made it happen. When rebuffed by local government, the women — Mary Carpenter, Bobbie Barr, Carol Ripley and Lois Griffen — resorted to what Hope Haven director Terry Latham refers to as “kitchen table guerrilla organization.”

“They did not sit back. They got up and did what had to be done,” he said. “That’s what attracted me. They aren’t politicians.”

Two of the women worked with the youth court process and were allowed to testify for kids, especially in sex abuse cases. They were distraught that the county had no facility for these children, often sending them back to where they were abused. Their goal was to open a shelter, but they found a total lack of interest with the city and county, according to Latham.

“When I joined them, they had raised $50,000, but it had taken them two years to do it,” he said. “They had to come up with more money faster.”

Latham, a retired Navy officer who was a social worker at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) at the time, drove his wife, Ann, to a meeting to discuss fund raising for Hope Haven. He sat in the back and listened, then asked the ladies about applying for grants. They put it on him to find out about grants and foundations. He did so through the library at USM and soon the ladies were thrilled to receive a $250,000 Basic Opportunity Grant from the state.

“They showed up in my office and were pleased, but that changed when they realized they had 60 days to get it up and running,” Latham recalls. “The state has very stiff requirements, and they were faced with giving the money back.”

He says 30 years of exposure to a wide range of duties in the Navy prepared him to do all aspects of the job. “How could I refuse?” he asks rhetorically. “They work me three times as hard with one-third of the pay. Am I crazy?”

Latham and the dedicated women opened Hope Haven in 1996 on a short-term basis. When no applications were received for the position of cook, he prevailed upon his daughter, Valerie Edenfield, to come and do the shopping and cooking. She did and has been there ever since, now as assistant shelter manager.

“She’s there every day and really runs it,” Latham said. “The family connection has allowed us to cover it. If Val needs a babysitter for her own children, Ann and I do it so she can be at the shelter.”

Sadly, Bobbie Barr has passed away and Latham says the other founding women have health problems. “They all had the same trait — they believed in these kids,” he said, “and worked themselves to death.”

Hope Haven is licensed as an emergency shelter for 12 children. There are usually 10 children there with an average stay of four months. Although the shelter is not supposed to be long term, some children have stayed there up to 14 months. The arrangement of the bedrooms requires the right mix of children. Latham says they are presently adding another bedroom so the shelter can house 12 children all the time. At least 30 children are turned down each month.

“I tell people to close their eyes and think of the worst thing you could do to a child sexually, physically and mentally, and it’s happened. It’s walked through the doors at Hope Haven,” Latham said.

The first child taken in was a 3-1/2- year-old boy who had been repeatedly sodomized by his father while the mother filmed it to sell tapes. The child was terrified of everyone and would hide under the bed. He would not look anyone in the eye and was scared of anything resembling a camera.

By the time he left us, he was normal,” Latham says. “Val and I stood in the back of the court and watched him get adopted by his foster family. He did not remember us — that’s good and sad.”

Teens who come into the shelter are the most difficult to deal with, the director says, because they have not been in school, have no social skills and have had bad adult role models. “They come to the shelter with all those negative traits and don’t want to be there,” he added. “They’re not accustomed to school, homework and discipline.”

He says the realization of what they’re doing and the service that’s been provided for the 2,500 children who’ve stayed at Hope Haven are what keep him and the rest of the staff plugging away each day.

In addition to being a United Way agency, Hope Haven receives excellent community support. “People see we’re providing real service and that’s why they want to help us,” he said. “At least 50% of the members of the local Chamber of Commerce have donated cash and materials. Area churches and the casinos have been terrific.”

Employees of the Grand Casinos recently raised $53,000 that is funding the shelter’s bedroom addition. The employees also come each year and with the children decorate the shelter and yard for the holidays. Treasure Bay Casino also donated over $50,000. Boomtown Casino donated playground equipment and has a yearly holiday pizza party for the children. The Copa Casino held a food drive. The Beau Rivage Casino contributes $7,500 yearly and makes the children’s wish list come true, wrapping and delivering the gifts.

“It isn’t impersonal and it makes your heart sing,” Latham said. “And our hometown hero is Casino Magic Bay St. Louis who does many things for us.”

The Sea Wolves hockey team held a jersey auction and sold handmade Christmas ornaments to raise funds for the shelter.
Howard Hamilton, owner of the local Choice Supermarket chain, is a special friend to Hope Haven. He donates 1% of all store receipts that are returned each month. Shoppers can drop off receipts at any Peoples Bank branch, Diamondhead Drug Store or mail to Hope Haven at P.O. Box 37, Bay St. Louis 39520.

The shelter asks people to donate clothing to Goodwill Stores where the children are allowed to shop for free.

There is an ongoing need for paper products of all kinds.
The services of local physicians and dentists are used. The shelter also pays a qualified tutor to come in twice a week to help the children — most are far behind their peers — with schoolwork. The staff attends all school functions with the children.

“We’re setting a climate and giving them the support they need,” Latham said. “They are not used to that.”

The work at Hope Haven is far from complete but every time a child comes through the doors it’s his or her hope for a new beginning.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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