The children mill around tentatively at first as the afternoon’s long shadows soften the light in Child Haven’s inner yard.
Gradually, their laughter twirls in the air like music. By early Thursday evening four more young ones are delivered to the door of the county’s oasis for abused and neglected kids. That brings the facility’s ever-changing census to 49, each with a personal story awful enough to make you want to hug your own kids tight against a world riddled with waking nightmares.
Quadriplegic, paraplegic, broken spirits and burned skin, Child Haven manager Lou Palma says matter-of-factly. Child Haven gets them all. By the end of the year, Thursday’s population could easily double.
One of the things many people don’t understand about Child Haven is that, while its residents are among the most troubled young people in cynical Southern Nevada, its mission is unabashedly optimistic. It is, in fact, a refuge for many young people and at times provides the only clean, safe and caring respite they will know.
There is food, clean clothes. No one yells. They are not sexually abused, burned by cigarettes, beaten bloody or left to fend for themselves.
Child Haven is their candle against the darkness. It is where hope lives.
And so when the members of the National Electrical Contractors Association learned last year the oasis with a 40-year history lacked Christmas lights, they converged on the site and rewired the cottages. On Thursday, Mayor Oscar Goodman threw the switch on the second annual lighting ceremony. The usually hyperbolic “Happiest Mayor” knows the importance of the precious symbolism of the night.
When Judi Booe, Lois Choate and Sandi Nathan learned that clothing and other essentials weren’t part of Child Haven’s tattered budget, they decided to fill that need. Two years ago they founded the Child Haven Advocacy Network-Giving Enterprise (CHANGE), a charitable foundation. Their fundraising provides clothing and backpacks for the kids.
They buy tickets to the dinosaur show and the ballet, and pay for restaurant meals for children whose daily lives are spent on the outside looking in. They try to spread a little joy.
For her part, Booe started by volunteering at the facility and found herself getting too emotional over the children’s heart-wrenching plight. Instead of turning away, she helped create CHANGE.
“After I saw children come in beaten up so badly, I was a basket case,” Booe says. “When these kids come in, many of them are not clothed very well. When the children come to Child Haven, the first thing the staff does is bathe them and feed them. The staff had been scrounging for clothes to put on them. We go out and buy all new clothing with the donations we receive.”
The group’s Light Up A Child’s Life fundraiser calls for contributions to pay for a strand of lights for the campus, but Booe and Nathan frankly admit the holiday lights were donated. They use the cash for shoes and clothes for the kids.
“It’s an unending trail of children,” Booe says. “We do a lot of begging.”
Nathan adds, “There are all kinds of things we can do to help these kids. There are needs down here. And the needs are never ending.”
And the odds of a happy ending are longer than the darkest night of the year. In fact, a cynic standing outside the fence might conclude Child Haven isn’t an oasis, but a mirage of normalcy in lives destined for torment and dysfunction.
Such talk has no place on this island.
So the switch is flipped and the colored lights go on. Santa and a magician work the crowd. There are ponies to ride and treats to eat. There’s simple fun to be had, and they have it as if their lives weren’t hanging in a balance far beyond their control.
There is laughter in the shadows and something that feels like hope.
“When you go down there and see these kids,” Booe says, “it breaks your heart because they’re beautiful and resilient and have the ability to enjoy life.”
What they lack is the opportunity. If only temporarily, Child Haven opens the door to a childhood that doesn’t hurt and isn’t inhabited by real boogeymen.
Child Haven is not just their candle against the darkness.
It is our candle, too.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.