Jesse’s House recently made changes to its branding, logo and website as leadership said they realized many in the community did not fully understand the youth shelter and all it does for adolescent girls in the area experiencing abuse and neglect.
Executive Director Elizabeth Johnson said the website now includes more information on services that they provide for girls staying with them and volunteer opportunities for those in the community. They also updated the language, removing phrases such as “emergency youth shelter” and “at-risk girls” to better reflect their current mission.
“It was something that I felt like needed to happen because there was a kind of dated feel to the understanding of what we did,” Johnson said. “I just wanted [everyone] to know we’re not the Jesse’s House of yesteryear.”
Jesse’s House came about after Kennesaw State University conducted an assessment of north Georgia in 1996 which found that there was a need in Forsyth County for a girl’s youth shelter. Through community donations, including a house from the family of Jesse Morris, the shelter opened in 1998.
For some time, Johnson said girls’ stay at the shelter was limited to only 90 days, and the shelter was licensed only to provide basic care. This was reflected in the shelter’s previous logo, which advertised it as an emergency youth shelter.
Johnson said this is one of the biggest changes she has seen at the shelter since beginning as a counselor there in 2016 and then moving up as program director in October.
Taking time to breathe
As girls are placed with the shelter either through the Forsyth County Juvenile Court or Division of Family and Children Services, they usually come into it after having faced serious trauma, or they may need extra care. Johnson said she has put a heavier focus on making sure they are meeting more of the girls’ needs before discharging them, which means providing treatment and counseling.
Jesse’s House no longer has a limit on how long girls can stay, and the staff is now licensed for Additional Watchful Oversight, allowing them to bring in girls who may need that extra attention.
“The approach that I have had since becoming the program director is asking, ‘What can we do for these girls while they’re here?’ Johnson said. “Not just give them a bed to sleep in, which is important. But what is it we’ll be able to do?”
Since 2016, Johnson said their length of stay has increased by around 130% for girls placed by DFCS and more than 420% for girls placed by the juvenile court. The increased stay, now at an average of about nine months, not only allows the staff to provide better care for the girls, but Johnson also believes it allows the girls to grow more comfortable with their counselors and open up about past abuse.
In just the past three years, Johnson said the number of girls receiving additional care at the shelter has increased by 975%.
“I think that [extra time] allows us to have more of an impact on them,” Johnson said. “Because these are formative years, we can make a difference.”
Bringing about change
The staff always keeps track of the girls’ behavior such as instances where they may act out in some way or self-harm. Their goal is to not only stabilize them, but change these behaviors so they can lead a healthy life. If the girls, usually aged 15-17, are discharged too early or before these behaviors begin to change, Johnson said they often end up back at the shelter.
Johnson remembers one girl who was placed at Jesse’s House who she said could not get along with anyone. She struggled to trust others, and when someone tried to interact with her, she would become very defensive.
One day, a situation in the shelter forced her to place some trust in the staff there, and they all stuck by her and showed her support. Johnson said that “in a lot of ways,” she had never experienced that before.
After that, she completely shifted. She became more nurturing and willing to build up a relationship with those around her, and by the time she left, Johnson said she was a completely different person.
“That was an issue of her being taken out of an environment that reinforced all that behavior all the time and her being here long enough so that she could make those changes,” Johnson said. “And she responded to what we did.”
Fighting against setbacks
After working to address their basic needs and offer treatment for past traumas such as abuse, Johnson said they have also placed a heavy focus on helping the teenage girls keep their grades up in school.
She believes that graduating from high school and hopefully going onto college is their greatest chance to “overcome the odds” and find success in their futures.
Johnson said, in the state of Georgia, only about 11% of foster kids end up graduating from high school, and only 6-8% of those kids graduate on time. These kids face many challenges and obstacles on the road to graduation, one of the biggest being the number of times they have to move around and change school.
Each time a student transfers to another school, they are set back six months in their education, and Johnson explained many foster kids change schools an average of 10-15 times.
Over the past three years, however, Jesse’s House has seen a 100% high school graduation rate among the girls staying there. Johnson said three girls worked hard to graduate in just the last year, and two of them are now going on to college.
One of the girls switched schools 26 times during her education, and she took 18 classes in just her senior year to make sure she could graduate on time. Johnson said the girl had never pictured she would live as long as she has, much less graduate from high school and attend college.
Another one of the girls had been homeless before being placed at Jesse’s House, living in a van with her sister. Johnson said they moved around to different parking lots around Lake Lanier where they cleaned up and washed their hair when they could. She had isolated herself at school before, knowing that no one could find out that she was homeless.
She ended up excelling in school, taking AP and honors courses and joining three different honor societies. When Johnson asked her what she was most proud of after graduation, she replied, “I am not one to boast about my academics; I just feel happy that people know me.”
Johnson believes that the extra time the Jesse’s House staff spends to go above and beyond the needs of the girls there will continue to make this type of long-term impact on their lives. Outside of simply meeting their basic needs and even providing them with care for their past traumas, she wants to empower each of the girls.
In the new Jesse’s House logo are the words “Healing, Support, Empowerment,” which Johnson said better represents their new focus. It also features a sunflower, which always turns towards the sun as it is growing. Also scattered throughout the shelter’s website, she said sunflowers represent their mission to keep the girls on a positive path forward.
“We want them to feel as normal and supported as any kid in this community can or does,” Johnson said.
She hopes that the new logo and imagery on the website will catch the attention of those in the community and help them to understand that Jesse’s House is about so much more than just providing a bed for these girls.
Those who want to learn more about their mission and services can find their website at Jesseshouse.org.
The organization is also always looking for volunteers who may be able to help out, teach classes, cut hair or offer other services. Otherwise, community members can help out by giving either monetary donations or by purchasing off of their Amazon wish list posted to their website.