Thursday, August 10, 2017
The youth had been missing from home for five years; his mother had assumed he was dead. When he finally showed up at one of the Safe Places, the details about his life began to unfold. The youth was a runaway from Alexandria. It would be easy enough to find his family, except that he was from Alexandria, La. Mike Mackey, the gang coordinator, contacted Michael Johnson with the Department of Parks and Recreation. Through the Safe Places program, Johnson was able to find the child’s family and arrange to have him sent back home. A little while later, Johnson flew down to Louisiana to attend the youth’s graduation and see him get accepted into the military.
Johnson has a dozen stories like this; A girl from Illinois who’d taken a wrong turn in life, a local student who had been expelled from school and facing a mental crisis. They all came in through the Safe Places program. The big black and yellow diamond emblem can be seen on public buildings like recreation centers and libraries across the city. Safe Places is a community program where youth in crisis can get immediate help. A network of sites and resources are staffed by various agencies, trained volunteers, and some businesses. The program started in Louisville, Ky. in 1982 and spread from there. Its spread in Virginia has been limited, however. Currently, Johnson says the only other Safe Places network in Virginia is in Hampton Roads.
There are 36 Safe Place sites across Alexandria, including all recreation centers, libraries, and fire departments. Each is manned by trained staff that know how to deal with issues related to suicide, bullying, and other issues youths might have come into contact with. Johnson noted that the program doesn’t take the place of 911, but it does offer youth a comfortable place to address these issues away from the public view.
The program costs the city $25,000 annually, through the Department of Parks and Recreation, which funds training and public awareness. Johnson said the program receives roughly six cases each year for bullying and six or seven gang-related issues. There were three runaway cases last year.
To reach out to the Safe Places program, call 703-746-5400 or reach out to the national organization at nationalsafeplace.org.