Cornerstones of Care

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I focus on a lot of environmental issues in this column, but today, I’ve got a slightly different take on a healthier planet: healthy children. After all, what could be more important to the future health of our planet than ensuring it’s inherited by healthy, happy, and educated children? Enter a group called Cornerstones of Care, a non-profit agency, which attempts to create that future through a variety of programs.

At its core, Cornerstones of Care provides prevention, treatment, and support for more than 12,000 families each year in Kansas, Missouri, and beyond. “Most youth in our residential treatment have been removed from their homes and are in state custody because of trauma they’ve suffered such as abuse or neglect,” Stephanie Sheldon, the group’s Senior Marketing Manager shared. Sheldon says the children express unsafe behaviors and mental health challenges. That makes it difficult to succeed in a foster home and requires around the clock care and counseling by professionals trained to deal with children who’ve suffered trauma. It’s Cornerstones of Cares goal to help the children first stabilize, then heal, so they can return home or to avlicensed foster home.

One initiative that leaped out at me was the COC’s Healthy Eating Program, part of the group’s educational efforts. I learned of the Healthy Eating Initiative through a friend of a friend whose wife works with the children in the program. I was intrigued early on, and later quite impressed. “Trauma-informed staff members who are highly-talented in building trades, horticulture, and culinary arts provide health and vocational training and coaching for youth who have experienced trauma and/or are in foster care,” Sheldon told me.

Sheldon went on to say that the program addresses both immediate and long-term needs by helping the children heal while preparing them to become healthy, independent adults with skills that will help them get jobs. “Youth build, run, and operate our outdoor learning centers and fully functioning greenhouse and urban farms growing vegetables and fruits. Mentors and volunteers join our instructors and work alongside our youth, teaching them about horticulture, cooking, exercise, carpentry, and landscaping,” Sheldon continued. She says the Healthy Eating program serves hundreds of area youth annually and is quickly expanding.

The Healthy Eating program was started six years ago on the Cornerstones of Care Gillis Campus, which provides full-time therapeutic residential treatment for youth in foster care or those who are deemed unsafe in their homes. Education is also provided for students who are unable to succeed in their neighborhood school through COC’s day treatment school. “Our first outdoor learning center, the Growth Grove, was started in an empty field behind the school. A team of youth cleaned it up and installed raised beds for vegetables,” Sheldon recalled. “Later, the work was followed by an orchard, outdoor classroom, outdoor kitchen, obstacle course, butterfly garden, mobile market cart, outdoor yoga platform, and giant sun dial.” A few years later, the program expanded to a second outdoor learning site and farm on Cornerstones of Care’s Ozanam Campus. Currently, the program is creating a network of partner farms and community kitchens that will serve and train hundreds more youth in the years to come. “It was started after recognizing a severe need of all youth, but especially youth who have experienced trauma-life skills and opportunity. Every day, youth thrive on the farm. Kids who struggled to feel successful in their home, school or community are becoming strong learners, team players and reliable young adults,” Sheldon said.

This is hands-on learning, nothing abstract. The kids create proposals for what they will build, study insects and their impacts on their plants, learn tool safety, and become educated on how to cook what they grow. Sheldon says through these lessons and others, Cornerstones of Care hopes to give youth employable skills which will lead to healthy, independent adults. “We hope to see a breaking of the cycles of unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration that are all too real in the communities we serve,” Sheldon stated.

Lofty goals to be sure, but with more than 300 youth growing thousands of pounds of produce and fruits every year, Cornerstones of Care is seeing real progress. And, that will most certainly lead to a healthier planet. Give or get help at cornerstonesofcare.org.

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