Safe Place – One Professional Youth Worker’s Journey

Written by Tammy Hopper, Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer, National Safe Place Network
In honor of National Safe Place Week

Safe Place logo

The first time I heard about Safe Place® was 30 years ago. Like many others, I had seen the sign around town but didn’t quite understand the intent. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it isn’t hard to understand – Safe Place – you know, a place to be safe. How hard is that? However, I didn’t “get it.” I didn’t understand what it meant to be unsafe. I didn’t understand what it was like to not being able to sleep at night for fear something would happen to me. I had never experienced what it felt like to be bullied and not have anyone in which to confide. The words that I heard in my childhood had been filled with love, hope, encouragement, and strength. So, as I drove by fire stations, libraries, and fast food restaurants, I looked at the sign – I saw the availability of Safe Place as a good thing. Now, I know it is more than good – it is a critical link for all youth in crisis.

How did I come to this perspective? It started on the day I saw an ad for a local youth shelter. I was armed with a resume, a degree, and a sense that it was my turn to make a difference. I was lucky enough to get the job and like all first time youth care workers, I quickly learned all that would be part of my career. I learned to play basketball (or at least throw the ball in the air); I learned to assist youth with household chores; and, I learned to really listen. As the youth who were not a lot younger than me shared their stories – I was professional and then go home and cry. They shared their stories of abuse and neglect as if they were telling me what brand of toothpaste they used and I couldn’t understand why or how the things I heard about happened.  I felt helpless. I saw them enter a system that had insufficient resources to meet their needs and sometimes, I saw them return to situations that were questionable and, at times, dangerous. I wanted to contribute in a way that gave youth choice – a way that honored their right to ask for help. It was during this initial year of service that I received my training on how to be a Safe Place volunteer.

As a Safe Place volunteer, I presented information to youth in local schools and I would be surrounded by youth who asked questions. There was usually at least one youth who asked more questions and I knew that although 100 youth may have heard my message – the meaning of what I had was special to him or her. The situations we discussed – bullying, relationship violence, parental substance abuse, school problems, and many others – were important and life changing.  I was provided an opportunity to provide a link to help and I found that in many cases, the youth really just wanted someone to listen.

I had an opportunity to meet with businesses to make sure they understood the program and how they had a critical role in helping keep youth in our community safe. These business leaders asked questions and challenged me in ways that helped hone my negotiating skills and my insistence that it never hurts to ask. I asked for everything – donations of money, time, in-kind gifts, and other resources – all geared toward helping youth be safe.

As time went by, I was soon offered the job of Safe Place Coordinator and I embraced the opportunity. I learned to manage volunteers and to help them feel needed and appreciated. I learned how to create successful fundraisers and to build public awareness about the program. I learned to face skeptics who found it easy to assume that all adolescents in need of help were simply unruly kids who needed to learn respect and how to follow rules. I learned to advocate for community needs and how the answer “no” was simply an opportunity to present the question in a different way.

The different question came when I was asked to serve on the National Safe Place Advisory Board. I was given the chance to come together with other coordinators, counselors and executive directors – all committed to the expansion of the Safe Place program. I learned so much from this group of change agents. They taught me how to solution think. Every group can easily identify barriers and challenges to progress. This group focused on using the barrier as a springboard and we would dive deep into the dynamics of the situation and even we agreed to disagreed – we did it with respect. I learned how Safe Place could work differently in each community and the flexibility of the program while still protecting the agencies and the youth involved. If possible, I became even more passionate about the potential of Safe Place to assist all youth in crisis. It just took the right partners in each community.

I served on the National Advisory Board for 20 years. I served as Chair of the group and as a member of the Board of Directors. With each new leadership role, I found myself utilizing all of the skills, knowledge, and connections that Safe Place had brought me in each task I accepted.

In 2013, my Safe Place journey brought me to the place I probably always belonged. As a staff member of National Safe Place Network, it is part of my daily responsibility to put the needs of youth in crisis first and to try and find ways to help each community reach out to youth in their communities. It is in this role that I continue to try and listen, solution think, negotiate, advocate, and hope. It is in this role that I celebrate every TXT 4 HELP contact, every crisis call resolved, and every new Safe Place city launched. The reality is that if you don’t believe in Safe Place – you may not truly know Safe Place. The third week of March is National Safe Place Week. Communities across the country will find ways to celebrate this public/private partnership that brings the best of social services, businesses, first responders, public officials, and community members together to provide one simple thing – a place for youth to get help – when and where they need it most. Whether the youth is hiding in a closet and the only link to safety is a text or the youth is being followed by bullies and sees a sign on a nearby store – the offer is clear and easy to understand. We want to help you – all you have to do is ask.

So it takes me back to my initial days learning about Safe Place. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it isn’t hard to understand – Safe Place – you know, a place to be safe. How hard is that?

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