Since news about failing banks and depressing Dow numbers affect us all, it’s easy to forget the families who were already struggling. “We’ve seen far more family disruption, and far more kids who have no place to go,” says Kevin Drollinger, executive director of Epworth Children & Family Services. At the agency’s emergency shelter in University City, demand is so high that they have had to turn kids away. “I think a lot of parents have fewer resources themselves,” he explains. “There’s more anger in the home, there’s more violence in the family,” which can tip the balance, sending kids out on the street.
Epworth, originally founded by the United Methodist Church as a mission agency for Civil War orphans, today works with children who have severe emotional and behavioral challenges. It provides residential treatment, family reunification therapy, special education and foster family care. In the last 10 years, Drollinger says, Epworth has made a special effort to help troubled youths ease back into society, adding an emergency shelter and transitional and independent living programs.
“The most recent addition has been our program for youth who are aging out of foster care,” Drollinger says. Serving ages 16 to 21, the ‘Aging Out Initiative’ teaches participants to advocate for themselves with employers and in court. “We hired young people who’ve aged out of the system successfully themselves to practice and role play with our kids on how to speak out assertively on their own behalf,” Drollinger says.
Underpinning all of Epworth’s programs is its ‘strength-based philosophy.’ “We believe fundamentally that everyone has gifts and graces that they’re given, and it’s really our opportunity to uncover those and help kids find their strengths,” he explains. ‘When you feel good about yourself, when you appreciate your gifts and graces, you have far less need to act out.”
Focusing on strengths is not always easy, Drollinger admits, but the rewards are remarkable. “We had a young man who didn’t like school and was really having trouble,” he says. “He had not been successful in a variety of different school placements, but he always talked about how when he went home he liked to cook.” So the principal bought the student a barbecue grill and set him up on Epworth’s campus as a short-order cook for the staff, taking lunch orders for burgers and brats. His schoolmates helped deliver the meals, and together they earned money for a trip to Six Flags. “He actually turned out to be a really good cook, to the point where we wouldn’t go out to lunch!” says Drollinger. Now the young man has graduated high school and is attending culinary school.
“When you focus on strengths, you never know what path it’s going to take you down,” Drollinger says. “We’ve had staff say it’s like digging through sand. You need to keep digging and digging until you find that one piece, that kernel of strength, and then you build on it.”
Epworth holds its annual polo match and dinner June 13 at Blue Heron Farms in Defiance, Mo. The match features world-class polo players, including Hector Galindo, Del Walton and Steve and Stevie Orthwein. This year’s honorary co-chair, Billy Busch, son of August Busch Jr., has hosted the match for the past 14 years at his family farm, growing the event from roughly 150 people to more than 500. As he has in the past, Busch, a world-class polo player himself, will compete in the match.
“The special thing about polo is that, of course, it’s played on horseback, so it’s a very fast game,” Busch says. “You don’t get to see this caliber of polo in Missouri, or even in the Midwest, very often.”
In addition to the polo match, there will be clowns, Fredbird and other activities for kids, as well as dinner under a tent at the 60-acre polo club. After the match, polo players will sign autographs and give polo balls to kids, including several from Epworth.
Meeting the kids, says Busch, as he has done year after year, is one of the most memorable parts of the event. “It’s a real thrill to be able to give something back to them, whether it’s just a handshake or a kind word.”