Missouri Girls Town: A Safe and Hopeful Haven in Mid-Missouri

Stories / June 12, 2014

Photography by Keith Borgmeyer

hopesignMandy Watkins was only 13 years old when she came to live at Missouri Girls Town.

Abandoned by her mother, she entered the foster care system but struggled with the emotional fallout. Her case worker felt she could benefit from the counseling, educational, vocational and other support services offered at the residential treatment facility.

While most Mid Missourians may be aware of its existence they don’t really know what Missouri Girls Town is all about, or harbor misconceptions that it’s a juvenile detention facility or correctional institute. It’s not.

“Missouri Girl’s Town is really Missouri’s best kept secret,” said Denise Chapel, a board member who lives in Jefferson City and serves as the director of Vendor Relations for the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan. “We help change the lives of these girls and their families.”

Founded 60 years ago by The General Federation of Women’s Clubs of Missouri, GFWC, Missouri Girls Town serves girls 8 – 21 from all over the state who have been neglected, sexually or physically abused and are dealing with behavioral and emotional issues.

Placed at the facility through the Missouri Division of Family Services, the Department of Health or the juvenile court system, Missouri Girls Town is a village of people dedicated to caring for young girls by not only offering them a second chance, but for many the first time they’ve been able to count on any safety, support and consistency in their “home” life.

“The world has let many of our girls down and they weren’t able to grow up with a supportive family life,” said Kim Distefano, the president elect of the Board. “On average they’ve been through nine foster care placements that haven’t worked well and often are sent here where we can offer them a soft place to land.”

There are no giant signs marking Missouri Girls Town, located ten miles from Kingdom City and visible from Interstate 70 East, or gates. The 22-acre facility resembles a small campus, which includes four residential homes, a dining hall, school counseling center, administrative building and recreation center.

Two-thirds of its $2.5 million operating budget comes from the state and the remaining one-third through donations from various individuals and companies, all listed on decorative honor walls throughout the campus structures. The Missouri Girls Town Foundation is a non-profit, tax exempt organization with a very active board. Ann Kutscher, a long time GFWC member and former administrative assistant to the late Missouri Senator Ike Skelton, served as board president for 25 years.

“Ann was instrumental in helping Missouri Girls Town receive accreditation and grow the facility,” said Executive Director Kathy Becker, who has served in this capacity since 2007 and for four years was director of development.

Missouri Girls Town first opened with a 40-acre ranch near Mountain Grove, Mo., but in 1981 Bill and Peggy McClain donated the land outside of Kingdom City to build a new campus. It started out with an administration building and Hope House, the first residential house built on the property, but has continued to grow and since 1989 has quadrupled in size. Every building on campus is named after its donor, such as the Gerbes House and the McClain-Williams House, which was completely renovated in the spring of last year.

All of the girls in residential care are assigned to a specific residential house licensed to serve Care Levels 3 and 4 and Transitional Living, in accordance with the state guidelines. The girls aren’t allowed to have cell phones or be on Facebook and follow a structured schedule that includes weekly individual and group counseling sessions.

“A lot of our kids have been treated so poorly so it’s unrealistic to expect them to not be affected by that and to have anger and other issues,” Becker said. “We work with them on these issues in a variety of ways.”

The girls participate in scheduled recreational activities and continue their education through the North Callaway School District, either off-campus or on campus at the Lindsey Vinton Rickey School. The girls also work oncampus in the dining hall or off-campus, including the facility-owned Yours Mine & Ours, a high-end thrift store in Fulton. The licensed social workers and professional counselors offer many types of services to help them move to an independent living situation and there’s also job training, after care and outpatient services too.

Missouri Girls Town also operates a Scatter-Site program where former residents can be part of an off campus independent living in apartments in Fulton, Columbia or Jefferson City, but are still officially wards of the state. The residents will meet with Missouri Girls Town counselors during this time.

“When appropriate, our goal is to reunite our girls with their family or extended family or to transfer them into an independent living situation,” Becker said.

Sally (not her real name, which must be protected via federal privacy laws) is from Kansas City and came to Missouri Girls Town almost two years ago. After living in Gerbes House, she moved into Karches Kottage, a group home where residents live in their own room and learn how to use a checkbook and budget. She also worked at a local fast food restaurant in Fulton. After graduation in May, she’ll move to an apartment in Jefferson City, where she plans to attend cosmetology school at Merrell University.

Watkins, who lived at Missouri Girls Town for seven years, essentially grew up under the staff’s care and they became a second family.

“I was so traumatized when I first came here but the staff are so caring and helpful and they really raised me,” she said.

She attended North Callaway High School in Kingdom City and was part of the dance team there. Slowly she was able to deal with the issues from her upbringing and rebuild her life. She left Missouri Girls Town when she was 21 and worked for a while at the Fulton State Hospital, but in November of last year took a job as a youth worker at Missouri Girls Town.

“I am forever grateful for my time here and wanted to pay it forward by giving back to other girls who come to live here,” said Watkins, who one day would like to become a house manager at one of the residential houses.

“We can’t change every girl’s life but if we work together with her we can make it happen,” said Becker. “We’re really proud of our program and it’s time to go out and toot our own horn and let everyone know what we’re doing and expand our fundraising base.”

Distefano, who lives in St. Louis and served on the board for 12 years before taking over as president, is planning to implement an outreach campaign to create more awareness about Missouri Girls Town.

“It was wonderful to be mentored by Ann Kutscher who was such a cornerstone here and the work that we do really gets into your heart and we’re all really passionate about it,” Distefano said.

Carl Edwards, Sr., was newly elected to the board in January and Lois Reine of Jefferson City, a GFWC member, has served on the board for 15 years.

The Scallorns, long time supporters of Missouri Girls Town, have recruited other donors and board members, including Chapel. While her husband, Nimrod “Rod” Chapel, isn’t on the board, he has become involved and Joe Scallorns, retired from a long successful career in banking, has served as a financial advisor to the board and financial committee for many years.

“Joe has often told me that supporting Missouri Girls Town is the greatest gift we’ve ever given each other and we hope our son and daughter-in-law continue the efforts,” she said.

“Not everyone is born in a happy home but if they have to live somewhere Missouri Girls Town is a great place to be,” Fran said. “I truly believe that when the girls arrive here it’s really the first day of the rest of their lives.”

Alvin Leifeste

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