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Ask the Cougar

Charleston's Angel Brigade

Pam Brooks ’75, Kim Clifton ’94 and Elisa Mundis ’09

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It’s like any morning at Charleston County’s Department of Social Services. Caseworkers sit partially hidden from view in cubicles the color of harbor fog, their telephone voices mixing with the tapping out of endless keystrokes – the gravity of their work not quite registering over the airwaves.

Pam Brooks ’75Kim Clifton ’94 and Elisa Mundis ’09 (M.P.A.) are nearby in their offices, sending e-mails and making phone calls, the little tasks that amount to so much more than the sounds they emit. In fact, if the goodwill flowing out of these women suddenly burst forth in crowns of fiery gold about their heads, it would only be fitting.

Of course, they would say they’re just doing their jobs. And then probably ask for water.

Together these women run HALOS (Helping and Lending Outreach Support), a Charleston-based nonprofit organization that works closely with social services to connect abused and neglected children and their caregivers with valuable resources and uplifting experiences.

To maximize their impact, HALOS draws its power from a vast community of helping hands who may never actually meet the people they benefit. Call it a brigade of guardian angels.

Their work begins with social services caseworkers who identify children and caregivers with dire needs. Then, to fill those needs, HALOS turns to an ever-expanding community network of nonprofits and businesses, faith-based organizations and foundations, civic groups, clubs and other generous souls looking for meaningful and lasting ways to help others.

“It’s such a unique public–private partnership,” says Clifton, the organization’s executive director.

The partners’ commitment of money, goods and time allows HALOS the breadth and flexibility to pool resources quickly in crisis moments and to expand the reach of its ongoing programs every year.

Last year, thanks to HALOS, 138 kids attended summer camp, 165 received birthday cards and gifts, 1,200 received new school supplies and more than 2,000 children and their families celebrated Christmas through the holiday giving program.

“One of our goals is to make every child feel he or she is just as special and loved as any child,” says Brooks, who works for the Department of Social Services as a liaison with organizations like HALOS. Brooks coordinates HALOS’ annual programs serving children in the social services system.

These programs pick up where social services leaves off, offering children who have escaped abuse and neglect the opportunity to enjoy life – children like the little girl who wrote to thank HALOS for the birthday card and the gift she received in the mail.

“Thank you for all your hard work,” her letter says. “Jesus loves all of you and so do I.”

It’s that kind of thanks that drives HALOS – that and knowing it’s making a difference in the lives of children and caregivers in dire need of support. And, for some families, that means the difference between remaining intact and being torn apart.

Clifton tells the story of a grandmother who raised her two grandsons from toddlers. In their tiny apartment they had only two folding chairs, a mattress lying on the floor and a television to call their own. When social services came to inspect the home, the grandmother – partially blind and severely arthritic – said she preferred to sleep on the floor, leaving the mattress for the boys, now ages 13 and 15, to share. Making matters worse, kids at school teased the brothers for wearing dirty clothes, and the Department of Juvenile Justice worried that they were heading for trouble.

“There was no lack of love there,” Clifton says. “It was the dire poverty that really struck me about this case.”

If only a grandmother’s love could clothe a child or buy him a bed.

Enter HALOS, which – within two days of learning about this family’s predicament– completely furnished their apartment with donations and raised $500 to take the boys shopping for clothes and other necessities.

It was around Valentine’s Day when Clifton remembers walking into Target. The younger brother saw all the cards and candy boxes, and the first thing he asked to buy was a Valentine for his grandmother.

“These boys were at risk of being brought into care purely because of a lack of resources,” Clifton says. “We were able to get them stabilized.”

Most important, HALOS helped this family stay together. Not quite divine intervention, but close enough.

During the unfortunate and terribly difficult times when a social services caseworker must take a child into custody, HALOS is also there to help.

“Taking a child into custody is very traumatic for the child, the family and the caseworker,” says Brooks, noting that the children usually leave their homes without any personal belongings beyond what they’re wearing. To help them, HALOS maintains a Critical Needs Closet full of bags of children’s clothing, toiletries, school supplies and other items they might need.

It’s amazing the kind of comfort that items such as shampoo or toothbrushes – which are so often taken for granted – can give children who have been neglected.

Clifton remembers when a caseworker brought a group of siblings into social services. Only the oldest sister, who was 10, understood what was happening. She told the caseworker that she regretted not being able to change her clothes before leaving home.

“She didn’t want to go to school the next day wearing the jean shorts she had on,” Clifton says.

In the closet, they found a bag containing a cute skirt and costume jewelry for the girl to wear.

“I told her she looked beautiful,” Clifton says. “She kept all her stuff very neat in a box. She was very protective of her little world, her stuff, and wanted to make sure it all stayed together.

“At that moment,” Clifton continues, “it really hit home what happens when kids are taken from their homes. They’re left feeling displaced and they don’t have anything they can call their own. HALOS tries to mitigate the poverty they live in.”

Moving beyond the doors of social services, HALOS reaches out to relative caregivers across the community through the Kinship Care Resource and Support Program, coordinated by Mundis until recently, when she was promoted to a fundraising position.

“Sometimes relative caregivers can feel isolated and alone in their roles,” Mundis says, especially when they are single grandmothers unexpectedly thrust back into parenthood without adequate resources – like most of the caregivers she knows.

Imagine being a grandparent, dealing with the complexities of texting and Facebook, while trying to protect a child from STDs or the drugs being hustled on the streets.

HALOS knows the difficulty these adults face, so – in addition to organizing monthly support groups for them – it offers several opportunities for respite, including stress-management workshops, family outings and dinners with on-site babysitting to give these caregivers a chance to share stories, advice and good company.

“The support groups are a real source of strength and empowerment for them,” says Mundis. “To be able to work one-on-one with people, to run support groups, to talk to them on the phone and visit with them: That’s what really ignited my passion for this work.”

Since working for HALOS, Mundis has extended her family. “I don’t have grandparents myself,” she says, “so these grandparents have become my grandparents.”

It is precisely this sense of community – a gathering of willing hands, both private and public, all acknowledging their stake in helping others – that drives all of HALOS’s endeavors.

It’s the idea that even the smallest efforts, when combined, can have miraculous effects.

– Jamie Self ’02