Presented by the United Way of the Ozarks

This post was paid for and produced by the United Way of the Ozarks. The Daily Citizen newsroom was not involved in the creation of this content.

Providing support and strengthening foundations one child at a time means building brighter futures for at-risk Ozarks youth

United Way of the Ozarks is mobilizing community action so all children can thrive. Donors will fund 21 programs at 14 nonprofit agencies, helping our youngest citizens reach their full potential.

In 2022, United Way-funded programs gave 727 children a haven from domestic violence, abuse, or neglect. In addition, programs provided low or no-cost counseling services to 731 youth and helped nearly 800 children achieve academic or developmental gains. Consistent, caring adults supported 2,705 youth in the Springfield metro area through mentorship or advocacy, a vital component for resiliency.

However, there is still much work to do.

Although progress is being made, the need for improvements and ongoing support remains

Springfield’s most recent Community Focus Report identified critical issues of child abuse and neglect, youth mental health, and education achievement gaps among under-resourced students.

While Greene County has decreased overall childhood abuse and neglect rates in the last ten years, it remains a pervasive issue. Missouri Department of Social Services’ annual report on child abuse and neglect indicates the number of substantiated cases in Greene County is among the highest in the state.

“The number one reason kids enter foster care in our community continues to be chronic neglect, but that usually means there are multiple issues going on within the family that have led to the removal of the child,” said Laura Farmer, Executive Director for CASA of Southwest Missouri, a United Way partner. “Substance abuse and domestic violence are typically present.”

Studies show adverse childhood experiences influence development, causing poor mental health, substance abuse, and chronic illness as children grow toward adulthood. According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 23% of Missouri children ages 0-17 have an identified mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral challenge. 

The focus report identified a lack of widespread support for mitigating mental health issues among youth. Partner agency Betty & Bobby Allison Ozarks Counseling Center is committed to providing services on a sliding scale, regardless of a client’s ability to pay.

“I think it is less a willingness to support youth mental health…and more a lack of information about what mental health issues look like in kids and teens, where you can find help, and how to pay for that help,” said Executive Director Andrea Bishop.

Misty Boone is the Family Advocate Program Coordinator at Harmony House, a United Way partner. She emphasizes the need for more protective factors to combat these issues, like education around conflict resolution skills, safety planning, bodily autonomy and consent, early intervention for developmental concerns, positive support systems and therapy programs.

Youth from under-resourced households are less likely to have access to these positive support systems needed to help them thrive. Despite significant efforts by Springfield Public Schools to ensure the success of all students, local data shows students living in poverty achieve at lower rates than their more affluent peers.

In 2021 for Springfield Public Schools, there was a 10% difference in the graduation rates between students from households in poverty (86.9%) and those who are not (96.9%). In the most recent Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, 36.6% of free and reduced lunch program students reported as “not ready,” compared to 13.5% of their peers.

Springfield youth supported by The United Way of the Ozarks . (Photo provided by the United Way of the Ozarks)

United Way of the Ozarks donors and partner agencies are helping to close these gaps in achievement. Malena recently graduated from Ozarks Literacy Council’s tutoring program, but struggled to read at grade level just months ago. Reading was challenging for her, affecting her success at school. A volunteer tutor sparked Malena’s love for reading.

“I enjoyed it because it got me to read more books and have more fun while reading books,” said Malena. “Since they helped me, I’m able to help someone else. And when I help someone else, they can help other people.”

Now, Malena reads on grade level and shares her love of reading with her younger sisters.

Members and volunteers of the United Way of the Ozarks team. (Photo provided by the United Way of the Ozarks)

The need for community support persists

Just like Malena, thousands of children across the Ozarks are waiting for a champion. Children like Macy, who lost her dad at age four, are waiting for an advocate. Students like Jaden, whose mom often works nights, are battling loneliness. Youths like Anna, struggling with plans post-graduation, wish they had a mentor.

If you want to learn more about how you can support young people and invest in their future, please click here to learn more