Charlene M. Ashendorf has worked with nonprofits for over 15 years as a grant writer, consultant, program manager, and most recently as the executive director of Laurel House. For our first agency spotlight we asked her to describe her experience at Laurel House, an Orange County home for teens in crisis.
RRD: For those who are unfamiliar, tell us a bit about Laurel House.
Ashendorf: Laurel House was founded in 1985 by two women who were distraught at the sight of teenagers living on the streets of Orange County, California. What began as an emergency crisis shelter for teenage runaways has evolved over the years into a unique, proactive, preventive program for teens at risk of becoming homeless due to tense family situations at home. Before a teenage girl reaches that crisis point where she feels she has no other alternative but to run away, she can come live at Laurel House for six months to one year for a safe and structured “cooling off” period from her parents. Our goals are to provide a temporary, safe home for the teens, properly diagnose and treat any existing disorders, keep them in school, achieve academic success, and ultimately family reunification whenever possible.
RRD: What makes the Laurel House program so unique?
Ashendorf: Laurel House is unique for several reasons. First of all it is a home that just happens to provide shelter. Our teens reside at Laurel House from six to nine months. We have the flexibility to allow the girls to work the program in a way that suits their healing, not simply having to leave after a short stay. Secondly, we employ full time houseparents, rather than staff support in shifts. The continuity offers stability and in-depth growth and development. Finally, we contract with therapists who are trained, licensed and fully supportive of the Laurel House program model.
RRD: Why is it so important to have a live-in family at the home instead of having staff rotate shifts?
Ashendorf: Our teens come to us broken, whether it is a broken home or heart. They need modeling and healing. Both occur at Laurel House in a home setting where the house parents, Donna and Steve, have been part of the Laurel House family for nearly 15 years! Their commitment to this role is underscored by their commitment to family.
RRD: What is a typical day like for Laurel House’s residents?
Ashendorf: A typical Laurel House day means that the girls rise and shine and ready themselves for school, have breakfast and prepare lunches. Their rooms are straightened up and beds are made and then it’s off to school by 7:00 AM. The girls are on campus at a school in the Tustin Unified School District. Carpooling begins after school by our house mom in the afternoon. Back at the house the girls have snack time and some down time and then it’s homework time typically around the kitchen table from 5:00 to 6:00 PM. The teens then assist with chores, preparing the table for dinner and then it’s family dinner time around the table! After dinner and clean up if all school projects are completed the teens retire to the family/living room. Perhaps they will watch a movie or a favorite television show or play a board game. At 9:00PM the teens prepare for the nightly routine of showering and getting everything ready for school in the morning and it’s lights out at 10:00PM!
RRD: Do you accept referrals from outside of the O.C. service area?
Ashendorf: Yes. However, parents are required to participate in individual and family counseling. What that means is that family members will need to be prepared to travel to Orange County each week for these local sessions.
RRD: How did you find your way to Laurel House?
Ashendorf: Over ten years ago I answered a call to Laurel House and have had the agency in my heart ever since. It began as a contract position, writing grants for Laurel House. Over the years my husband and I supported events and became donors, until I was hired as the executive director in April of 2011. I would say the path to Laurel House was always their, waiting for me to take that walk.
RRD: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Ashendorf: There are two amazing things about my job. First of all, I am surrounded by capable, kind, devoted staff who, in everything they do and every decision they make, have our Laurel House teens’ lives in their hands and hearts. That is a reward and blessing. Secondly, there isn’t a single day that goes by without an unexpected blessing, in which a gift is unwrapped. One day it might by a volunteer dropping by with a collection of goods for our pantry. Another day it may be a call from someone who heard about us seeking help for their teen and Laurel House is that perfect placement. They say “it doesn’t get better than that” and yet each day is unmatched with richness beyond measure.
RRD: Where do you see the human services sector heading in the next 10 years?
Ashendorf: As societal challenges become more complex and volunteer and financial resources become more competitive, the human services sector must be better trained and equipped for the changes in the coming decade. Agencies need to attract and develop strong leaders and continue to build solid organizational infrastructures. More than ever collaboration, partnerships and sharing of resources will be of utmost importance in the future to better serve our populations.