Bits 'n' Pieces: Protecting kids with a life of care

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Lewis Hine Award winner Peggy Busick grew up in a small Midwestern town, where everybody had a strong sense of interdependency. Folks were hardworking and independent minded, she said — but they also knew that they had to hang together.

Her family embodied that idea. Busick's mother was a schoolteacher, her sister was a nurse and her brother was a police officer who also drove the town ambulance. Public service was their way of life, Busick said.

Years later, Busick was serving on an advisory board for a local mental health agency when she and some cohorts decided they needed to break away and start afresh. The agency in question just wasn't responsive enough to the community's real needs, she said.

How could she tell? Because there was a waiting list a mile long for children's services. It simply wasn't OK for as many as 200 children to have to wait months to get treatment, she said.

It was in the late 1980s when Busick and her friends started putting their heads together -- in Busick's own backyard -- to figure out a better way. Borne out of those informal sessions was The Children's Center, a nonprofit mental health agency aimed specifically at children. "It was not a hard thing to do," Busick said. "We found the right people who wanted to help."

Those and many other efforts earned Busick a spot among 10 nationwide winners of the Lewis Hine Award, named for a photographer who documented the exploitation of children in early 20th century America. The award, given by the National Child Labor Committee, honors professionals and volunteers for "unheralded and exceptional" service to young people, with hundreds of nominations every year.

The Children's Center's beginnings were modest. There was an initial $20,000 grant and kitchen-table management, Busick said. The core group did everything from mop floors and paint walls at their first west-side office to assemble a top-level board and meet with legislators.

Twenty-five years later, The Children's Center has grown in a way that's both gratifying and somewhat disturbing to Busick, now 67.

"It is amazing that we could make something like this happen with a small group," she said. "The excitement that people felt and still feel for what we are doing is very pleasing."

On the other hand, the fact that the caseload has risen to something like 400 children per month is serious cause for pause, she said. "We never thought we would be so big, that we'd need a bigger building," she said.

The Children's Center provides mental health treatment for children and families who are dealing with everything from run-of-the-mill behavior issues to serious problems such as domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and chronic mental disorders. The vast majority of its clients live in poverty, and approximately one-quarter are victims of crimes such as abuse and domestic violence. Thanks to major growth in the need for its services, the Children's Center is now preparing to break ground on a building of its own in East Vancouver.

Busick and her husband will travel to New York City to accept the award. Busick said she and her husband have never been to New York City, so they're looking forward to a long weekend of exploration before the Feb. 18 ceremony.

Learn more at www.thechildrenscenter.org.


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.