By: Judy Gilkerson, Founder
In 1982 I returned to West Virginia, after an absence of nearly two decades. During my absence from West Virginia, my two older children grew from little kids to early adulthood. Prior to moving back, I lived in Gainesville, Florida. I attended the University of Florida and later received a Master’s Degree.
After obtaining my first degree, I opened a preschool, which I owned and operated for several years. When I was offered a teaching position with the public school system, I hired staff to operate the preschool, so I could begin a new career as a teacher. I taught for seven years.
After high school graduation, my children, David and Renee, left Gainesville and attended college out of the state. So, with both kids grown, a divorce behind me, a new marriage pending, I returned to my roots. I moved back to West Virginia.
After marriage, and settling down a bit, I began new careers. During the day I taught SLD classes at Huntington East High School. After teaching all day, I worked as an assistant director of a girls group home. Then, I returned to a boys group home, where I lived and worked as a houseparent, until 8:00 am the next morning. Looking back, I realized that I was literally working 24 hours a day! (houseparent do sleep!) Needless to say, I was busy.
It was about this time that I decided to try to write a program for a group home. It was also about this time that I discovered that I was going to be a mother again. The baby was due just after my 40th birthday.
In December 1982, I sold my Florida business. It was a hard decision for me to make. The property was nearly paid for. It was within a mile of the University of Florida. It was a lucrative endeavor, doing well, beyond holding its own. But, I needed money to begin a new business, so I sold it.
In March 1983, I bought an old, old house located at 999 B Street in Ceredo, West Virginia. I had purchased the house with the hope of opening a home for abused, unhappy, neglected, and needful teenager girls. I had hoped, that I could “fix” their sadness. Like a magical wand, I had hoped I could take away their pain. I had wanted to contribute and give back happiness I had known at different settings of my life.
The day after the purchase of the Ceredo property, a mob greeted me as I got out of the car to look at the house. The people were extremely agitated and frightened, not knowing what kind of girls would be living in their neighborhood.
During my work day at school, reporters began calling me for a story about the “home for wayward girls”. Reporters ran pictures on television of the Ceredo house calling it a “home for wayward girls”. Neighbors called the mayor and other community leaders to try to avert the opening of the group home.
So, I tried to sell the property I had bought to use as a group home. I didn’t want to live in a neighborhood and be hated. I ran ads in the newspapers. Nothing happened. The house didn’t sell. I was stuck with a nine-bedroom house.
I felt I had no choice. I felt I had to open a home for abused, neglected and unhappy girls, who needed my help.
I began (again) to work toward a license for a residential care facility for teenage girls. The license was granted December 1983.
In April 1984, my newly married daughter Renee and her husband Robert moved to West Virginia and began living on the third floor. Renee had just received her BA. The plan was for them to act as house parents for a year, to help me as we expanded Golden Girl.
From December 1983 until October 1986, I lived at the group home. I worked there. I did all there. It was a home, not an institution, for the girls who lived with us.
Then October 1986, my husband was transferred to Florida, with his job with CSX. I clearly remember being in a motel in Florida and thinking, “I haven’t watched a TV program in three years!” My three-year-old, John Paul had never watched Sesame Street or any TV program. I went from a whirlwind style of life to a stillness that was almost eerie.
Then, John Paul and I flew back and forth. We would visit West Virginia where I world try to direct and oversee the busy operations of Golden Girl. Then we would fly back to calm Florida. The pattern would begin again - Busy, calm., busy, calm. It was an unusual way to live.
Ultimately the job of pulling Golden Girl along fell on my daughter, Renee. It was thrust upon her. Renee grew into it. She grew from a timid case manager to a competent and, at times, aggressive professional. Today, as a licensed counselor, she runs groups several times a week. She writes personnel manuals. She prepares budgets, she submits to the Board of Directors. Renee does it all! I’m proud to be her mother!
This year is the tenth anniversary of Golden Girl Group Home. During the past decade, some of the girls who used to live at Golden Girl, have grown to be happy and successful adults. Some of the former residents, seem like they will never be rid of the past that lives with them. A few have gone on to become nurses and paralegals. Many of the girls, who once lived at Golden Girl, return to reminisce and, so often, tell us how much they learned and how loved they felt living at Golden Girl…Perhaps we have made a difference… I hope so.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY
By Renee Harrison, Executive Director
Plans change. I believe that important things happen for a reason. The original plan was to live and work at Golden Girl for one year and then move to California to live near Robert’s family. That was 35 years ago. Plans change.
During the first ten years of Golden Girl, we grew in bed capacity, in physical properties and in knowledge and experience. When we opened, we were licensed for eight residents. Until Robert and I moved in, there were only two employees. My mother and the cook. The first person she hired was a cook. My mom’s a smart lady. Within a year, we received approval to have nine girls. At that time, we began our waiting list which at one point grew to twenty girls hoping to live at Golden Girl. Our license increased to twelve residents and finally thirteen teenagers. At this point, in 1989, we couldn’t expand any further in what would later be called our Main House. So, we bought the house next door.
Like the Main House, the Second House, which it was called shortly after we purchased it, was also built in the 1890’s. These houses had survived the great flood of 1937 and although sturdily built, some of the floors weren’t even. We had a lot of work to do on the Second House. We worked hard and in 1990, our first girls moved in. Our license capacity increased to eighteen residents. Our plan was to have our older girls live in the Second House and teach them the skills they needed to become independent, productive, contributing members of society. We called this Transitional Living. At this point, to our knowledge, that term had never been used in West Virginia.
Within a few years, it became apparent that the Second House structure wasn’t built to have girls “practice” living independently. We remodeled the house, adding on to the back of the building on both floors. We installed a kitchen on the second floor and once the remodeling was complete our license capacity increased to twenty girls. We had two apartments, one downstairs and one upstairs. With only four or five girls living together, we watched them thrive! As our philosophy from the beginning was to provide structure and care for our girls in an environment that felt like home, this building embodied the spirit of that philosophy. In 1995, we began developing our Medal Program, based on the Olympics. As each girl met specific criteria, she earned a medal beginning with her bronze medal. She received an actual medal, that was placed around her neck, just like in the Olympics. As she continued to progress, she would receive her silver medal and upon completion of our program her gold medal.
In 1997, the house located across the alley, next door to Second House, unexpectantly became available to purchase. We purchased Third House with the same intent we purchased the Second House. We wanted to move our older girls into the home to teach them the skills they needed to live independently. About this time, we began implementing our Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) program. Due to this, our Third House was often called PAL House.
Like our other two homes, this one was built in the 1800’s. In fact, it had been said (although not proven) that the cellar of this house was part of the underground railroad. We did some remodeling and created a small apartment on the second floor with two bedrooms and a kitchen. We called this Independence Hall and it was meant to mimic living independently. The girls had to develop monthly budget wherein they took out monies for rent and utilities (including writing pretend checks), develop their own menu, do their own grocery shopping and cooked their own meals. Our license capacity increased to twenty-four residents.
At this point, we had been open for fifteen years, and our staff had grown exponentially. Policies within the state had changed. The West Virginia Department of Human Resources created a system wherein order to stay viable, group homes must begin billing Medicaid for services provided. This meant that each girl was forced to have a psychological diagnosis. Our houses had to become Behavior Health Centers, thus decreasing the girls’ feelings of normalcy and family. Ultimately, we had to follow this system to remain open. Golden Girl was the last agency in the state to bill Medicaid.
While changes were being made at the state level, I along with our Assistant Director Cecilia Ross traveled to the nation’s capital, several times, to advocate for the passage of the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP). We had seen too many of our Golden Girls become homeless once they aged out of the foster care system. While we tried to help these girls, there simply weren’t any programs or funding to help them. Thankfully, in December of 1999, the bill passed.
In February 2001, we received our Child Placing License and began placing girls into their own apartments, within a two-mile radius of Golden Girl. This Transitional Living (TL) program became a huge success and once again, we needed a waiting list.
In 2006 we began outlining what would later become our Respect Program. These meetings were held at Clinical Director Julie DeMattie’s home and the program was ultimately written by Julie, Program Director (formerly called Assistant Director) Cecilia Ross and me.
A year later, the house next door to our PAL/Third House was being rented by tenants who used illegal drugs and the police were often called due to domestic violence. Our girls had come to us from these types of home and witnessing this caused them further trauma. We decided to talk to the owner to see if we could rent the house, simply to be able to control who lived there. We planned on using it for offices and storage space. The owner offered us the option to buy the house, instead of renting it. After the purchase was complete, we now had Fourth House.
In the fall of 2007, the dynamics at Golden Girl began to drastically change. Our financial situation had become unpredictable and we relied solely on funds provided by the state of West Virginia. We hired Development Director Nikki Thomas to help us with marketing and fundraising. As we began working with Nikki, we quickly realized that fundraising was going to need to be a team effort, utilizing all of our employees, under the guidance of former New Yorker, Nikki Thomas.
In 2008, Nikki secured funds for us to remodel the Fourth House, so girls could live there. The house was completely gutted, sprinkler systems installed (to meet new fire codes), walls were torn down, walls were built, a bathroom was added, as well as new kitchen appliances. The house was completed in early 2009, and although it was a few months late, we had our ribbon cutting coincide with our 25th Anniversary Celebration.
The Respect Program was completed by the three directors and implemented in 2010. Staff training for this program was extensive and it required a completely different way of providing services to our girls. Since that time, we have seen the life changing results of this program.
During the next nine years, we experienced unbelievable improvement and growth of our agency. These included the following:
2010: The recreation building was built and the courtyard, fish pond, basketball court was developed.
2011: Rather than lay off workers at the Toyota plant after the tsunami, the company offered to help us renovate our Third House. Skilled electricians and carpenters updated this house.
2012: We acquired the house, behind our new recreation building, located at 239 3rd Street. Our plan was to gut it and remodel it. Plans change. Once the remodeling began, asbestos was discovered within the walls. The house was demolished and a new one built. Like the dawn of a new day, it was fittingly named the Sunshine House. The girls, who had been using the tiny apartment in PAL house, moved to a brand new home.
2013: With each house we obtained, we realized that our girls would be best suited living in those houses rather than Main House. In keeping with our original philosophy, we placed our girls in homes with no more than four or five girls, so they could have a sense of belonging normalcy and family. All of the girls moved out of Main House and it became our administrative building.
2014-2015: During this time, we were able to secure funds to remodel our Second House. After our experience with the Sunshine House, we knew it would be best to demolish Second House and build a new house, specifically designed for our girls. This new house was two separate apartments (one downstairs, one upstairs) with the exact same floor plan. Each apartment had five dorm style single bedrooms with a beautiful open living and dining room. Our girls moved into the new Second House in the fall of 2015.
2016: In the decades we had been opened, we strived to provide the best program for our girls. We strongly believed in quality versus quantity. Every improvement or program developed was based upon the needs of the girls we served. We were one of the first agencies to participate in a Transitional Living Program, placing girls in their own apartments. We did this NOT to expand but to continue to help our girls. Only girls who had completed our residential program were accepted into our TL Program. As our girls aged out of foster care, we saw a lack of services for low functioning former foster kids. They weren’t able to live independently but they also were too high functioning to be placed in Adult Protective Services or Adult group homes for physically disabled adults. It was at this time, one of our girls we had raised for the past seven years, turned 21 and there wasn’t a suitable place for her to live. Faced with this dilemma, we decided to build our own apartment complex for low functioning past residents and current TL girls.
2017: In July of 2017, our Golden Hearts Apartment Complex was completed. This 1.3 million dollar project included eleven apartments and a community room. One apartment was designated as a live in staff apartment, to provide supervision as needed. And as in our TL Program, only past Golden Girls can live in these apartments.
2017: In keeping with our belief, that we continue to help our girls after they complete our residential program, we began offering specialized foster care to our past girls.
Future Projects: In the future, we hope to build our Golden Minds Center for Learning and Development, as well as our Golden Treasures Resale Shop.
Long ago, one of our girls said, ‘Once a Golden Girl, always a Golden Girl” and somehow this became the girls’ motto. And to our founder, Judy Gilkerson, I think we can say with great confidence, we have made a difference.