NEW PORT RICHEY — Everyone deserves a place where they feel safe, and a local youth shelter proves that by opening their doors in honor of National Safe Place Week.
Safe places are locations for youths to go when they need safety and help. These places can be any youth-friendly building, such as libraries, gas stations, schools or businesses, that are identified by a black and yellow “Safe Place” sign.
The Runaway Alternatives Project House, often referred to as the RAP House, is a crisis shelter in the New Port Richey area operated by the nonprofit social service agency Youth and Family Alternatives.
On Saturday, March 24, the people who run RAP House held tours for the public to raise awareness of who they are, what they do and how the community can help.
The facility offers short-term shelter for young people, ages 10 to 17, who are experiencing abuse or neglect, homelessness, at-risk behavior or youths in foster care with a disruption in their placement. They also provide services and counseling to help determine how to improve the young person’s situation. On average, four to six children are brought in weekly through the Sheriff’s Office.
Mark Wickham, CEO, appreciates the long list of organizations and volunteers that have contributed their time and resources to the RAP House.
“This program is really a community program,” Wickham said. “One of the things about Pasco in particular is their ability to support.”
Local Rotary clubs, Cook for Kids, the Sheriff’s Office, United Way and civic associations are just a few of the local organizations that have volunteered at the project house over the last 40 or so years.
Cayse Houston, program director, hopes that opening their doors will give insight into the innerworkings of the program.
“We definitely get a lot of people that donate to us or don’t understand exactly what we do and so what we are really trying to do is open that up,” Houston said. “To show exactly what kind of work we are doing with these kids and where people’s donations are going to. It was really just for awareness and to bring that to light.”
They have also noticed an increase in LGBTQ youth who have found safety in the shelter. Approximately 20 children who self-identify as LGBTQ have come to the RAP House in the last year.
Maria Matheus, YFA communications specialist, believes that the RAP House’s LGBTQ-friendly program has given the children a place to go when they might not feel accepted or comfortable to talk about their identity with their loved ones. “Some children feel this is a polarizing issue in their family,” she said.
RAP House can care for up to 20 youths at one time with it 12 dorm rooms, six for girls and six for boys. The youths can decorate their rooms, as well as pick out their own bedding sets. Citing stuffed animals found on several of the beds, Houston said, “It shows that they are still kids.”
Other features of the facility include counseling rooms, a cafeteria, nurse’s office, an art room and places for the children to relax and hang out. All rooms are set to sensitive to trauma.
Multiple organizations were set up to hand out information during the event including Pasco County Health Department, BayCare Behavioral Health’s Community Health Activation Team and the Outreach and Prevention Services from Metropolitan Ministries.
The RAP House needs donations in a variety of areas, including outdoor recreation equipment, school supplies, birthday and holiday presents, hygiene products, clothing and bedroom supplies. It is also looking for shelter equipment including paper goods, gift certificates, kitchen supplies and groceries.
They have an upcoming fundraiser, the 11th Annual Rap River Run, on June 9 in Sims Park. The event will feature a 10, a 5K run-walk and a children’s adventure fun run. Vendor spaces and sponsorships are available. Visit www.rapriverrun.com or email to Victoria.Barley@yahoo.com.
Safe locations can be found immediately through TXT 4 HELP, a support service for youths in crisis.