The Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society of Los Angeles County (now Five Acres) is one of the oldest charity organizations in the area, opening in 1888 as an orphanage. As they state on their website, this was the year that Grover Cleveland was re-elected as president, the average wage was $2.26 a day ($565 a year), a patent for the first camera was filed by George Eastman, and Susan B. Anthony initiated the women’s movement.
A mere 15 years later, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, the average wage had decreased to $481, Orville Wright survived the first powered flight of an aircraft with a petrol engine, the 2nd Rose Bowl game is played in Pasadena, and BGAS moves to the city.
In 1909, Teddy chaired a White House conference on dependent children, resulting in “the beginning of federal uniform protection for children.”
The “Children’s Charter” in 1930 declared “the rights of all children to have a safe home and school environments, and to receive medical care.”
Today, says Five Acres CEO Chanel Boutakidis, the organization has moved away from “raising children” to “promoting safety, well-being, and creating permanency for the children and families.” The emphasis is on “family finding,” whether that means digging and researching to find biological relatives with whom to unite the child or through adoption (Five Acres has been licensed for adoption since 2001).
During this long, extended season of budget cuts, Boutakidis says finding foster homes is harder than ever, so the goal is to find the child a healthy family situation as quickly as possible. To that extent, Five Acres will employ “targeted recruitment” during their events, as they did for a 16-year-old boy by making a video about him, creating a set of baseball cards and making two six foot cardboard cut-outs to stand at the entrance of the event in question—to draw attention, to attract potential parents—in any way possible. And Boutakidis says these tactics have had results; they’re getting calls. It’s all about creativity these days.
It’s not enough to take in a child and give him a room of his own, surround him with structure, access to the public school or inclusion in their onsite facilities, a play area, an educated staff, and therapy sessions. “Therapy can only do so much,” Boutakidis states. For her, the real focus—the imperative—is to get the kids adopted and into a nurturing, accepting, and safe family situation. “But there is no funding for permanency,” she says, again, repeatedly. It’s a difficult, uphill chore to convince financial supporters that permanency should be the goal and deserves substantial funding versus the way things have always been done, the way funds have always been allocated.
Boutakidis is working to change the culture. She glows when speaking about the Five Acres board members, warmed and galvanized by their willingness to go above and beyond, to honestly look at Five Acres’ programs and discuss what is working effectively and what is not producing the desired impact, even willing to shut down programs if necessary or “to partner with a collaborative agency that has better resources suited for a program.”
She’s proud that Five Acres is grounded in their mission, but also willing to be fluid, anticipating changes (not ignoring them), and looking at an issue in real time in order to tackle it creatively.
Five Acres may be old in human years (125), but Boutakidis wholeheartedly believes that the organization is fresh and innovative.
The Five Acre Altadena campus has eight residential cottages, a nursing department, arts and education center, library, dining hall, auditorium, swimming pool, administrative offices, and a “therapeutic non-public” school for children with special needs and which accepts students the local community. The children who reside at Five Acres with amongst the welcoming, well-kept, expansive buildings with a lush inner grass area, a pool area reminiscent of a modest country club. The children receive therapy sessions once a week, eat with their cottage mates every night, have access to tutors, and twice a week, volunteer “special friends” will lead an activity.
Children who arrive at Five Acres have been removed from their families by the court, or like 13-year-old Michael had been living in another treatment center after “living on the streets for almost seven months.” All the words one would imagine described his behavior: withdrawn, distrustful, defiant, disrespectful, and aggressive. Though he is an amazing artist and did express himself through painting and drawing, his behavior was becoming more and more disruptive. Then Michael was moved to another cottage on the campus and ‘was assigned a Five Acres special friend who gave Michael outside adult support…and helped him learn to trust adults again.”
The facilities offer art therapy (there’s even have a kiln), music and movement. “Talk doesn’t always work,” Boutakidis says, so they have zip-on nylon suits—large, balloon-type things, without definitive sleeves or legs. Once zipped inside, child can feel where their fingertips end—and where other bodies begin. This is essential for children who have been abused. With this suit, kids can literally see where their bodies begin and end, the outer tips being the line no one should cross without permission.
The children are encouraged to go off campus, Boutakidis explains, so they can feel like a part of the community—participating in karate clubs, football, cheerleading, band, and the local YMCA. Though a safe, secure, nurturing environment is offered at Five Acres, they don’t want the children to become dependent—the goal is for them to leave the facilities by being placed with a foster family or, best of all, to be adopted.
Presently, the longest stay for a child is nine months before Five Acres find them placement in a foster home or coordinates an adoption.
From creating a safe environment and offering individual therapy, family therapy, therapeutic treatment to recruiting, training, and certifying foster families and emphasizing Family Finding, Five Acres continues its mission: establishing “a lasting connection for every child in its care.”
760 W. Mountain View St., Altadena, CA 91001
For complete info, visit FiveAcres.org