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story.lead_photo.caption Longtime volunteer Ellon Cockrill loves to share the story of The Centers for Youth and Families, where she has volunteered for nearly 40 years. Cockrill will be presented with the Hero of Hope Award at the Evolve fundraiser Saturday. ( John Sykes Jr.)

Scars, those lingering marks of trauma, don't only mar the skin. The ones that damage the soul can be just as painful and even harder to treat.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Ellon Cockrill has been a tireless supporter of The Centers for Youth and Families since 1978 and is eager to generate more support for the organization that provides education, care and support for children with mental health problems and their families. Says Cockrill, “We are their parents. We are their family. We are their home.”

"You can see a child on the street with a broken arm and you can feel really bad for them," says Ellon Cockrill. "You can see a child on the street and you don't know they have a broken heart. Someone has to be the champion for children who don't have anyone who will step up and say, 'We're going to do this.'"

The Centers for Youth and Families makes it its job to heal those invisible scars, and it's kicking off 2017 with its annual fundraiser, Evolve, on Saturday. Evolving is something the Centers has done since its founding in 1884, and the fact that the organization has existed, in one form or another, for more than 130 years is a testament to its ability to adjust to changing times.

"If we don't change and evolve, the organization itself will die," Cockrill, a board member and longtime volunteer, says.

It all began in 1884 with the Children's Aid Society founded by Elizabeth Mitchell. That went through several name and mission changes until 1987, when it fused with the Parent Center and Stepping Stone to form one mental health-focused entity, the Centers for Youth and Families.

Together, the various parts of the organization provide a wide range of services: residential care for children with mental health problems, outpatient care and therapeutic classrooms for children able to live at home but unable to learn in a traditional school, therapy sessions, parenting classes, transitional living and training to help prepare teenagers for the real world and, in its newest program, treatment for survivors of human trafficking. As Cockrill says, it's "prevention, intervention and treatment all rolled into one package."

And Cockrill has been around for much of that. She first got involved in 1978 with the Parent Center, a Junior League of Little Rock project that offered parenting classes and educational materials.

Since she was a licensed dietitian, she agreed to teach nutrition classes. Then, she was recruited to help set up a volunteer organization for the program. She even took parenting classes and, over time, began to see how the different parts of the organization worked to help heal children and families. She served on boards and committees, rotating off and on through the various facets of the organization.

"Once you come, you stay," she says.

In 1988, as a tribute to her dedication, the group established the Ellon Cockrill President's Award, the highest award for a Centers volunteer.

"I didn't know how to feel about it," she says now. "If there's an award named after you, you need to be dead. It was very humbling."

In addition to volunteer work recruiting new volunteers, serving on boards and raising money, Cockrill is also dedicated to fighting prejudice and misinformation about mental health and treatment. Cockrill has many stories of coming up against resistance and even outright hostility toward the Centers' work and even the children in its care.

Cockrill points out that statistics show one in five children has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Mental health problems can occur in any family, in any socio-economic group. Yet there's still a heavy stigma attached.

"That's the saddest part about the Centers," she says. "If we could take a picture of that classroom and those kids, it would look like any other classroom in this city. Our children don't look any different. They have different issues in their life. But they're just children who, through no fault of their own, have wound up in a situation where they need support and love and help."

Funding the various programs takes financial resources and since 2011, a large portion of the money has come from Evolve.

Evolve itself has morphed over time, starting as a casual midweek get-together and growing into a black-tie dinner that fills the Statehouse Convention Center to capacity. This year, they're on track to have an attendance of 700 and the revenue goals have already been surpassed.

The money will be used to support the regular programs and also for renovations of existing facilities.

Since many of the children treated by the Centers are survivors of trauma, there is an emphasis on "trauma-informed care." The cinder block walls in the existing classrooms have an institutional feel. They plan to put sheet rock over those walls and add other little touches like crown molding and fresh paint to help the children feel more comfortable and at home.

But money also goes for things people may not think about.

"These kids don't have a family to celebrate birthdays," Centers Foundation Director Chris Shenep explains. "They don't have rewards for good grades or good behavior. It gives them access to things that I grew up taking for granted."

As for the party itself, there are live and silent auctions, a short program and a video that will tell the story of the Centers, in hopes of spreading the word and recruiting more supporters.

"It's very uplifting and motivating," Cockrill says. "It's a feel-good kind of thing."

Each year has a different theme. Last year it was "A Night in Oz." This year, it's "Rooted in the South" with the Sdlkfj (band) and a "down-home kind of Southern" meal of short ribs, macaroni and cheese, green beans, salad and desserts in jars. Part of the festivities this year will include the Hero of Hope Award, presented to Cockrill. Though, she insists, "The focus is not on me at all. It's on the Centers.

"All I've done is show up and do what I can to help. I don't think I've done anything more spectacular than anyone else."

Shenep disagrees, though.

"Without Ellon, we would not have survived. She's always the first to show up, the last to leave. Our foundation is having some of the most success we've ever had. A lot of that's attributed to Ellon."

Cockrill likens Evolve to "a reunion of sorts," a chance for longtime supporters to come back together and get in touch, as well as to meet up with and encourage the next generation of supporters.

That generation is vital to the continued success of the Centers and many of the young professionals take an active part in the lives of the children, doing a special activity with them once a month, something Cockrill says means the world to children who "don't grow up with people who care for them."

The Centers always welcomes volunteers, regardless of their skill set.

"There's a place for anybody here," she says. "I'm only standing on the shoulders of people who've come before me. And I'm hoping to have someone stand on my shoulders as we go forward."

Evolve is 7 p.m. Saturday at the Statehouse Convention Center. Tickets are $150. Call (501) 666-8686 or visit

High Profile on 01/22/2017

Print Headline: Volunteer, agency evolve to assist young survivors


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