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New nonprofit director not afraid to show his scars

by Sam Pierce | November 1, 2020 at 12:00 a.m.
Shelton Walker is the new executive director for the Open Arms Shelter, a nonprofit organization in Lonoke that provides emergency and residential care for children up to 18 who are victims of abuse and neglect in Arkansas.

Shelton Walker had brain surgery at 8 months old because he was born premature. He wasn’t able to walk without the assistance of braces until he was 2 years old, and his grandparents were basically told “they would be better off letting me pass,” Walker said.

“I was a product of a teenage mother, so I was raised by my grandparents,” Walker said. “And as a child growing up in England, Arkansas, I had my own troubles. … My grandparents took me and said, ‘We are going to make this work.’ They were of the age where they had no business raising a child, especially one with the issues that I had.

“I’ve always said that if I ever had the opportunity to make it out of that predicament, my energy would go toward children who may face those same challenges.”

In May, Walker was named executive director of the Open Arms Shelter, a nonprofit organization in Lonoke that provides emergency and residential care for children 17 and younger who are victims of abuse and neglect in Arkansas. Walker previously served as executive director for Grand Prairie CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).

“We work with youth who are in foster care and youth who may be waiting for reunification with their biological parents,” Walker said. “We focus on the older kids who are in foster care and try to find forever homes for all the kids that we serve.

“Typically, what happens is that the little ones are easily adopted, but the older ones are always harder to place because they are at an age where it is more difficult. … Kids have always been a passion of mine, and I have been working with at-risk children and foster children for more than 20 years. The good Lord was pointing me in this direction.”

The Open Arms Shelter works with other agencies, caseworkers and the court system to find placements for foster children. Walker said the shelter also hosts adoption events to help find forever families for these children.

“While they are here, they are receiving treatment from a mental-health standpoint, as well, and work on any issues they may have to help them better cope and ensure that they get a quality education in the process,” Walker said. “Everything is individualized, as we really try to get to the core of the issues. … These kids only know the traumatic side of the world — the abandonment.

“What we are trying to teach and instill in these youths is that there are positive adults who are willing to work with you and support you and be in your corner.”

Walker was born and raised in Lonoke County and graduated from Little Rock Parkview High School in 1994. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia in 1998, and he also has master’s degrees in counseling psychology and business administration.

“When we get kids, I am the first person they meet,” Walker said. “And I tell them, ‘I don’t understand what your situation is, but I do understand the pain of not knowing where your next meal is coming from.’

“I understand that pain quite well. … They are able to see my scars, so they can understand and relate on that aspect of it.”

Lori Dollinger serves on the board for the Open Arms Shelter. As an intake officer for the Lonoke County Juvenile Department, she had worked with Walker in his previous job as mental-health provider.

“I had seen his rapport with children, and I knew about his ethical standings and the way he conducted himself professionally, so I was familiar with him,” she said. “He had an extremely impressive resume, including a lot of work in different areas of mental health.

“We needed someone in that background, and he has a background in finance and mental health. He makes sure our kids’ mental-health needs are met but is also able to handle the business side to make sure the house is up and running in the best way possible.”

She said Walker came on board in a really interesting time because the shelter is in a transition phase of how the facility serves the kids.

“The staff has had to make a lot of changes, as far as their approach and training needed,” she said. “A lot of things have changed, so Shelton has arrived at the best time.

“It has not been easy, but our staff has been so passionate about what they are doing, and he is the right person to equip them in this new role.”

She said that previously, the shelter was used as an emergency shelter with long-term beds, but now it is transitioning into a shelter that specializes in caring for kids with trauma or with more mental-health needs that make it difficult to foster the children or place them in a home.

“We want to produce good, global citizens who function well in schools, in communities and at their jobs,” she said. “We want them to move on as adults and have a path to success and be a different care giver to their own children.”

Dollinger has a history with the Open Arms Shelter that goes back about 30 years. She said she had a family member who was placed in the shelter, and through that, Dollinger was able to get custody of that family member and raise her.

When Dollinger and her husband were in college, they were on staff at the shelter, serving as house parents. She said she saw the impact Open Arms Shelter had on her family member and how it changed the trajectory of her life, so Dollinger said it was important to her to work there and give back.

“The goals I have in mind for Open Arms are to eventually expand and further assist more children,” Walker said. “The biggest goal is to make sure the youth who we have in care leave here successful.”

For more information, visit www.openarmsshelter.org or call (501) 676-6166.

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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