A group of eight at-risk children recently received a special treat after one Finney County employee decided to launch a Christmas donation drive to make sure no child was left without some love from Santa.

Leah Kathman, a field appraiser with the Finney County Appraiser’s Office, organizes Christmas parties every year at the County Administration Building. This year, her boss told her about Haven House, a facility managed by Compass Behavioral Health that functions as an emergency shelter and crisis center for kids ages 0 to 17 who are enrolled with Saint Francis Community Services and who are seeking long-term foster home placement, placed in police protective custody, or referred by Compass in moments of emotional crisis. She decided to organize a Christmas for them, too.

As someone who considers herself an advocate for children, Kathman decided she wanted to make Christmas special for these kids. After all, “I don’t want to see them go without because of the stupidity of their folks,” she said.

By the end of the donation drive that lasted from Dec. 3 to 22, Kathman’s initiative raised $1,056 in cash and prepaid debit cards, around $500 worth of used clothes, and $400 in wrapped presents from Santa Claus — not to mention a little improvisation from Kathman herself, who had to make last-minute adjustments to accommodate two unexpected arrivals on the 22nd and 23rd, including a little boy who had his heart set on Sketchers and a new Pokémon game.

“These kids are just adorable,” Kathman said. “I could eat ‘em up. They were just so sweet, and I couldn’t have seen better kids for this to go to, because you would never have guessed these kids were in the situation that they are.”

Kathman met the little boy the day she showed up to Haven House to deliver the gifts. That meeting, she said, almost brought her to tears at the thought of leaving him without a couple of things on his Christmas list under the tree “just like everybody else.”

Riddle’s Jewelry, the Appliance and Furniture Mart, Patti’s Wine and Spirits, the Finney County Sheriff’s Office, USD 457 and a handful of local families all pooled their efforts to make sure the kids weren’t forgotten by Santa. For these kids, Christmas presents are an opportunity for some good fortune at a time when they’re more likely to be shuffled endlessly through a system that struggles to meet their specific needs.

“We’ve taken a lot of children with very significant behavioral issues, so the majority of the children we get have to live their life going house to house to house because they tend to disrupt,” said Yvette Lopez, a crisis service provider team leader who helps manage Haven House on behalf of Compass. “But we’ve had some kids that have stayed with us two months, and that’s probably the longest they’ve ever stayed somewhere.”

About five years ago, Haven House started in an unspecified Garden City duplex that served adults and children. But about a year and a half ago, the facility closed its doors to adults and entered into a contract with St. Francis to focus exclusively on children, who had been identified as having a greater need for the services, according to Khristy Guebara, Compass’ community support services director who oversees the facility.

Before that, Lopez said, children never stayed longer than three days. Now, kids waiting for long-term placement through St. Francis can stay up to 30 days in typical cases and up to 60 days in exceptional cases. Children placed in Haven House for police protective custody are kept for up to 72 hours as they wait for their court dates to see if they’ll return home or be turned over to the Department of Children and Families. Kids in crisis — including those with severe behavioral issues or those struggling with thoughts of suicide — are also taken in for up to 72 hours through a Compass referral to avoid hospitalization.

The duplex is divided by boys and girls and licensed as a residential care facility. Up to nine children can stay at Haven House at any given time, and children are offered weekly counseling and medical services that address needs for medication and therapy.

For parents who feel their child could benefit from the facility’s temporary services, Guebara says a Compass therapist can determine eligibility through a screening process and refer kids in crisis to the program. Because the kids often have behavioral issues, Guebara said they don’t always get along, but staff have the ability to separate them if need be and preoccupy them with different activities.

This year’s donation drive, Guebara said, was the first of its kind for Haven House, but maybe not the last. She explained that kids are staying longer at the facility, even to the point of attending school in Garden City during their residency. As a result, faculty and staff of Florence Wilson Elementary School helped spearhead this year’s donation drive by collecting a list of names, clothing sizes and desired gifts from the kids who Compass' staff knew would be in the home on Christmas Day.

“Up until two days before Christmas, the county and the school district were getting names of the kids that we were going to have in there to make sure everybody had a special gift,” Guebara said. “The kids were excited. They were happy. They had several Christmas presents under the tree just for them. They got to open their presents. They had a good time.”

And with longer stays, more drives will be needed in years to come. For that reason, Guebara said, Haven House will be conducting an annual toy drive for kids who often “come in with nothing” and “may not have had Christmas for who knows how long.”

Most of the kids at Haven House come from homes where they were physically abused or neglected, Guebara explained. In-home drug abuse often plays a part, too.

“The parents just weren’t able or didn’t care for the children,” Guebara said. “I think these little kids are pretty resilient. They’ve been through a lot, and they just keep going and keep on trying and would like to find a long-term home.”

While Haven House staff don’t always know where St. Francis decides to take the kids awaiting long-term placement next, Guebara said six of the eight who opened presents on Christmas have already moved on, and two, rumor has it, have received long-term placement.

As for Kathman, she and others like her show that every community member can make a real difference in people’s lives — if they just put their mind to it.

“I’m just sort of a person who decided that these kids needed some toys and some clothes for Christmas and figured out a way to do it,” she said.

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegramr.com.