McKenzie’s Hope focuses on child advocacy ­in calm surroundings

McKenzie’s Hope’s new victim advocate, Wendy Ash (seated) is joined by Executive Director Kathryn Schilling. The collage of hearts was made by children who have come to the agency to share their experiences with abuse and family violence.
McKenzie’s Hope’s new victim advocate, Wendy Ash (seated) is joined by Executive Director Kathryn Schilling. The collage of hearts was made by children who have come to the agency to share their experiences with abuse and family violence. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

A Huntington not-for-profit agency that focuses on helping children and families embroiled in domestic violence may be one of the town’s best-kept secrets.

It’s called McKenzie’s Hope Huntington County Child Advocacy, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center, Inc., named to keep alive the names of victims of child abuse in the hopes of giving other children a safe, non-threatening place in which to tell their stories.

The unobtrusive center serves as a neutral place where children can come and meet one-on-one with a victim advocate in friendly surroundings, where they are able to tell what happened to them, or what happened in their family. Talking about such incidents can be traumatic for a child, but at McKenzie’s Hope kids are not barraged by questions from often unintentionally intimidating law enforcement or other officials seeking to find justice for victims.

Instead, a team of police, prosecutors, Department of Child Services workers and others are hidden in an adjacent conference room and can view the forensic interview on a TV monitor. Any questions they have for the child are relayed to the victim advocate via an earpiece. The advocate then poses the question to the child, so only one person ever interacts directly with the youngster.

nside the center are several “trees” painted in murals on the walls. Each tree is decorated with apple-red hearts by the children who have been there. Since it opened its doors on Jan. 2, 2006, McKenzie’s Hope has served 1,680 kids – an average of around 120 children per year, says Executive Director Kathryn Schilling. The work that she and newly hired Victim Advocate Wendy Ash are a part of has resulted in multiple arrests, convictions and incarcerations of child abusers over the past 14 years. In 2018 McKenzie’s Hope added family violence services to its offerings.

“Typically child abuse and domestic violence go hand-in-hand,” Schilling explains. “There’s usually something else there as well. Even if the child is just a witness to the domestic abuse, we can bring them in here and forensically interview them to see what all is going on.”

Both Schilling and Ash want people to know they are here for the community and they emphasize the work McKenzie’s Hope does in advocating for children. Schilling herself joined the agency on Jan. 2. Born and raised in Huntington, she graduated from Huntington North High School in 2003.

She obtained a bachelor’s degree in photography with a concentration in studio art from the University of Saint Francis, but knew she needed to take different tack in her career.

“I realized even before I graduated that I was basically done. It was more of a hobby for me,” Schilling says. “I had joined the board of directors here in 2016 and so I was familiar with the organization and the cause. Then an opportunity came and I just kind of knew it was a good fit for the timing.”

Ash was born and raised in Roanoke and graduated from HNHS in 1988. She earned an associate’s degree in general science and addictions counseling from Indiana Wesleyan University, where she is currently studying to obtain a degree in psychology. She fills the victim advocate position that had been vacant since last fall.

“Previously I worked at Union Church in Huntington,” Ash says. “I was looking for a job in the field of helping women, because part of my job as victim advocate is domestic violence and sexual abuse for adults as well, which is normally women.”

Ash says she lived in the community for most of her life and thought of McKenzie’s Hope only as a child advocacy center. She did not realize that the center offers additional domestic violence and sexual assault services as well.

“We want the community to know that,” she adds. “It’s a great resource for families who need those types of services.”
Schilling says adult victims can come to McKenzie’s Hope for support and advice on how to break out of the situation they find themselves embroiled in. They may be walked through the legal process, find out how to obtain restraining orders and make emergency housing arrangements, among others.

“A lot of times women will not leave because they have a financial tie to their husband and are afraid of what’s going to happen to then,” Ash says. “There are educational services, employment services and there are other facilities that we work with to try and secure them. Sometimes it’s a safety issue – you need to get somebody out quickly. And a lot of times it’s not just a woman by herself; it may be a woman and her children, so the job of the victim advocate is to help walk the victim through the process.”

Ash says in cases of child abuse, support is also offered to non-offending parents or guardians of the child. They can be connected with resources that either the child or the family may need, such as medical treatment and counseling.

“Our job here is to support, essentially, the healing process,” she adds. “Serving the community – there’s just something really special about serving the people you live with.”

As a non-profit business, McKenzie’s Hope receives funding through donations, grants and the Huntington County United Way. A fund-raising event in support of the agency is coming up on Saturday, Oct. 3, at the PAL Club in Huntington. Called “Night of Hope,” the event features a social hour from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. then dinner served at 6 p.m.

The keynote speaker of the evening will be Dr. Siquilla Liebetrau, a trauma-informed therapist with the Bowen Center.
Other activities include a silent auction and live auction, with multiple items up for bid including a French Lick Resort golf package, “Spend an Afternoon in Huntington” gift cards basket and a Michael Kors handbag.

Tickets may be purchased and more information is available by calling the McKenzie’s Hope office at 356-5730.