There are about 18 cases of child abuse and neglect in Spokane each day, and for the past 30 years Vanessa Behan has been offering those children a safe haven. But as the need has grown, so has the emergency child care facility.
In 10 days, Vanessa Behan will move to its third facility since the nonprofit began operating in 1987, with the potential to triple its capacity while furthering its mission to prevent childhood trauma in Spokane County, where rates of domestic violence and child abuse are the highest in the state.
The nonprofit’s first crisis nursery opened on East Eighth Avenue in South Perry five years to the day after its namesake, Vanessa Behan, died from injuries related to child abuse at age 2, motivating local businessman Bill Bialkowsky to seek out ways to prevent similar tragedies. The nursery, which was modeled after facilities Bialkowsky had seen as a traveling salesman, served 427 children that year, with capacity for about 14 at a time.
Vanessa Behan Executive Director Amy Vega remembers first working the graveyard shift at the nursery nearly a decade after it opened. She also recalls how the nonprofit was turning away more families than it was serving.
The nursery moved in October 2000 to a new building on the lot next to the initial facility, where it could care for several more children at a time.
Vanessa Behan has seen about 6,000 children walk through its doors annually in recent years in that facility, but it still had to say no to one in three kids.
The nursery mostly takes in children from birth through age 6 for up to 72 hours at a time.
“The vision for us is providing a safe haven for kids 24 hours a day, seven days week,” Vega said. “There’s more work that needs to be done.”
Vanessa Behan purchased the former Safeway and Spokane Youth Sports Association bingo hall site at 2230 E. Sprague Ave. for $1.3 million in 2017. Work on a new building at the site started last October.
Located in the Sprague revitalization project area and in a place with bus service every 15 minutes, the new nursery facility met the organization’s goals for increased visibility and accessibility, Vega said. The building includes a back door for families to have a confidential child-intake process.
The $12.3 million facility, which was funded by private donations and grants, will have room for 24 children at a time come January, an increase of four from its current location. The nonprofit willadd the equivalent of approximately 5.5 additional full-time employees to its staff of 70 full-time and part-time workers.
The nursery’s capacity is expected to be 60 kids in a few years, once the nonprofit can grow its annual budget from $2.7 million in 2020 to a projected $5.5 million in 2023. That funding comes from a combination of individuals, businesses and private grants, Vega said.
“Bill (Bialkowsky) always hoped the community would adopt us,” Vega said. “Our entire community has wrapped around us, from people who give $5 a month to those who give $1 million a year.”
“There’s a return on that investment,” Vega added. “It’s healthy, safe families in Spokane.”
And down the road, if Vanessa Behan needs to grow again, it can: The new building was designed for additions on its second floor.
Vega said such growth is possible, as only a tenth of the families that could use the nursery’s services are seeking them out.
Vanessa Behan’s 32,000-square-foot building has numerous rooms for children to learn, play and build resiliency, as well as a 6,000-square-foot outdoor recreation area. There are also spaces for children to let out emotions and get one-on-one time with a staff member.
“I hope that when kids walk into this space, we can really expand their vision of who they can be,” Vega said. “So maybe they can have a different life than their parents had a chance to lead.”
The nursery provides children with clothing, in addition to other personal care items, because “a lot of our families are experiencing poverty,” Vega said. The nonprofit also offers classes on parenting and play.
In coming months, Vega said Vanessa Behan plans to invite other nonprofits with similar missions, such as the YWCA and Lutheran Community Services, to take up office space in a number of community rooms in the building. That way, parents who are experiencing domestic violence or substance abuse disorders can walk down the hall for help.
“This space will allow us to come together as a community of nonprofits,” Vega said. “My hope is that it really breaks down the barriers for families we’re serving.”
Vega said she expects those partnerships to make an impact on Spokane’s high rates of child abuse and domestic violence, the latter of which sparked a documentary production and a new system for approving protection orders. Studies show violence in the home has a ripple effect on the children who experience and witness it.
“That’s how we stop those generations of poverty and abuse,” said Kristena O’Hara, Vanessa Behan program director.
Vanessa Behan also is rebranding its services by dropping “crisis” and “nursery” from its name and logo. Because stress is the No. 1 factor in child abuse and neglect, Vega said the nonprofit wants to reduce any stigma around the word “crisis” and let people know any parent in need can call them for help.
“I am most excited to see the children have a such a carefree childhood experience,” O’Hara said. “We’ve designed this facility to meet a variety of developmental stages to help them grow and thrive.”
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