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guiding light
Story by Susan O'Connor, Photo by Dero Sanford

Bonnie Smith has spent her 30-year career nurturing troubled youth at Consolidated Youth Services (CYS). She sees through their mistakes to the good that is inherent.

“Kids make bad decisions, however this does not make them bad kids. Many, if not most of them, just need guidance and time to grow out of the problem behavior. Many adults have made the same bad decisions, but either they were not caught or they had someone help them out of the problems and therefore their life was not seriously altered by the mistake,” she said.

CYS, formerly Craighead County Youth Home, was constructed with a federal grant in 1976. Smith said the county judges at the time of Craighead, Poinsett and Greene counties saw a pressing need for a haven for youth who were runaways, truant or had otherwise landed in the criminal justice system for minor offenses.

“I strongly feel that teens are treated much more harshly than adults for the mistakes they make,” she said with passion. “Teens are often placed in jails for weeks or months for non-criminal behaviors such as running away or not going to school or for a minor offense for which an adult would receive a fine. It was and continues to be my goal for CYS to provide appropriate intervention services to help children and teens overcome their mistakes.”

Smith took the helm of CYS in 1980. Though she had worked in social services for several years since the completion of her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Arkansas State University, Smith said she had no experience in supervision or administration. At the time, CYS had 17 employees and approximately 12 kids in the shelter.

At first, she was responsible for everything from counseling kids to managing finances, and even making menus, grocery shopping and cooking. She and her husband worked the weekend shift together at times.

Now, CYS has expanded in size and scope, serving some 100 youth a day ages 10-17 at three locations with 150 employees. In addition to providing a temporary shelter for youth, CYS offers outreach services in nine counties. In 1997, a group home was built to house the adolescent treatment program, and in 1998, day service programs became available.

“Under Bonnie’s guidance, Consolidated Youth Services has expanded services during the past 30 years and has touched the lives of innumerable people in the community of Northeast Arkansas,” said Bill Prince, CYS human resource manager and longtime co-worker of Smith. “Of all the people I have worked with, been associated with and have known for the past 30 years, Bonnie is the individual that I admire the most because of her positive attitude, her compassion, her unquestionable work ethics and her ability to motivate and inspire others to go beyond what they think they are capable of. Bonnie is Consolidated Youth Services.”

For Smith, the rewards of her chosen path are innumerable.

“Daily rewards come from seeing youth succeed in our various programs whether leaving the shelter to be reunited with their family, passing the GED in our day services program after being expelled or dropping out of public school or leaving the juvenile treatment program and returning to their home community after nine months of education and social skills training,” she explained.

“Some months ago I received a call from a lady in St. Louis who was in her 40s. She had been in our shelter as a runaway at age 15. We both remembered each other. She expressed her appreciation to CYS and said, ‘I acted bad and left there several times, but you kept taking me back.’ She expressed that her life had turned out well, and she just wanted to call and see if we were still here and talk to us. From time to time we receive calls and even visits from kids (now adults) who left here many years ago. Hearing from those who believe we helped is definitely a reward.”

Smith will be honored with a reception marking 30 years of service on Aug. 5 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the CYS administration building, 4220 Stadium Blvd. She plans to continue to lead this worthwhile agency into the future.

“It is my hope that the employees and programs of CYS help youth and their families to transition through the inevitable problem times in life and that we prevent them from being negatively affected for the rest of their lives. It is my goal that we give not only youth, but also parents the understanding that a failure at age 14 does not mean a good and positive life is not possible. I want teenagers and their parents to believe that five, 10 or 40 years from now the mistakes of this year do not have to define the youth forever.”