As a long-time children’s advocate, Lorretta Keeling was deeply concerned by the number of homeless students in Horry County Schools, especially teenage girls soon to be mothers. So Keeling founded the Horry County Teens and Infants Shelter Home.
It was a bold move, the sort of action many well-intended folks wish they had the nerve and wherewithal to do. During a talk to the Rotary Club of Little River, it was not a surprise to hear her say, “we’re a little exhausted at times.” The shelter opened Sept. 2 and has already assisted 14 girls, two toddlers and one infant, Keeling says. The numbers that drove her to start the shelter include 612 documented homeless student in Horry County Schools (2009-2010 school year), with 323 in elementary schools, 179 in middle schools and 110 in high schools. Those alarming numbers go along with the sad reality that homeless families with children are the fastest-growing subpopulation among the homeless. More than 60 percent of Horry County students are from families below the poverty line and this was the situation even before the recession of 2008.
“Our main mission is to get them prenatal care,” Keeling says. The shelter’s mission includes guiding and caring for pregnant teens and teens in crisis, helping them with medical and financial needs and working to “get a strategy together for them to become self-sufficient, to be able to care for their child and themselves.”
The shelter’s capacity is five girls and five infants. “If there is a sixth, she comes home with me” or someone helping. “One of our biggest needs is volunteers.” Keeling is looking for volunteers “to go in with an open heart.” Keeling describes the shelter as being “like a regular household, except with pregnant girls walking around.” The facility formerly was a shelter for women in crisis. Keeling says teens are accepted on a case-by-case basis. Last week, the shelter was caring for three girls and two toddlers.
One of her dedicated helpers is her 7-year-old daughter, who regularly carries business cards for the program. “She gave one to Santa,” Keeling says. The 7-year-old is the youngest of Keeling’s four daughters. Keeling says the shelter’s operating budget is an estimated $50,000. Horry County Teens and Infants Shelter Home is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Want to help? A spring fundraising concert is planned at St. Paul’s Church in Conway. The shelter home board also is planning a fundraiser dinner.
Keeling has ambitious goals for the shelter, hoping to triple in size within one year and have two homes on one property, one for pregnant teens and one for teens in crisis. A native of Long Island, N.Y., she has been in the area for 20 years. She’s been a children’s advocate for 20 years and has watched 30 births over the years. “We’re doing the right thing,” she says of the program. She says she is blessed to have team members that share her vision: “To save a child from homelessness, to give hope where there was none.”