Despite the risks and grave threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Florida Network’s youth shelters and programs remain open as an option for kids who have nowhere else to go. This other frontline of shelter workers make countless sacrifices in order to make sure Florida’s youth have somewhere to stay. After months of working tirelessly to continue providing for youth during the pandemic, it was recently brought to our attention that one of our shelter managers had gone above and beyond. In July of 2020, Tyron Smith, manager of the George W. Harris Youth Shelter in Bartow, Florida, experienced the impacts of the pandemic first hand. He had a full shelter of 12 kids, and half of them tested positive for Coronavirus.
Unaware of how they contracted the virus and who else was infected, Smith had little time to react. After testing his entire staff and finding that seven of his staff members, including himself, were positive, he had to quickly make a decision. He knew he couldn’t shut down the shelter because these kids needed him now more than ever.
As he sent home his infected staff with strict quarantine orders, he made the choice to move in and carry out his quarantine with the youth who tested positive at the shelter. With half of his staff recovering at home, Smith chose to stay with the quarantined kids in order to keep the remaining youth and staff from catching the virus.
Alongside the kids, Smith worked 16-hour shifts for a full 14 days, sleeping on a makeshift pallet on the floor each night. Even while being away from his home and partner while still juggling a full-time Master’s course load, Smith made the youth’s quarantine as enjoyable as possible. “I was up working for 224 hours while sick with COVID. I was fatigued, sure, but if I wasn’t there, then who would’ve been there for those kids?” Smith explained.
While the sick youth were quarantining on one side of the shelter, the other youth wrote them notes of well wishes and “get well soon” cards. “Our kids who tested positive said they were scared, but they said it made them feel safer knowing that I had it too,” Smith recalled. He admits it was a challenge to keep all of the youth entertained by themselves for two weeks, but it brought them closer together as a result.
Tyron Smith wasn’t the only employee making sacrifices at George W. Harris. Their shelter kitchen worker, who recently passed away due to non-COVID related causes, had tested negative for the virus. But after only one day of staying home, she returned to the shelter — insisting to be there for the kids. “I want to reiterate that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of my staff… I know I was the one sleeping there, but they were working doubles and still put themselves at risk every day,” Smith said.
All of the staff and youth were able to recover from the virus. With this struggle now behind them, Smith and his staff reflected on what they learned. “This experience helped me to find what we need to work on and identify our strengths as a shelter,” he explained. “We learned to streamline so many different aspects of our work. Now we cross-train every one of our staff members so we are more prepared if this happens again.”
Mark Wickham, CEO of Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., the George W. Harris Youth Shelter’s parent organization, shared this of Smith’s sacrifice throughout a frightening situation. “Never in my career have I seen this level of commitment,” said Wickham. “It is truly humbling for all of us at YFA to have Tyron on our team.”
The George W. Harris Youth Shelter has continued to support youth and families in and around its community since this outbreak. The shelter provides residential housing for youth in need of an emergency shelter placement due to abuse and/or neglect and for youth in foster care who have experienced a disruption in their foster placement. Shelter services are provided for up to fourteen days. Their program provides 24 hour, 7 days a week admission services, youth supervision, food, clothing, crisis counseling, life skills education, individual and family counseling, as well as recreation and leisure time.
We could not be more grateful to have the entire George W. Harris staff as a part of our Network and are proud to highlight those fighting for others amidst challenging times. The other frontline working at youth shelters across the country work hard to improve the lives of kids and families every day. Tyron Smith’s extraordinary courage and compassion is a story unlike any other. It is not just his sacrifice, but the joy and hope he brought to a harrowing experience, that makes this a story worth sharing.