When Harold Huffman was asked to head up Osage County’s Youth Services Program three decades ago, he thought it would be a six-month venture. Now, almost 37 years later, Huffman is ready to embrace retirement.
In September of 1978, Judge Potter and John Bilyeau invited Huffman to become Youth Services Director. The shelter was located at the old County Hospital.
“This place looked like a dungeon,” said Huffman. “All the kids thought it did as well. We always had a lot of room and eventually made it homey.”
As Executive Director, Huffman oversees a staff of 26. Half of these are stationed at the Shelter. The other half support the Detention Program located at the County jail.
“Altogether we have five programs,” said Huffman. “In addition to the Detention Program, we have a First-Time Offender Program and an Outreach Counselor who visits Osage County homes. Our Youth Shelter serves deprived, abused and neglected children, including runaways who are beyond their parent’s control. The CARS program targets at-risk youth who may become involved in the judicial system. The catalyst behind CARS is to prevent small children from ending up in shelters.”
Administering these programs can become frustrating, especially with so many Government mandates. The latest mandate is a push to emulate New Jersey’s foster care program.
“Our Government hasn’t taken into consideration that Oklahoma and New Jersey are far from being compatible,” said Huffman. “Many of Oklahoma’s foster parents have not received proper training. This pinnacle plan is not viable for Oklahoma. Something needs to be done but New Jersey’s program isn’t the answer.”
Huffman noted the Osage County Shelter caters to youth ages 10-17, sixty percent of whom come from foster homes. Those under 10, including babies, are put into foster care.
Huffman said there have been a lot of significant changes during his tenure, some for the better and some for the worse.
“I come from the old school. Folks who work in child welfare recognize there is a difference between discipline and abuse. A lot of times we get kids because of a lack of parenting, a lack of supervision. There are a lot of good kids out there but we only see the 5-10 percent who are abused or neglected.
“The Shelter can house troubled children up to thirty days. We have had kids here for up to three months. Many arrive wearing only the clothing on their backs. Through the generosity and support of Pawhuska churches and civic organizations, the Shelter is able to provide these children with necessary toiletries and clothing. We cannot thank our community enough for its support.”
The Youth Shelter services 8 of the 41 different social agencies in Oklahoma, extending to surrounding counties, such as Kay and Washington, and handles their overflow.
Occupancy varies with youth coming to the Shelter as the result of Child Welfare, law enforcement or a judge’s intervention.
Huffman chuckled when he noted, “During vacation season, we have had some parents ask us to babysit their children while they go on vacation. We have to explain to them this is not our purpose.”
When the JC asked Huffman why he ended up staying so long, he replied, “This work really hits you in the heart. It goes all over you when you can redirect a kid heading in the wrong direction. The same goes for a kid needing love and someone to care.
“Helping a child to get back on track means we did something right. Sometimes it’s tough love. Before coming here, many of these children never had a hug. We give these youngsters an opportunity to know that someone out there cares about them. Many of the kids become attached to our staff and are able to unload their fears. Several have actually thanked our stricter child-care workers for taking the time to listen to them. We try to give good advice. We don’t tell them what to do. These actions are appreciated.”
“Scott Bighorse will be my successor. Even though I’m officially retiring June 30th, I may have to hang round until Scott completes his obligations with the Osage Nation.
“Scott’s strengths will benefit our youth. He helped start our detention program. His goal is to work with the kids before they get in trouble.”
Huffman received his teaching credentials from Central State University (now University of Central Oklahoma). His fondest memories go back to the 1960s when he was coaching a group of 16-year old PHS basketball players.
“We won the State AAU Basketball Championship in 1967. That team went on to win three state championships. We had a really good bunch of kids — Chico Sellers, Nate Bowman and Sherman York, to name a few.
“Gayle and I never had children of our own but I’ve always felt the years I taught school, coached and working here, these are my children.”
Gayle created a mile-long list of honey-do’s for Huffman to tackle following retirement. “It will take me years to finish her list. I told her I would do these at my own pace. A lot of people don’t realize I am 76 years old. I think it’s time for me to step down and get some younger people in.”
A party is being held in Huffman’s honor on Monday, June 30, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Youth Shelter, at 1616 McKenzie.