Fostering the Forgotten: Sarah Shelby Provides Critical Lifeline for Sunnybrook Youth

Case managers play an important role in the foster care system for several reasons, especially at Sunnybrook where transition planning is a critical link for adult youth left searching for safety, stability, care, and a chance for a brighter future.

Growing up just 10 minutes from the campus of Sunnybrook Children’s Home, Case Manager Sarah Shelby can’t recall the number of times she drove past campus as a child. Vaguely familiar with their work and mission, she didn’t fully understand how the non-profit supported and advocated for foster youth. When she left home for Mississippi State University, after graduating from Holmes Community College, she had no idea Sunnybrook would play a vital role in her education and the launch of her career. 

Shelby majored in Human Development and Family Services; her program of study covered early childhood through adolescence into adulthood. The curriculum included impacts of trauma and trauma informed advocacy. The topic of trauma interested Shelby so much her advisor suggested she take extra classes to obtain a trauma-informed advocacy certificate. As the saying goes, the rest is history. 

And, for Sarah, her future is the generational impact she will have on young adults in their search for a brighter future with nowhere else to turn, but Sunnybrook. 

“I learned about what trauma is, how trauma alters the brain, and all the different aspects of what trauma looks like. A lot of people think of trauma as only physical trauma, and they don’t realize there are different levels of trauma. 

Emotional trauma is the main thing I deal with on a daily basis and it’s not even what’s been recent, a lot of it has occurred to the resident when she was younger and she is still working through it today,” she said. “So, I would definitely say my certificate is a blessing .”

A Summer of Teachable Moments at Sunnybrook 

During her last few months at Mississippi State University, Shelby completed a 480-hour case management internship at Sunnybrook. While the residents were off school over summer break, she enjoyed getting to know the girls and building relationships with them. 

Through that experience she administered a career assessment and taught a two-hour career exploration class with the goal of identifying careers of interest. She also prepared them for their driver’s education course and helped residents study for the test. Four of the girls obtained their driver’s license that same summer under Shelby’s tutelage. 

At the end of her internship, she had gained a much better understanding of Sunnybrook’s mission and the critical link Sunnybrook services provide as the primary advocate for children in need of transition planning. It was that experience, she says, that solidified her desire to work with youth.

A couple days after the internship ended, she was offered and accepted a full-time case management job at Sunnybrook.

“I immediately loved it,” Shelby explained. “I was very nervous at first, I had never worked with adolescents and especially adolescent females who are not far from my age. But I found it has been an advantage because I can relate to them in a lot of ways and vice versa.” 

Shelby added, “There is a firm respect and boundary they have with me. It’s not necessarily a friendship, but I like to look at it as a big sister. I am helping guide them in a lot of ways because I can relate to them [at their age]. It’s shown me they are more willing to share and [be vulnerable], talk about some things with me because I’m not far off in age from them.”

At The Heart of Every Case Manager Is A Child’s Future 

At the heart of any transitional group living home is the case manager. And at the heart of any case manager is the physical, emotional, educational, and healthcare needs of its residents.  

The role of a case manager is responsible for establishing resident care plans, monitoring activity, communicating with child protective services (CPS) staff, tracking progress towards independence, and ensuring that milestones in their transition plans are being met as residents inch closer to life outside the protective gates of Sunnybrook’s campus. 

From big sister to advocate and, at times, adversary, a successful case manager is adaptable and empathetic. The role isn't for everyone, but Shelby has a knack for it. 

“I meet with the residents twice a month every other week for 30-minute time periods to talk about how they are doing in the house and at school,” she said. “We go over their grades, where we can make improvements and how the resident is doing overall. I follow up with them on things I have received from their CPS worker or vice versa.”

“We also do growth plan work with each of the girls. Growth plans are our way of documenting how a resident is reaching her independence. The growth plans are covered by me as the case manager, the houseparent and assistant program director. It’s a team effort to document what the residents learn,” Shelby said.

As part of the growth plan, residents at Sunnybrook are asked questions to identify their knowledge, skills, overall personal readiness and level of independence. For example, Shelby might ask one of the girls to explain what she would do in an event if someone approached her with a challenge. 

The houseparent then might ask how she would separate white and dark clothing when doing laundry, or how she would unload a dishwasher. 

“We try to word each question so that the resident has to answer before we tell her how it’s done. You might think they know some of these things but when you ask them to show me, they don’t actually know how to do it,” Sarah explained.

In addition to working with the Sunnybrook’s residents, Sarah spends much of her time communicating with Sunnybrook staff as well as with staff at Child Protective Services (CPS). 

“I am in constant communication with everyone on staff, that includes the houseparents, direct office staff, the resident CPS worker and CPS supervisors. I am the point of contact for all of them in reference to what is done for the child, what the child needs, or if any information needs to be relayed over.”

“It can be hard to get in contact with CPS, so I have to keep at it. The role requires a lot of communication via phone and email throughout the day. Part of my job responsibilities also involves running to the school to drop medicine off, taking residents to doctor appointments, taking them school shopping, and [then] documentation. But the main priority is constant [and open] communication with staff and workers,” she added.

Navigating the Challenges and Public Stigma of Children in Care 

As with many caregivers, the job of a case manager doesn’t end there. It's a role of many hats that includes coordinating a range of services for children and families, such as therapy, counseling, medical care, and educational support. Case managers exist to ensure that children receive the necessary resources and support to address their unique needs, whatever those needs dictate. 

That can present certain challenges, said Shelby. On occasion, when she takes residents to the doctor’s office, staff members are often confused about her relationship to the child. After introducing herself as the child’s case manager, they don’t know how to appropriately address and respond to her or the child. 

She has found that many professionals in the medical and teaching fields specifically are uncertain of how to relate to foster children in care of the state.

“I don’t think people realize it’s a sensitive subject, the child did not ask for this situation. When they are out in public, the one asking questions, such as the doctor, is often very loud about a child’s placement and her case workers. It does affect the child in ways the professional doesn’t always see. Sometimes the general public isn’t aware that what they say and how they respond can impact the child.”

She added, “These children have difficult circumstances so [naturally] they will become a product of the things that have occurred to them. It’s important [to teach] residents how to advocate for themselves in situations like that and show the general public they are capable of doing anything a child from a two parent or single parent household can do.”

Shelby’s reality as a case manager is the lack of legal authority she’s given regarding a resident’s care. While she can offer input as Sunnybrook’s hired professional, CPS is the child’s legal guardian and they ultimately carry the authority to make any and all legal decisions on behalf of residents. 

The lack of legal guardianship for case managers can be frustrating when a decision goes against what she thinks is best or what a resident has expressed or desires. It’s then Shelby’s responsibility to inform the girls of any decision made by her CPS worker which can cause unwanted friction in the relationship. 

Shelby has already in her young career developed remarkable awareness and heightened her understanding of how these systematic roadblocks can negatively impact her relationship with residents, going above and beyond to communicate and reassure the girls that she has their best interests at heart. 

“I feel like case management is something you continuously work on; I don’t think you’ll ever completely perfect it just because not one situation is the same as another. You often have to adapt to each resident and be willing to respond where and when you can,” Shelby said.

One of The Few, One of The Blessed Proudly Serving Adolescent Youth 

Based on the record of Sunnybrook’s success, Shelby is surprised there are so few transitional foster group homes for adolescents in Mississippi. The stats are alarming and the number of adolescents aging out of care is on the rise. Beyond Sunnybrook Children’s Home, the number of transitional facilities available simply aren’t built to match the growing needs of our adolescent populations.

Each year an estimated 20,000 youth in transition exit the foster care system without access to the support or resources they need to succeed, reports The Annie E. Casey Foundation. More homes like Sunnybrook offer a solution to help these vulnerable older adolescents better prepare for their future.

“There are so many more foster homes available for the early years than the adolescent years. We often have adolescents thrown into the world with no guidance or resources available to them and that is very hard,” Shelby said. 

That’s where Sunnybrook’s vision found a home by offering shelter and preparing foster teens for adulthood through teaching and mentorship, life-skills training, financial literacy, and job training. Living in a transitional group home is how residents learn to connect and relate with teens in similar situations. 

Sunnybrook’s residents have not chosen this life. Adversity and misfortune have led them to Sunnybrook where restoration and hope begins. The campus provides a safe haven for residents with access to trauma-informed counseling so that these young adults, shattered by a lifetime of pain and heartbreak, can begin the healing process. As time heals their wounds, souls are restored and uplifted again. 

Everything about Sunnybrook is intentional by design. All of it is guided by the grace of a loving, supportive, and welcoming home environment. It’s the caring and nurturing staff like Sarah Shelby who shepherd our residents in their journey from wandering adolescents to strong, confident, and independent adults. 

“Sunnybrook has changed a lot over the years but in such a great way and they are making an impact in the community and this world,” Shelby said. “It’s awesome to work for such an amazing organization that is literally helping to form and change the lives of residents. And it’s just great to say I’m able to be part of that and assist with helping the residents each and every day.”

Leave Your Legacy, Help Our Children Secure Theirs

Ready to get involved but not sure how? Contact Ron Veazey, Director of Advancement, at to learn the different ways you can support Sunnybrook’s mission to provide stability, care, and a chance for a brighter future for society’s most vulnerable youth. 

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