Audrey Shine has excelled during her time at Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, but she has also done great work away from school. One of the best examples of this is the valedictorian’s work at the nonprofit Children’s Center at Nassau County Family Court in Westbury, which has been run by North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center for about a decade.
“Over the summer, I got a phone call from a friend saying they were short on volunteers at the family court and needed a hand,” said Shine. “At the same time, I was simultaneously interning at a law office. When she said family court, I associated that with my current job and said that I was interested because it was right up my alley.”
Upon arriving at the center, Shine was expecting to deal with a lot of paper work and documents, as she did working in a secretarial role at the law firm. However, she realized that her friend left out the detail that she would be working at the children’s center in the court, working with and taking care of children, aged 6 weeks to 12 years, who have been dropped off by their parents, who are heading to a court session.
“I was expecting to be searching for matching audio files rather than searching for something far more elusive like a lifeboat or a Barbie doll,” said Shine. “After a day of working with the children, I knew I made the right choice, so I decided to stay.”
“She was great with them,” said Joan Antonik, one of the supervisors who runs the center and worked closely with Shine. “She organized us a little bit. She was a very well-organized volunteer. She was wonderful with the children and with other high school volunteers. She was a go-getter. When we get a good [volunteer], we don’t want to let them go.”
Shine learned the stories about the children and how most of them came from lower-income minority families who are fighting legal battles right down the hall.
“While the child is there, they are not focused on what’s happening with the parents,” said Dr. Nellie Taylor-Walthrust, who is in charge of the Children’s Center program. “They are engaged in children’s play. They are supervised by professionally trained staff and its a fun place for the children to be.”
Despite the intimidating setting of the court, spending more time with the children made Shine not want to leave. Then, another opportunity to help the children came when she saw that each child could go home with a book.
“Every child that comes to the center can go home with a book of their choice,” said Taylor-Walthrust. “We encourage the parents to read to their child and, if the child is able to read, to engage them to read.”
“I asked the supervisors at the center how they were getting these books,” said Shine. “They said they relied entirely on donations. I thought that wasn’t a very stable system. God forbid the donations stop pouring in.”
As an immigrant, Shine did not have a full grasp on English growing up. Through books, she was able to better understand the language. Literacy means a lot to her, so it was at that moment that Shine decided she wanted to make a difference by starting a book drive for the center.
“By providing these underprivileged children with the same resources I had growing up, I am confident they can learn to appreciate reading as much as I do,” said Shine.
“She just took it upon herself to go out and get these books,” said Antonik. “I don’t even know where she got them from.”
She began picking up books from friends and strangers around the area, driving around to pick these books up. Some local residents had entire boxes of books that they were no longer going to use.
“Some people only had a single book to spare but that didn’t matter to me because every book was equally valuable,” said Shine. “These books were lightly-used and ranged from picture books to chapter books, which fit the age range of the children who attended the center.”
She ran the first book drive in the fall of 2018, coming away with more than 200 books. Despite a very successful drive, Shine wanted to keep going to continue helping the children center. This past spring, she ran her second book drive, this time partnering with the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library.
“They cycle books every season so there’s a lot of books that are no longer in circulation that are set aside and collect dust,” said Shine. “They said it would be wonderful if this was for charitable purposes so I thought it was perfect.”
With the new partnership, Shine collected more than 300 books for the children’s center, putting the total at more than 500 books collected at both drives. But she isn’t done yet as Shine is now in the midst of her summer book drive, the final drive that she will be running before heading to Harvard University in the fall.
“I don’t want this drive to die when I leave so I am passing the torch down to one of my friends,” said Shine. “For this last book drive, I am running it as a collective with underclassman at my high school and hopefully this is something they can continue for years to come.”
The children center does more than just give out books. They also give out backpacks, strollers, school supplies and many other things to help families who are dealing with legal struggles take care of their children. With only two staff members running the center and lots of volunteers, Antonik tries her best to make the center the best environment possible.
“[The children] see a lot of negative things, so we try to be positive and let them have fun,” said Antonik. “There’s a lot of stress in their lives at such a young age. We’re here for paternity, custody, visitation and support so the parents are constantly fighting. We’re really here to be comforting to [the children] and every day we want a child walking out of here with a better experience.”
If you are interested in donating or volunteering your time at the children’s center, call 516-493-4005. For more information on the program, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.