The Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center, also known as the Gingerbread House, celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the building on Dec. 7.
The Gingerbread House serves as a safe place for young victims of sexual and physical abuse to tell their story for investigative purposes and provides additional mental and emotional resources to children and their family.
The advocacy’s mission is, “To provide the necessary services to help with the investigation process, the interview process, the psychological process and medical process these families need.”
Executive Director John Wyckoff has served the program for the past 17 years and is a major influence in the developing of the Gingerbread House. With the resilient support from the community, the building has allowed staff to impact nearly 2,000 children in Ellis County.
“The ten years have gone by a lot faster than what I anticipated,” Wyckoff said. “I think it’s great the way we have evolved to have play-therapy. When we moved in, we didn’t have a counselor, we didn’t have a play-therapy room and didn’t have a family advocate. It was basically the interviewer and myself. So I feel like we’ve really gone further than what I expected.”
In 1998, the idea to open an advocacy center came about after Joe Grubbs, now an Ellis County judge, heard a child have to tell their story about being sexually assaulted multiple times before the conclusion of an investigation. Grubbs was the Ellis County District Attorney at the time and became the founding board member of the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center and board president when Wyckoff was hired.
“John’s really made all the difference. You can stack up all the advocacy centers in the state and I’m including the big cities in that, and I give the credit to John," Grubbs said. "He has been amazing in his ability to understand what the center is about.”
The program was originally running out of the Texas Baptist Home (TBH), opening in Dec. 1999. The first forensic interview was conducted that same month.
The center was eventually relocated to the Comerica Bank in Waxahachie from 2005—07. Grubbs pointed out that bringing children into the public building wasn’t setting the best tone for the beginning of an investigation, so the need for a stand-alone advocacy center was a primary necessity.
In 2004, Wyckoff set out to find some land and discovered the baseball fields on the corner of Ferris Street and Ross Street. Turns out, the land was owned by the TBH. The TBH board sold one acre of land for $25,000 for the building to be constructed.
Once the land was purchased, the center started the Capital Campaign in 2005. Wyckoff approached the state Representative Jim Pitts about encouraging community members to donate funds. Wyckoff was asking for companies and individuals to sponsor rooms from $10,000 to $20,000, and the plaques sold quickly. He said they ran out of rooms and hallways, so they sold sponsors for the two porches and the welcoming garden.
Companies and individuals who sponsored the building are Roy and Bernyce Crownover, Blue Knight's Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club, Citizens National Bank, Comerica Bank, Ennis State Bank, Greater Ennis United Way, Robert and Shawnee Harding, Jimmy and Linda Harper, Wilma Langenheder and Ron and Marilyn Langenheder, The Jim Pitts Family, Jim and Judy Suggs, Texas Nameplate Company, Inc., TXI in Midlothian, Valero Energy Foundation, Vintage Bank, Waxahachie Daily Light, Waxahachie Rotary Club.
Everything seemed to be falling into place for the building and the community was proven to be more than on board. Wyckoff went to Citizens National Bank for a $300,000 loan for construction. The bank granted the loan at zero interest.
The architect for the building, Mark Odom, went to scout the land and told Wyckoff he’d played baseball as a kid on the field where the Gingerbread House now sits on. Odom was conducting the preliminary interview, a rough draft of the site, “and I asked Mark how much I’d be because I had to take it back to the board and he said ‘It’s pro-bono.’ $50,000 fee he waived,” Wyckoff exclaimed.
Assisting with the building was Mike Navarro who served as board treasurer for the advocacy center from 1998 to 2016.
After interviewing various construction companies, Wyckoff came across Bob Agar from Ennis who was able to use donated bricks and used contractors at a discounted price.
Another board member who was also working for General Aniline and Firm helped obtain donated roofing materials for the Gingerbread House.
“I knew pretty quickly that once we had a face to our company, what we did, that it would bring more and more cases. We knew that Ellis County was growing,” Wyckoff said.
The land purchased from TBH as well as the construction of the building costs totaled at $575,000. These expenses were proudly paid off in 2014.
Current board president Katherine Sirchia, said, “It’s sad that we have to have it, but I’m so ecstatic to have the community behind us and our donors that help us with this. We’ve had amazing people in the community, and we love serving our children in Waxahachie. It’s an exciting thing to get to celebrate 10 years.”
Next for the Gingerbread House is to add an additional play therapy room and another counselor position. Currently, the team is made up of five employees including Wyckoff.
Forensic interviewer Chelsea Zortman has worked at the Gingerbread house since the spring and said the small staff makes the advocacy center a unique place to work and provides a substantial support system.
Zortman said, “It’s really neat to see the program grow and expand because we can serve more kids and that’s the ultimate goal is to be able to get them in therapy and what they need. So to be able to get a second therapist and play-therapy room would benefit everyone in the community I think.”
Data compiled for the 2017 fiscal year (Sept. to Aug.) showed the majority of the interviews conducted were related to sexual assault. Fifty-one percent of victims that are interviewed were between six to 12 years old, while 38 percent were between the ages of 13 to 17 years old. Seventy percent of the victims were female.