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Aleesha Lysen doesn’t have many pleasant childhood memories.

She remembers feeling alone, and often being hungry and cold. She remembers being abused, and being shunned by schoolmates because she was “one of those children” who were constantly sent home for head lice.

“We just weren’t well cared for,” said Lysen, who is now 24 and living in Mill Creek.

But she does have a little bright light from her past, something she says helped her grow up, hold a job, develop self-esteem and learn to eschew the kinds of negative relationships that disrupted the lives of many of her family members.

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Lysen says that light came from Childhaven, a therapeutic child care for abused, neglected or drug-affected children
that she attended from the age of 2, after she was placed in foster care, until 6, when she was reunited with her biological family.

It was while at Childhaven that Lysen was taken to the park, the zoo and the Space Needle. It was there that she learned to ride a bike and got the only birthday and Christmas presents she can remember.

Childhaven was where she felt valued and loved.

“I’m pretty sure the only reason I didn’t completely shut down is because I got structure and love at an early age from them,” she said. “All of my best childhood memories — hands down — happened at Childhaven.”

Childhaven, which generally serves children whose parents have come to the attention of the state’s Child Protective Services, is one of 12 private, nonprofit organizations that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

This year, the need may be even greater as Childhaven faces its biggest financial threat in its 104-year history.

The agency stands to lose $2 million in federal funds after eligibility questions raised last year prompted Medicaid officials to effectively disallow a decades-old funding arrangement under which Childhaven provided taxpayer-subsidized child care. Part of the issue is that Childhaven — with facilities in Seattle, Burien and Auburn — does not provide services statewide, a requirement of Medicaid eligibility.

The funding impact has been limited so far because the state has tapped its general fund to cover the lost federal dollars. Childhaven and state officials are looking at ways to secure federal money, including seeking a Medicaid eligibility waiver.

A spokeswoman for the agency said about half of Childhaven’s total $10 million in revenue comes from federal and state and local funding, and half comes from private donations.

Childhaven was one of the nation’s first child-care centers when it was founded more than 100 years ago and evolved into a therapeutic nursery serving children who had special needs due to abuse and neglect.

The agency’s goal is to end the cycle of abuse by showering children with the love, care, guidance and structure they need to have a chance at a physically and emotionally healthy life.

While Childhaven reserves a few spots for parents who wish to pay for their child to attend the facility, most children attend through referrals from the state’s Child Protective Services.

The agency also attempts to educate parents to be better caretakers. But even in instances when they are not in the picture or do not change, the agency’s efforts are not in vain, according to one of Childhaven’s program directors.

Childhaven staff members know that what they do is not a cure-all and that the children they serve come from troubled backgrounds and may return to them, but they seek to provide a small oasis of security and stability that can provide a foundation for a better life.

“Childhaven provides care and therapy for the children that need us because we believe that every child is worth fighting for and can be saved. Seeing Aleesha, knowing that she’s made it, is the tangible proof that the work and the mission pay off in the long term,” said President Maria Chavez Wilcox.

Lysen remembers one primary teacher at Childhaven who helped her work through much of the trauma she experienced and gave her some tools that she would rely on in later years.

That teacher read to her, played with her and made her feel cherished, she said.

“Childhaven was the only consistent, normal thing in my childhood,” she said.

Lysen said she and her three siblings were removed from her mother’s care after her father was sent to prison for child abuse.

Her mother “had a lot of her own challenges,” said Lysen. “She had mental-health issues. She had addictions. She could not take care of herself and there was no way she could take care of four kids under 6.”

Lysen was then placed in the first of what would turn out to be a series of foster homes — some good, some not so good. At the same time, she was enrolled in Childhaven.

Regardless of where she was living, the Childhaven van picked her up every weekday morning and would take her home in the afternoon.

“They would come and get me no matter where I was living,” she said. “Even though there were inappropriate things going on in some of the foster homes, I remember those years as being great.”

She was around 6 years old when she graduated from Childhaven, started kindergarten and was reunited with her siblings and mother.

Lysen said she is not clear how her mother was able to regain custody of her children despite untreated addictions to gambling, drugs, alcohol and abusive men.

Her family moved often, living at one point in a trailer with one of Lysen’s uncles, his wife and their two adult children.

By the time she was 14, her older sister had moved out and her brother had run away. Her mother moved to another state, leaving Lysen and her younger sister to fend for themselves, she said.

She was placed again in the foster-care system and found herself in a home where she was introduced to art, culture, literature and a more positive way of life.

Over the next few years she worked to overcome some of her own self-destructive behaviors and just celebrated four years of being clean and sober. She is attending college, working full time in sales and doing charity work.

The lessons she learned while at Childhaven are still with her.

She often speaks at functions and fundraisers for Childhaven and other Seattle-area agencies that work with kids. She talks about how grateful she is for the help she received and the life she now has.

“Childhaven can’t fix all the ills of abuse or neglect, but they absolutely can make a difference,” she said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say they save lives. I know they helped to save mine.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

Christine Clarridge can be reached at or 206-464-8983.

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