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Janelle Swartz can still remember the intake.

A young mother came into the Lehman Center on Market Street with 3-week-old twins.

She was stressed out and had nowhere to turn. All she wanted was a break from caring for her two children.

She had heard about the center's crisis nursery and stopped by.

During the intake process, she said she wouldn't be back.

Three days later, the staff knew she was true to her word.

Swartz, program manager of the crisis nursery, and her staff were able to get the twins adopted in a safe way.

"I don't want to think what would've happened to those babies if she didn't come to us," she said. "You hear stories of babies ending up in Dumpsters or being abandoned. It breaks your heart."

But the crisis nursery at the Lehman Center, which is part of the Children's Aid Society, has helped keep many York County families together.

Growing: For nearly 30 years, the space at 400 W. Market St. has acted as a 24-hour drop-in center, providing free child care to households in a crisis situation.

"The goal is simple," said Swartz. "Children can come here and be safe during times of uncertainty."

Demand for the nursery's services has increased so much in the last six years, the foundation is actively looking to expand.

"We are in talks to buy the house next door," said Martha Martin, executive director of the Lehman Center. "This will give us the chance to expand on all fronts, from our nursery to our art therapy programs."

In the last three years, the center took in nearly 2,000 children. That's the largest number of documented stays it has ever logged.

The next three years, that number is expected to jump more.

Swartz said the nursery is typically at capacity most of the time, but the group works with families and social services organizations to ensure children can have a safe place to stay.

"A typical stay can last anywhere from a few hours to three nights," she said.

The nursery can take up to six children at a time. A trained team of 15 child care providers work around the clock to take in children at all times of the day.

Last week, the center took in a pair of twins on their birthday. To make the occasion special, employees made a cake and got presents ready.

'Boat and all': The services provided at the center depend on the needs of each family, whose issues include anything from an unstable housing situation to the need for support when a loved one is getting cancer treatment.

According to Lehman statistics, about 94 percent of families who use the nursery are below the poverty line, and about 75 percent lack family support.

Martin said the down economy in 2008 saw the service demand rise. She added that with a tightening budget, Lehman Center has gotten creative on ways to keep the crisis nursery functioning when funding gets tighter.

"That's where the community stepped in with donations and just complete support," she said. "It has helped us keep going."

Many of the toys are secondhand, donated by local families.

The mermaid mural in the television room was painted by a Girl Scout.

A church next door donated green space to give children more space to play.

Grant money helped install a boat-style swing set to enhance the space. Martin said it took a village to get the structure installed.

"It literally came down the street," she said. "Boat and all."

One of few: Martin said most of the center's clients come from word-of-mouth. Sometimes, parents will just show up.

The crisis nursery in York is one of a handful in the state, Martin said.

This past year, the center helped open a fourth nursery in Pittsburgh with the help of their drop-in model.

LouAnn Ross, executive director of Jeremiah's Place, said when that organization started its crisis nursery in Pittsburgh, organizers looked to the Lehman Center for assistance.

"We would ask the question, 'What would York do?'" she said. "They were very gracious in helping us get this off the ground."

That center has been operating for 14 months and has taken in hundreds of children.

Martin said with the uptick in demand, she hopes the nursery can expand services elsewhere in central Pennsylvania.

"That's what we are working towards — helping more families," she said.

— Reach Sara Blumberg at sblumberg@yorkdispatch.com.

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