Abandoned Kids and Second Chances
In the new book Almost Home: Helping Kids Move From Hopelessness to Hope, Tina Kelley and Kevin Ryan tell the stories of six extraordinary young people who, despite tremendous adversity, exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. Read an exclusive excerpt here.
Parents of teenagers know what it's like when your words of advice go in one ear and out the other. Imagine how challenging it is to reach a homeless teenager, one who felt abandoned by his birth mother and abused and left behind by his adoptive family, as he battled with addiction.
This excerpt from Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope describes how Mildred Mack, a counselor in the Covenant House in Anchorage, Alaska, struggled to reach Paulie, who stayed at the shelter 11 times before finding an apartment of his own. Her belief in him, her unwillingness to give up over the years, was crucial to his survival and success. He is now attending college and has volunteered at holiday dinners for homeless kids.
By the time he was seventeen, Paulie had come to Covenant House eight times in nearly three years, and most times he’d leave in a huff, after complaining about Mildred “getting in my face.” He was unwilling to return to school or study for his high school equivalency diploma. He missed meals and counseling. When Mildred laid down the law and told him not to waste his days loitering downtown, he bristled, and the lure of the streets prevailed. The parties, the beer, the drugs, and, most of all, the freedom trumped Mildred’s voice, Mildred’s rules, Mildred’s agenda for his life.
Most days, Paulie was glad for the dark, and there was a lot of it in Anchorage in the winter. It made it possible for him to hide, backing up into doorways, sleeping on or under benches, without feeling exposed. He didn’t mind eating out of the trash cans as much as he minded being seen doing so. But the eighteen-hour winter nights were dangerous. Homeless people routinely freeze to death on the streets of Anchorage; some have been crushed to death when the dumpsters they sought shelter in were emptied into trash trucks.
After returning to Covenant House from a stint in juvenile detention, Paulie was unhappy to find Mildred still there. She occasionally heard him grumbling about her, and she chalked it up to a play for sympathy. She watched him intensely, like an eagle attending its speckled eggs high above the arctic wilderness, trying to figure out what it was he needed most.
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” he pleaded one afternoon, sprawled across the couch, having failed to go to school yet again. He had repeatedly told her about the humiliations of showing up with mismatched outfits from the shelter’s clothing room. Had she even been listening to him?
“These chores you should be doing, Paulie, one day they’re going to help you. You’re going to go to work and have a good work ethic, you know?”
“I am sick and tired of you with this tough love bull. Just leave me alone!” he hollered.
She bent down to face him and saw him trembling, his eyes moist, searching as far away from her as he could. She looked into those tired brown eyes, and for the first time she had second thoughts. Maybe the beatings and the drugs and the end of his family had exacted too great a toll, and he was not as resilient as she had estimated. She stood silently and waited for Paulie to do his chores, and she didn't leave the room until she saw him reluctantly pick up a broom and start sweeping the hall.
Connie Morgan, Mildred's supervisor, knew that Mildred thought she had to be strong and demanding for Paulie’s sake, but it was mostly a well-rehearsed façade. Underneath Mildred’s veneer of certitude and toughness dwelled a soft center, one she hesitated to reveal. She needed permission to experiment a bit.
“Try something different,” Connie advised. “He expects you to lean into him. Try giving him some carrots. If he wants an extra hour on curfew, barter: give it to him if he enrolls in the diploma course.”
It could not hurt to try, so Mildred did just that. And in a matter of days, Paulie started to earn the privileges he sought. Suddenly, carrots in hand, Mildred found it easier to lure him toward an education. She still insisted they meet every day and review his plans and accomplishments. When he was late, she waited for him. She was not letting go.
A few weeks later, Paulie approached her in the hallway of the shelter. She sensed he was coming to the end of his latest stay, because his attendance at meals had become less frequent and his requests for extended curfews more common. “Mildred, I never did anything to you. Why can’t you just leave me alone?”
She looked at him with a faint smile. He just shook his head, shrugged, and walked away.
When Paulie resurfaced at Covenant House months later, having turned 19, still homeless, tired, and cold, he told Mildred he wanted to stop eating out of trash cans. She told him he had to stop using drugs and get his equivalency diploma, a job, and some savings. He didn’t quite roll his eyes, but it was close. She admired his courage for coming back yet another time, but she wished he would check his adolescent swagger at the door.
Paulie told her he had received his diploma a few weeks ago, without having had to study much. Mildred was speechless at first, then put her hands on his shoulders and gave them a shake, beaming. He had his GED? It was a terrific omen, and it confirmed to her that he was naturally smart. After all, he had no formal education beyond a few months of the ninth grade, yet had passed the high school equivalency exam on the first try.
“All right, then!” she said.
He had to smile. Her voice, the one that had taken root in his head during the last year, had finally started making sense. He heard it on the streets, in a crowd, though she was nowhere in sight. Nothing had gone right for him when he followed the ravers, the drug pushers, and the other kids on the street, so for something different, he had started to listen to the voice of Mildred Mack. Maybe she really did care about him. He wanted to make the right decisions, the kind that Mildred had been encouraging, choices that would help him off the streets. He was tired of being a victim.
During the next several weeks, she saw him for the first time apply himself steadily at the shelter, tackling his chores without any lip, finding a part-time job, then another, saving his paychecks, and expressing an interest in Covenant House's Rights of Passage independent living program, which gives young people the skills they need to prosper on their own, while insisting that they work, budget, and save during their extended stays.
Within a month—his longest stay at Covenant House until then—Paulie was accepted into Rights of Passage, and he planned to leave the crisis shelter for his new digs several blocks away. The morning before he left, he invited Mildred to go for a walk. They bundled up and headed outside, passing the mural painted across the back of the building depicting a young person sitting on a trash can next to the words “Life on the Street is a Dead End.”
“Umm, I just want to say thanks for helping me. You got my ass in line. You never gave up on me."
She shook her head no and reminded him of the last time he had stayed there, when he asked her why she wouldn’t leave him alone.
“Yeah,” he said. “You didn’t really say anything.”
“I know, I know,” she said, looking down, pausing. “Paulie, I wanted to say never. I’m never going to leave you alone, you know, because I believe in you.”
He faced her and quietly responded, “Thanks, Mildred.”
“Don’t thank me, Paulie. I did for you what I did for my own.”
“I’m kind of your own by now,” he said.
“That you are,” she said with a grin.
Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley co-authored Almost Home. Ryan is the head of Covenant House, the largest agency in the Americas serving homeless youth. Kelley is a former New York Times reporter. The book will be released on October 1, 2012. You can buy it here today.