November 3, 2012 8:41:26 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Her peers fire texts back and forth, consumed with making plans for the weekend. But "Brenda" has something more significant to think about. She wonders where she will lay her head next week. It's a dilemma many of the approximately 2 million runaway or homeless youth in this nation face.
Brenda, 14, is not a runaway, but she came close. She is, for the time being, without a permanent home. But thanks to Sally Kate Winters Family Services in West Point, she is temporarily in a protected place, still able to attend school in Columbus, still maintaining A's and B's, even as she searches for where she belongs.
Hers is one of the many faces of November, National Runaway Prevention Month, co-sponsored annually by the National Runaway Switchboard and the National Network for Youth. Its purpose is to focus attention on runaway and homeless youth and to educate the public on solutions.
The numbers are daunting, and Laura Yelverton, program coordinator at Sally Kate Winters Family Services (SKW), knows them too well. She strives daily, along with the rest of the staff, to work with families, school districts, police departments and other agencies to offer prevention and crisis intervention to area youth ages 12-17 through the agency's Runaway and Homeless Youth Program, one of several services SKW provides.
"We offer shelter, counseling and after-school programs that can help resolve conflicts with parents, connect families and teens with useful resources and provide support to families in crisis," explained Yelverton, whose goal is to keep teens like Brenda from becoming lost in the statistics.
Hard facts to face
According to the National Runaway Switchboard, between 1.7 and 2.8 million runaway and homeless youth live on the streets each year. An estimated one in five youth runs away before the age of 18, and half run away two or more times. During the past three years, there has been a 56 percent increase in crisis calls identifying economic problems as the reason for the call.
Closer to home, 815 Mississippi youth in crisis called the National Runaway Switchboard in 2011, with 32 percent of those from North Mississippi.
"In the last three years, Sally Kate Winters Family Services Runaway and Homeless Youth Program has served 67 youth, 31 of those in just in the past 12 months," said Yelverton. Sixty of the 67 were runaways.
Mississippi ranks 50th in four key areas that put youth at risk for homelessness: children in single parent families; children in poverty; children living where no parent has full time, year-round employment, and teen births, cites the Annie E. Casey Foundation (Kids Count 2011).
In the Golden Triangle, 2010 U.S. Census Bureau and 2012 U.S. Census Bureau Labor Market data revealed the percentage of the population living as single-parent families was 44 percent in Lowndes and Oktibbeha Counties, and 53 percent in Clay County. Many are fatherless households.
An average of almost 27 percent live below the poverty level. Most alarming of all, teen birth rates ranged from 31 percent in Oktibbeha to 62 percent in Lowndes and 69 percent in Clay.
One child, one story
Brenda's spiral began three years ago.
"When I was 11, my daddy died, and mom just went downhill," the teen said. She sat, straight-backed and focused, in Yelverton's office. Her hands, folded in her lap, did not fidget. Her voice did not hesitate. Eye contact did not waver as she shared with strength bits and pieces of her story.
About a year ago, Brenda and her sisters and brother were sent to Mississippi to live with an aunt, but the upheaval proved too difficult for peaceful coexistence. For Brenda, the strains steadily grew to breaking point. She considered running away to escape. Before that last resort, however, she tried a final lifeline -- talking to a teacher.
"I was so nervous," she admitted. "I don't know how many times I walked past his door before I finally did it, but the more it (the situation where she was living) went on I just decided I had to."
As a result, the Department of Human Services stepped in and Brenda soon found herself staying at Sally Kate Winters' facility.
"I had no idea this place existed, but I'm thankful. It has really helped," she emphasized, smiling.
The program is voluntary, and at no charge to youth, who generally are provided shelter and basic needs for up to 21 days. For many, it's just the breathing space needed, to calm home situations, to receive good counseling, and to find more permanent solutions, when necessary.
The current unfolding chapter in Brenda's story is hopeful. She may soon move back to her home state, to live with her grandmother.
"I am bound and determined not to be like others in my family who have crashed and burned. ... All the little things that used to mean so much, like Facebook, or going out with friends on Saturday, I don't care any more," she stated calmly. At present, finding a stable, happy place to live takes precedence.
Even as Brenda's life appears to be heading in a healthier direction, many other teens are not so fortunate. Sally Kate Winters wants them to be aware of the Safe Place Program. This community collaboration makes help for teens in crisis readily available. The program designates businesses and other community locations as sites youth can go to for trained help; all sites display the yellow and black Safe Place diamond-shaped logo.
"Currently, we have 19 Safe Place sites throughout Lowndes, Clay, Oktibbeha, Monroe and Lee Counties," said Yelverton. "They include YMCAs, West Point fire stations, Bryan Public Library and other locations. We want to help keep teens safe, and having local businesses and agencies partnering with us to provide a direct link to our services is vital to this program's success."
The Golden Triangle and surrounding communities are asked to show support for runaway and homeless youth by using green light bulbs on front porches this month and by sporting green socks Nov. 8.
"On Green Sock Day, wear your socks, take a picture and share it with Sally Kate Winters," said Yelverton. Submitted photos may end up on the SKW Facebook page.
To get a green light bulb, call 662-494-4939.
When a youth runs away or is without a home, the impact is eventually felt throughout the community. Making sure teens know there are resources to help them cope with -- and hopefully resolve -- their situations is a key goal of Sally Kate Winters Family Services.
For any teen who sees running away as a solution, Brenda urged reaching out instead.
"I would tell others to be strong and to do something, talk to somebody," she encouraged. "This is their life and no one can make it better if you don't take that first step."
Editor's note: For more information about Sally Kate Winters Family Services, including their foster care program, visit sallykatewinters.org or call 662-494-4867. Any teen in crisis is urged to call l-800-RUNAWAY (786-2929).
Runaway, runaway, runaway home,
Sometimes I feel so alone.
I feel the pain, I'm going insane
I wish there was just another way.
Runaway, runaway, runaway home
I have to get to where I belong.
My days are long and the nights drag on;
I hope and pray that I'll be OK.
Some way, some how, I gotta get out
I will find my safe place, there's no doubt.
by "Brenda," 14, of Columbus
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.