Homeless teens, my enlightenment…..

I’m a creature of habit.   I wake at the same time each day, drink coffee from the same cup, shave at the same time and listen to the same radio station as I prepare to meet the day.  One morning while dressing for work and while listening to a morning country music radio program (KNCI 105.1 – The Pat and Tom Show) I grew attentive as the discussion turned toward a young country music star,  Jimmy Wayne.  This remarkable person had placed his career as a country music recording star on hold to bring attention the plight of the homeless teen.  Specifically he wanted to bring light those teens who were becoming ineligible for the Foster Youth Program at the age of 18, aging out of the system as the term goes.  Since putting one’s career on hold is professional suicide in the recording business I was intrigued so I dug deeper.   Jimmy Wayne decided to raise awareness by walking as a homeless person from Nashville, Tennessee to Phoenix, Arizona.  I began following Jimmy Wayne (once a homeless teen himself) as he documented his trek via Twitter. As he walked he described his experiences, many times embedding his memories of living as a homeless teen into his reports.

In May of 2010 KNCI held a walk to support Jimmy Wayne and his “Meet Me Halfway” program.   The walk was ten miles and at that time I couldn’t walk ten miles….but I could walk half a mile, climb in my pickup truck…wheeze then drive the next nine and half miles.  Of course stopping now and then to cheer those who were actually walking the ten miles!  The walk began at the “Diogenes Youth Center” and after ten miles concluded at the “Wind Youth Organization”  both in Sacramento, California.  Both of these organizations aid the homeless teen population in the Sacramento area.   Surprisingly enough, a few of the kids from the homeless shelter participated in the walk with us.  In the brief amount of time that it took to complete that walk (drive) my perception was changed.  I had the chance to interact with some of these kids along with  the shelter counselors.  I got the chance to ask questions and learn.  At the destination (Wind) I asked one of the counselors what kids wanted the most when they arrived at the shelter.  Her response was surprising….”clean socks.”  Can you imagine, you’re a teenager,  out on your own…and the best you can wish for is clean socks.

May 2010 - The beginning of the ten mile walk for homeless teens in support of the Jimmy Wayne "Meet Me Halfway" program. That's Tom Mailey of the Pat and Tom show in the KNCI hat....Tom has more energy in his pinky finger than I have in my entire body!

May 2010 – The beginning of the ten mile walk for homeless teens in support of the Jimmy Wayne “Meet Me Halfway” program. That’s Tom Mailey of the Pat and Tom show in the KNCI hat….Tom has more energy in his pinky finger than I have in my entire body!

I made a place on my bucket list that at my earliest opportunity I would volunteer with a homeless youth shelter.  That opportunity came in early 2012 after I had moved to the tiny community of Jacksonville, Oregon just outside Medford.  I did some research and found the only youth homeless shelter in the Medford area was Hearts with a Mission (HWAM).   I soon met with Kevin Lamson, the Director and founder of HWAM.  Kevin explained to me that prior to the existence of HWAM, children who found themselves homeless in the Medford area got a sleeping bag and a pat on the back.  Kevin told me how he quit his job, put his faith in God and started the shelter.  Kevin currently directs all activity for HWAM which includes 16 beds (8 each for boys and girls), counseling services and protection for homeless kids.  Kevin takes no credit for the miracles that happen at HWAM and when asked what motivates him his response is simple….”if I didn’t step up, who would?”   For the better part of 2012, I decided I would drop in at the shelter to volunteer once, sometimes twice a week.  My assignments were short but what I learned each time I dropped in was enlightening.    Simply listening to the conversations of the kids staying in the shelter was eye-opening.  One day  I over heard a conversation between two young teens.  The conversation ended with..”How did you get here?  – “The Medford police brought me here” to which the response was “yeah me too, it sure feels nice to be in a clean bed.”  Speaks volumes doesn’t it?

Kevin Lamson (on the left) Executive Director and founder of Hearts With a Mission youth shelter in Medford, Oregon.

Kevin Lamson (on the left) Executive Director and founder of Hearts With a Mission youth shelter in Medford, Oregon.

I’ve discovered that people tend to believe that kids become homeless by choice. There is also an impression that when a child is homeless it is his or her fault.   Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.  Children become homeless for a multitude of reasons.  Sometimes, Mom and Dad (or just Mom…or just Dad) have a drug issue and that gets in the way of successfully fulfilling their parental responsibilities.  Some children are in situations where they are being abused and have to escape for their own well-being.  Children are sometimes simply thrown out of the house…hard to believe but it happens.  Many times,  Mom and/or Dad become homeless and simply don’t have the means to put a roof over their child’s head so they will drop a child off at the shelter while they get on their feet.

I have had to discard all the stereotypical perceptions I’ve had of a homeless child.  I’ve learned that in very few cases a homeless kid easy to spot.  Most times they tend to blend in; they look just like any other kid.  They act like any other kid as well and want the same things.  Most of all they want someone to care.  Hearts With a Mission does a great job with the basic structure that a child needs but they take it a step farther by adding that missing component, that love factor.  They have rules that you have to abide by if you choose to stay in the residence.  Things like respect, working to improve yourself, sitting at the dinner table with the rest of your “family” for the evening meal is essential.  I like that they emphasize returning the child to a healthy family environment.  The world can use more organizations like Hearts.

It’s difficult to understand that one person can make such a difference. The Meet Me Halfway Program that Jimmy Wayne (who was once a homeless child himself) started has been extremely effective in many states raising legislation that lifts the foster child “age out” limit to 21 years from the 18 years of age that most states have.  That extra three years makes a tremendous difference to the children in those programs who are struggling to make the transition from child to adult.   Hearts with a Mission has provided over 11,000 nights of comfort to homeless teens.  They are building a teen help center next to the homeless shelter to provide computers for job search and to teach skills such as resume writing.  Both organizations were started by one person.

Clean socks,  a warm bed…it doesn’t take much.  Get involved, it’s easy…and a little goes a long way.  If you don’t, who will?

About Rich Carlson

- Northwest Information Technologist and Business Professional
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