WELL, it sure has been a week of eye rolling, foot stomping and door slamming.
No, I’m not talking about the Bernie holdouts at the Democratic National Convention, even if Susan Sarandon’s scowl is totally understandable. (Applause and hugs to the Sanders campaign and all who supported it for pushing our progressive issues into the national narrative; let us now ensure that the revolution reverberates long past November.)
I’m not even referring to those pissed off about last week’s column, which I guess struck exactly the nerve it was meant to.
Nope, it’s just simple teen angst that’s got hackles up at my house. School starts this Wednesday—still the middle of summer for the rest of the Western Hemisphere, my angry spawn sulkily remind.
Dontcha know, I am The Worst for suggesting there be a bit of preparation in the form of cleaning out last year’s crusty backpacks and adjusting one’s sleep cycle to start waking before 2pm.
And for enforcing the term “grounded” for coming in 20 minutes after curfew.
Also for adding another day to said grounding after an offer of 20 bucks towards a new pair of kicks for mowing the lawn was met with a disgusted “You mean I have to do the back, TOO?”
The theory goes that our beloved children act ever more rotten in order to prepare us for their impending departure from the nest—the bittersweet goal of this parenting thing. Apparently the survival of the species necessitates that with every generation, the surlier and snarlier they become. This explains why today’s teenagers have basically evolved into caged velociraptors with smart phones.
Caught in the distance between childish things and the trappings of adulthood, our youthlings can manage to know Absolutely Everything while acting entirely afool. Their questionable decisions can make us want to literally beat some actual sense into them, as we saw this week when a Savannah mother made national news with a clip that featured smacking her 16 year-old daughter upside the head for posting sexy selfies and getting busy with boys in the house. “Keep it classy, Savannah” comments aside, the video refueled the ever-burning debate about public shaming and corporal punishment by parents. (No charges have been filed against the mom.)
I don’t condone physical battery, though I admit there have been plenty of times I’ve had to go sit in my car and scream along to the Meat Puppets to diffuse my frustration at trying to convince my not-yet-adults how Lucky They Have It to have food and shelter and access to education. Especially when I remember that there are plenty of their peers who don’t.
There are an estimated 1.3 million homeless teens wandering around America, with an estimated 700-1100 living in or passing through Savannah at any given time. For them, the start of the school year will come and go without getting lost on the way to homeroom or someone nagging them that their oatmeal is getting cold. According to the U.S. Dept. of Education, 90 percent won’t graduate from high school at all, squashing their opportunities before they’ve even begun to think about what they’d like to be when they grow up.
Many of these kids have been kicked out of their homes or have run away from abusive situations; others have been lured away with predatorial promises of adventure only to find themselves stranded. A blessed few find their way to Park Place Outreach, Inc., a sunny, cozy bungalow on Henry Street that serves as a shelter and resource center solely for those aged 11-17.
Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week since 1984, the 12-bed respite offers safety, counseling, meals, tutorials, non-judgment and unconditional support to teens in crisis. The biggest challenge, says Park Place Executive Director Linda Hilts, is getting them to accept it.
“You know young people, they want to be independent,” she shrugged with a small smile as she led me on a tour of the halls last week. I may have rolled my eyes in agreement.
A 20 year veteran of Park Place, Linda explained that many teens don’t want to classify themselves as victims or runaways, even those who have been caught up in human trafficking or exploited by sexual predators. Often kids are referred by Safe Shelter, the Salvation Army, the Inner City Night Shelter and other organizations that work to provide a net for those who find themselves on the streets.
“We have to have strong partnerships in this community. We could not do it alone.”
I didn’t meet any current residents due to Park Place’s strict confidentiality policy, but I spent some time with Kenneth Brown, who runs the Street Outreach Team that dispatches a crew of friendly mentors ages 18-21 all over the city, handing out care packages of toiletries and snacks and offering services. He tells me hard tales of a 15 year-old girl abandoned with no ID in a hotel by her pimp and a mentally-disabled young man trying to find his way home to Boston, who benefitted from a free bus ticket care of Greyhound’s Home Free Agreement.
While not everybody is a success story, Kenneth has seen compassionate intervention turn teen lives around.
“This can be the difference between a good life and ending up in the juvenile justice system, which increases their chances of becoming incarcerated adults,” says Kenneth, a Savannah native and Savannah State grad who has been working in social services for 24 years.
“We are here to redirect youth to help themselves become self-sufficient, and maybe raise their own families someday.”
Part of Park Place’s mission is to reunite teens with their families whenever possible. Fran Lowery-Wilson offers support classes as part of a comprehensive counseling program designed to help parents navigate the confounding journey of raising children. In her 70s, Fran agrees that today’s teenagers come with even more opaque operating instructions than ever.
“Parents today have a different job. You’re dealing with a different culture, one that revolves around social media,” she sympathizes.
“It’s so much harder to control what kind of things they’re exposed to or who they’re contacting.”
All of Park Place’s services are free, supported by federal funds that must be matched locally through grants from the United Way and other community organizations. There is always need for donations of gently used clothing, bathroom supplies, snacks, games, books and gift cards. The lovely house—the first LEED-certified non-profit in the state—is completely paid off, so every dollar goes towards direct care.
Before I left, Linda reminded, “there are no bad kids here. Just young people in need of guidance.”
I still remember how much it sucked being a teenager, and I can’t imagine how much worse it could have been without my meanie parents telling me what to do. How much surlier would I have been? What rotten decisions might I have made? Will my own teens ever appreciate how the curfews and rules aren’t meant to control but to provide footing as they fly away?
I saw a glimmer of hope when I came home from the shelter to find my eldest mowing the lawn. I got a faint smile instead of a snarl, and he didn’t even complain when I told him I’d already donated the $20.
Oh, make no mistake, he’s still grounded. But I’ll probably buy him the sneakers anyway.