ON THEIR OWN
Story and photos
by T.L. Petersen
Editor's note: More than half a dozen teenagers who meet the state definition of children living unaccompanied or homeless agreed to talk to a reporter in the weeks before the Christmas season. Some were willing to have their names used and their pictures taken, others not. It was The Observer's decision to not use any teen's real name.
Children have been putting together lists for weeks about what they'd like to find under the Christmas tree.
Parents have been grumbling to co-workers about the cost of presents and all the activities that lead up to the holidays.
Pam Dodds stands in her small office at La Grande High School
"My kids aren't expecting any presents," she says. "They're upset because they don't have anything to give their friends.
"I'm worried about them having anything to eat for the time school's closed."
Dodds works half-time Â— and many unclocked hours Â— as the school district's homeless liaison.
For the purpose of her job, "homeless" may mean the teenager who is currently "couch-hopping" from friend to friend, staying a few nights before moving on after her mother booted her from the family home.
Or it may mean the 16-year-old who moved out of her home because her mother had a husband and younger children to care for on a tiny income. She moved into a travel trailer that was unheated and had mold growing on the walls.
Or maybe it means the two sets of pre-teen siblings, four each, who were left, months ago, at a grandmother's apartment. The grandmother is on a fixed income and there's often little to eat.
Or it might be the 18-year-old living in the Sac Annex, in a studio apartment, who works full-time and is trying to get to the high school for a few required classes. She has a dorm refrigerator, a small microwave and a drawer under her improvised bed as a cupboard.
Last week, cornered by Dodds, she admitted she was completely out of food.
And then there is the teen taking advanced placement classes who wants to be a psychiatrist some day. She traveled to Ecuador last spring with a high school group. Because neither of her divorced parents knew exactly when she'd be returning to La Grande, she returned and moved into her own tiny, unheated apartment. She also works and struggles to get to her classes.
Most of the high school-aged kids, and some younger, have called a car home at one point or another.
It happens here.
Dodds wants to get the word out. These are not bad kids, she insists. Most have survived situations unimaginable outside of a ghetto or a disaster zone.
The Oregon Department of Education has noted that "homelessness among children and youth is the result of an almost infinite variety of specific circumstances." Some of the common reasons Â— and they apply to many of La Grande's homeless and unaccompanied youths, too Â— are lack of affordable housing; adults who are unemployed or underemployed; physical, mental and substance abuse by the parents; and lack of education.
Dodds knows intimately where and what these youngsters are facing.
She openly acknowledges she is a recovering addict with 18 years of sobriety. She's been a single mom, and in the past has been homeless.
Dodds has worked for several years in the school's career center, but confesses to being "thrilled" when she got the extra-duty contract to be the school's homeless liaison Â— even if it has been an emotional, draining assignment that she takes home with her far too often.
"I worry," she says with a shrug. "I've been there."
Dodds is eager to explain the program for homeless kids to anyone who will listen.
She's already had some success.
District teachers, after she presented what is happening to them with "her kids," started making donations to create a Christmas for those identified in the program.
Neighbor to Neighbor Ministries worked with a local restaurant to make sure that there will be 13 breakfasts and 13 lunches available for the two weeks of Christmas vacation for "her kids."
It all started, Dodds said, when she had a teenager come to her this fall who didn't have the money to buy two pencils, a Peachie folder and the four spiral notebooks she needed for
At about the same time, Dodds got an unexpected call Elece Otten, from Manhattan and owner of Login Consulting Services, a former LHS grad who wanted to know if she could somehow help. She sent Dodds a $2,500 check and a note saying to let her know if other things came up.
After talking to the Island City Lions Club, Dodds added to the fund with a $100 check.
"I hope I can keep the fund going," she says. "It's amazing what we take for granted that these kids can't.
Dodds created the district's "angel fund," and took her high school student to Wal-Mart. She helped her get the school supplies, and a few extras Â— a thick robe so she could sleep in her unheated apartment, groceries, soap and personal hygiene supplies and other basics.
Dodds admits she and the student were both crying as they left.
"These kids are so trustworthy," Dodds says, that one of her jobs ends up being to help them get through even if they think relatives need money or other things more than they do.
Anna slides into a chair around the small table in Dodds' office. Dodds urges her to have some tea or cocoa, and a granola bar or two.
"I've lived everywhere," Anna says, grinning around her cocoa. "I'm totally on my own now."
Mary takes another chair. Her biological mom died when she was 2, and she's lived in a couple of foster homes. She finally left the last one because of disagreements with her foster mom. She found a job at McDonald's and now is a floor supervisor there.
But that means she walks from her studio apartment downtown to the restaurant, regardless of the weather, and often then walks to school if she's worked a 6 a.m. shift. She often finds herself walking home after 1 a.m if she closes. Dodds made sure when the recent stretch of cold weather started that she had a scarf to cover her ears.
"I was always planning to be on my own at 18," Mary says. Her last "mom" actually helped her find the studio apartment.
"I remember the first night there. I hated it. It was noisy, and I only had an air mattress."
Mary's boyfriend's family has helped her find a thin college-dorm type mattress that she has laid over the top of a low set of shelves.
Amy doesn't have the memories Mary has of that first night on her own.
"I like it. I'd always felt I'd been independent for a long time." She lived with an older sister when she was 13 and the sister was 18, but that didn't work out well, either.
Amy tells those who ask that, "I had no respect for them (her parents)." Living on her own, she says now, "has made me make better decisions."
Billie knows that situation, too. She lives in Union with her sister, 28, and goes to LHS.
"We don't fight anymore," she says. "She just leaves me alone." But her sister, Billie says, "acts like she's my mom." Billie has lived with her sister for about eight years.
None of the teens in the program complain about their situations, not even Julie, who recently discovered that she is three months pregnant with her 20-year-old unemployed boyfriend.
His parents have let her move in with them, as her trailer is unheated and unsafe.
The worst the teens will talk about is why it is hard to stay focused in school.
Almost all tell you that they enjoy learning, and dream of continuing some sort of education after school, from becoming a dental assistant to college and a profession.
But while they dress just like every other teenager, they see the LHS hallway with very different eyes.
"The kids act like kindergarteners," one says.
"They don't listen, they goof around and plan parties," another tosses out.
In all the details of life, school doesn't always make the top of the priority list.
Amy tries to explain.
"Look at them. I envy them, they have the world and don't know it. They get to grow up nice."
"We have enough to do to pay the bills," she adds. "Who has money for food?"
Amy has to leave to make it to her job at Albertsons, sorting cans. She's trying to get a clerk's job there.
Transportation is always a problem. Mary is clear that "getting groceries sucks. You can only get what you can carry." She smiles suddenly, remembering the lady who offered her a ride recently. "I really needed it."
As some leave, Julie slides in. Her dad died two years ago, and her mother has been collecting her Social Security and using it to run her own household.
Julie considered getting an abortion, but her conscience and friends talked her out of it. But she isn't getting pre-natal care and is dependent on her boyfriend to get her to school and to her two part-time waitressing jobs.
"I just feel I can do anything I want to do. I think positive, not negative.
"I just believe people can work things out and change," she says, when asked how far she trusts her boyfriend, who left her for two weeks to date her best friend when she announced her pregnancy.
Dodds is helping Julie try to get her Social Security check mailed directly to her.
Story after story, Dodds listens, comforts and tries to offer a psychological boost.
"I do feel like, oh my God, these kids are so mature. They support each other here in the high school."
Toni listens to Dodds, then adds her own wisdom:
"It takes a lot of strength to do it," she says. "You need help, you can't to it all on your own."
BY THE NUMBERS
The State of Oregon has required all school districts to report the number of homeless or unaccompanied minors attending classes in each district for 2004-2005. This report was issued Dec. 2
Locally, the numbers are:
La Grande 63
Cove not reported
Elgin less than 10
Imbler less than 10
Jordan Valley less than 10
North Powder not reported
Joseph less than 10
Ukiah less than 10
Union not reported
Wallowa not reported
La Grande School District
Homeless/Unaccompanied Youth current year
Elementary (K-6) 23
Middle & High schools (7-12) 44
Total homeless youth
as of Dec. 9 67
"Unaccompanied Youth" make up 15 of the students counted
Pam Dodds, homeless/unaccompanined youth liaison for the La Grande School District, spends her time supporting, keeping teens in school and helping them find ways to both survive and get a high school degree. She is grateful for the support of the La Grande School District and for the Union County Commission on Children and Families for their cooperation.
How to help
La Grande School District's "Angel Fund"
for unaccompanied youth
Contact: Pam Dodds,
LHS Career Center, 663-3397
Gift cards to fast food restaurants, grocery stores and Wal-Mart
Travel size deodorants, hand sanitizers, Kleenex, lotion, mouthwash, shampoo and conditioner, shaving cream for males and females
Regular size Chapstick, combs and brushes, floss, lip gloss, razors, sanitary napkins/feminine supplies, soap, sunscreen, toothbrushes, toothpaste, washcloths, blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, warm socks, warm hats/gloves and scarves, show booths