Excerpted from "Teens With the Courage to Give" by Jackie Waldman, Conari Press. Used with permission.
I thought the worst part of my life was living without my father. He's in prison and has only been out once for a short period of time since I was born. We hardly know each other, but it's not from my lack of trying. I wrote to him and sent him pictures of me. He only wrote me back a couple of times, and that was a long time ago.
I love my dad, so it's not easy on me. I'm hoping that when he gets out of prison I can get to know him. I'll try again.
For most teens, having a father in prison would be enough to have to deal with. The day the ceiling in our home fell in proved far worse.
Last year we lived in a rented house, and the landlord neglected the repairs. When the ceiling fell in and destroyed the house, my mom called the landlord. She didn't even care-she didn't offer to move us to a different house or fix the roof.
Part of the ceiling fell on me. My left ankle and leg were very swollen. I couldn't walk on it for two weeks. The ceiling also hit my neck, so I was in a neck brace for weeks.
But the physical pain was nothing compared to the pain of not having a home and not having money to move anywhere else.
Suddenly my mom, my five brothers and sisters, and I were homeless. We had to pack our things and go to the Office of Emergency Shelter Services in Philadelphia.
That night was the most terrible night ever. All sorts of people were in one big room filled with cots. I looked around at all the men, women, and children with their own sad stories. I lay there mad, scared, and heartbroken. How could the landlord treat us like this? How could our lives change so quickly? Just that morning I lived in a home like most families, and now I was in a homeless shelter. I started to cry and couldn't stop. I was crying for me, my mom, and my brothers and sisters-maybe even for my dad.
I was in seventh grade and loved my school and friends. Our home was the place all the kids came to-my mom always let my friends spend the night on weekends. My home was fun, comfortable, and safe. How could this be happening?
The next morning the people who ran the shelter found us a permanent shelter to move to. The shelter was far away from our old neighborhood. When I saw the middle school near the shelter I suddenly realized I lost more than a home. I wouldn't be able to go to school with my friends anymore. As we drove up to the shelter, tears poured down my face. I couldn't help it.
I didn't want to go in-I never wanted to spend another night in a shelter. But I also knew we had no choice.
The director took us to our rooms. At least it wasn't one big room. The shelter was an old nursing home with sixty rooms. They gave us two rooms and told us we could stay there as long as we needed to.
My sister and I share one room. My mom, my brothers and my other sisters took the other room. Bathrooms were at the end of the hall. I would be sharing a bathroom with strangers. When I walked into the bathroom to look at it, I about died. For a thirteen-year-old girl who needed privacy, this was a living nightmare.
At first I spent all of my time in my room. I hated the place. I didn't know anyone and I didn't want to meet anyone. I kept thinking we wouldn't be there very long. I kept hoping.
There were strict rules to follow. It was hard following someone else's rules when I was used to living in my own home with our own rules. But I did what I was told. I knew my mom didn't need me to cause trouble-she was upset enough.
I was required to join the teen group-a group of kids between the ages of thirteen and eighteen living in the shelter-and go to meetings every Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. with the youth case worker, Miss Pat.
The first meeting I went to was an "anger" meeting. I listened as other kids talked about their feelings. One girl said she was ready to hurt herself because her mom was getting on her nerves and she had to watch her little sister all of the time. Miss Pat told her she was glad she could express her feelings and let out her anger.
I noticed how much better the girl felt having the other teens' and Miss Pat's support. I wanted to tell Miss Pat how mad I was at the landlord, how much I missed my friends, and how much I hated living there, but I couldn't do it. Just then Miss Pat reminded us that if we couldn't talk about our feelings, we could write to her in the journals she had given us.
I wrote a long note to Miss Pat letting her know how I felt. The next day when I opened my journal I saw that she had written me back. She told me to keep expressing my feelings and asked me to join in the teen activities at the shelter and at my school so I could get to know the other kids.
The kids at my new school were very friendly. I've never had trouble making friends anyway, so I made new friends really quickly.
The school is in an area of big homes with the shelter around the corner. So I knew my friends lived in really nice homes. When they asked to come over to my house after school, I told them I would have to ask my mom. The next day I would tell them my mom was busy and said maybe another day would be better.
I would stay after school until 6 p.m. I would sit at the bottom of a hill on the school grounds until every kid was gone. Then I walked home to the shelter. I never let one kid know where I lived. I was embarrassed.
Miss Pat helped me adjust to life at the shelter. I'm really glad I listened to her because we're still here-ten months later. I haven't given up hope that we will move to our own home again soon, but I can now say my life here is okay.
We have pizza parties and movie nights. We get to go on field-trips to the aquarium, museums, and parks. Miss Pat makes sure we have fun.
She has taught us about respecting ourselves. We have to dress properly, come downstairs with our hair fixed, and respect our elders. If the older residents are rude to us, we're taught to be polite anyway and not make their problems our problem.
Every night we eat dinner with our own families, but Fridays we dress up and have a special dinner together. Our clothes are donated so everyone looks real nice.
When new families come in, the little kids need help. They usually don't act very well because they don't know the rules and the routine. Miss Pat has each of us in the teen group "adopt" one child. We take the kids out to the park and to the movies. We help them at the shelter too. Then we write in our journals what we did to help our child adjust to the shelter and have fun.
Helping the little kids has changed my life at the shelter. I am so busy helping them with their homework and helping little babies learn to walk and talk that I forget to worry about my own problems.
I also realize that if I feel sorry for myself I will be letting my brothers and sisters down. They're young-they don't care where they live. They're happy. I don't want them to learn to feel bad about living in a shelter, to learn embarrassment, so I hold my head high. I'm trying to make it the best I can for them.
My mom feels so badly for us. This isn't her fault-she never wanted us to end up living like this. I want to be strong for her too.
The shelter gave Mama an opportunity to finish her nursing schooling and internship, and she just got her first nursing job at a hospital.
We have applied for a new house. We filled out the paperwork and are waiting to hear if we get it. The caseworker tells us we should get to move soon.
I've asked Miss Pat if I can keep coming to the shelter after we move. I want to continue to help kids who first come into this kind of life. I want them to know that if they can follow the rules and learn to live in a group home, they can make it. They just have to hold their head high, reach out and help one other kid, and stick it out.
Miss Pat tells me I have really made a difference for these kids. She says she needs my help at the shelter, but she also needs my help with a new project. A camp is being started for the kids in the shelter called Kids Kamp and she asked me to be the teen advisor. The camp leaders want me to help plan activities and be a counselor at camp next summer. Homeless kids going to camp on the beautiful shores of New Jersey-now that's a miracle!
I'm excited to help. I'll have a chance to let the kids know the most important lesson I have learned. Home isn't really about having a roof over my head. Home is where my heart is-with my family and friends wherever I live.
If you are a child in a homeless shelter and would like information about Kids Kamp, or if you are someone who would like to start a Kids Kamp, contact Kids Kamp, 4532 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19124, Tel: 215-464-3955.
Learn how you can participate in an innovative grassroots project to raise awareness about homelessness and build support for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, by contacting: National Coalition for the Homeless, 1612 Street NW, #1004 Washington, D.C., 20006, Tel: 202-775-1322, Fax 202-775-1316. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.