Suffering young lives redeemed at Covenant House

    Sitting in a circle with judges, lawyers, politicians and teachers, Rob (not his real name) unpacked his brief life story at 10 p.m. the other night Covenant House.
    Rob, 18, was valedictorian of his high school. He has the intelligence and ambition to do anything he wants to in life. Rob can make a computer sing and a video game surrender. He is sharp and self-assured.
    And, oh, yes, Rob said, pausing to drop his jaw slightly, placing a fisted right hand over his mouth in the classic “Thinker” pose and waiting for the strength to push the secret into the circle: “I was raped by a member of my family.”
    The sexual assault as a child was horrific enough, Rob said, but the unspeakable crime was neither reported to police nor punished within the family. In fact, the sexual abuse was the fuse triggering his enslavement and his nuclear anger.
    “I felt as though my manhood was taken away,” Rob said. “I was so angry, and I was so filled with hate. I still have hate. I have a hard time forgiving.”
    When a young person’s self-esteem is defiled – and absolutely no responsible adult is there to listen, much less to rush to his defense – very bad things can happen. The kids who wander through the front doors of Covenant House on North Rampart Street have different stories to tell within a circle of strangers, but the pain they have experienced is connected by a common thread.
    Somewhere, somehow and at some time, they have been hurt, and no one was there to lift them from the gutter, either because the kids weren’t worth the effort or because the adults in their lives were themselves among the walking dead.
    Patricia A. Krebs, the Covenant House board chairwoman who has volunteered there since the late 1980s, will never forget her first night. The local attorney was behind the “intake” desk just inside the front doors.
    “A young boy came in and he brought a big, cardboard box with him, like something you would put an appliance in,” Krebs said. “I said, ‘You’ll have to leave that outside.’ But he told me, ‘It’s a good box. Somebody will take it if I leave it outside.’”
    Another girl, about 14, “a pretty young thing,” had just had an abortion. “She came in alone, except with her Teddy bear,” Krebs said. “It’s heart-breaking. Street kids are like your kids at home. They are kids.”
    Another resident, Stephanie, said her foster parents essentially traded her to get high. “They got paid to take care of me, and they used the money to buy drugs,” she said.
     After Julie turned 12, her mother was never interested in her life. “I always lived from here to there,” Julie said. “In most cases, I had to sell myself to get the bare necessities. I experimented with drugs. I dropped out of school at 17. I had to do things I had to do in order to get by. I finally said to myself, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I didn’t want to pay any more sexual favors.”
    Since she began living at Covenant House – turning chaos into purpose – Julie has earned her GED, become a physical therapist’s assistant and now is entering nursing school.
    “I can’t believe I did half the things I did,” Julie said. “Whatever I learned here, I use in my life today.”
    Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House, came up with an idea to have business leaders, politicians, judges, lawyers, doctors, teachers and others come to Covenant House Nov. 14 and sit down with the residents to hear their stories. Then, at 11 p.m., the entire group got into sleeping bags and slept overnight in the Covenant House courtyard or on the sidewalk of North Rampart Street.
    It’s an immersion experience, and Kelly said it has been life-changing. This year, there were 93 “sleepers,” up from 43 last year, and the individuals raised $225,000 in donations and pledges.
    “This is exactly what the Holy Father (Pope Francis) has been speaking to,” Kelly said. “He wants us to understand the issues, so we should sit down and spend time with the poor. He wants us to climb into their shoes, even if it’s a small effort. Now these community leaders have a better understanding of our kids, and they can go back to their own communities and say, ‘Let me tell you about these kids. Don’t be so quick to judge.’”
    “I’ve learned to be thankful for what I have,” Alan, a young resident, told the group. “It’s not over, even though you’ve been hurt so many times in life. I’m here for a reason. I’m not a mistake.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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