Hope reigns despite an uneven playing field

By Peter Finney, Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

Jane Helire, an educational and vocational coordinator at Covenant House New Orleans, handed the stack of white, handwritten flash cards to Dashea, a teenager and a single mother. Dashea had finished 10th grade but had dropped out and did not have her GED.

Dashea’s task was relatively simple: Take each card and read the word written on the front. If she did not know the word, she could skip over it and move on to the next. 

“Send,” Dashea said, calling out the word on the first card.

Looking at the next card, Dashea said, “Believe.”

The third card read “wide.”

“Skip,” Dashea said.

The fourth card: “Quietly.”

“Skip.”

The fifth card: “Centered.”

“Skip.”

The sixth card: “Certainly.”

“Skip.”

Beaten, once again, Dashea released the pack of cards on Helire’s desk and, in an act of self-knowledge and capitulation, covered her eyes with the palms of her hands. Her tears and sobs were coming fast now, in just 30 seconds, and they quietly and certainly manifested the cultural malfeasance that should shame the mighty but too often instead shames the victim.

Dashea’s tears flowed because she knew she could not read to her baby daughter.

The snapshot of Dashea’s life is one of the searing moments of an amazing, 80-minute documentary, “Shelter,” for which brothers Brent and Craig Renaud, Peabody Award winners, spent nine months at Covenant House New Orleans shining a light on society’s fundamental failure to address effectively mental health, substance abuse and other educational, emotional and physical abuses that affect teens and young adults.

The film is raw and honest. It is filled with despair and with a few words you haven’t heard in church. It is saved by those who refuse to capitulate and who offer hope.

“The good news is that all the time at Covenant House, we know that every Good Friday is followed by Easter, all year,” said Jim Kelly, executive director of Covenant House, who opened the doors of his residential facility to the filmmakers for nine months in 2015 and 2016, giving them complete access with a handshake agreement.

The Renauds’ documentary style has a power beyond Hollywood. Things so many people take for granted – a stable, loving family life – are the stuff of fantasy for kids kicked to the curb.

Matthew actually graduated from high school but came to Covenant House after his mother, who was bipolar, chose her new husband over her son.

“One day ended with my mother stripping off naked and trying to strangle herself with a phone cord,” Matthew said. “That was the most worst day of my entire life. Pretty much the best thing about this place is that I don’t have to wake up to the feeling that that would have to happen again.”

Trauma comes in many sizes. 

“I found out about a call my mom gave my sister – ‘When he gets to New Orleans, tell him we moved and we’re not giving him our address or anything like that,’” Matthew says, with a chilling, nonchalance. “My stepdad wanted to be with my mom more. I was around the house and pretty much a big pain, so I don’t blame her for that.”

There was plenty of anger in Daniel.

“I’ve been institutionalized since I was 5 years old, in and out, and I haven’t seen my mom going on a good five or six years,” he said. “She gave me up at 5 years old to DHS. I’ve hated her ever since. It’s hard.”

Equally amazing, Kelly says, is a Covenant House staff that refuses to convince itself that a child cannot be helped. Cynthia Foots, a senior case manager for young men on the crisis floor, uses scissors to cut the tight elastic band on a pair of socks so that a heavy teen can dance a little more freely at his school prom. Foots, herself, has been there, dropping from 275 to 140 pounds.

While she is getting her hair styled, Foots talks to her stylist about her day of quietly saving the world – the boys in her care.

“I did a lot of running around with my babies,” Foots says. “Believe it or not, God put his hands on it, and I was all over the place today. They are cool kids when you sit down and listen to them talk about what they want to do with their lives. One on the floor wants to get his license for cosmetology. They just need somebody who’s not going to give up on them. Stand firm, but not going to give up on them.”

When Foots’ husband saw the film, Kelly said he told his wife on the way home: “Now I know why you’re late every night.”

Another counselor told a teen whose mom died of cancer and whose dad died in the streets – and who himself had taken two bullets to the abdomen “for my brother” – that he could use the scar tissue to grow.

“You’re still standing,” she told him. “All the things you’ve gone through, you ought to make a spot for that within your heart. You’re like a rubber band – snap back, snap back, surviving.”

By far, the most troubled young person in the film is Elizabeth, the daughter of a cocaine-addicted mother who has spiraled into substance abuse, flitting into and out of Kelly’s life like a wounded butterfly.

“I love all my kids,” Kelly says, “but I do love Elizabeth more.”

The film captures her fighting demons at Covenant House and another residential substance abuse facility, and also singing and praying out loud inside and outside a Bourbon Street lounge.

In her first two months at Covenant House, Kelly feared she was “going to die on the streets.” Then, in a tender moment, Liz asks Kelly to pray with her.

“Right now I pray that all children be safe tonight, with smiles on their face and clean clothes and a soft place to sleep, and that all the adults get rest and that their children respect them,” she says.

Sometimes the outcomes are amazing, such as when Taylor, addicted to heroin, cleans herself up and is living independently with a new job in Morgan City. “I attended three funerals this year for my family and I’m still sober, and I never could have done that before,” she said.

“Shelter” has been viewed more than 540,000 times in two months. Kelly has screened the film for Catholic school groups and retreats in an effort to lift back the curtain on mental health and substance abuse issues, but also to convert hearts.

“This film can touch souls,” Kelly said. “Kids can pray. They can host a meal at Covenant House as a class. They can be kind to a peer who is different. Our biggest hope is that if parents see it, they will have their children watch it. If kids see it, they can get their parents to watch. This teaches kids what ministry really is.”

Dashea is now working on her GED and reading books to her daughter. She took Helire’s advice and dried her tears.

“If not us, who, right?” Kelly says. “If we turn them away, what happens to them? That’s what we’re about. These are our lost sheep, and they’ve been entrusted to our care.”

“Shelter” can be viewed at www.shelterdocumentary.com. Peter Finney Jr. can be contacted at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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