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A home with hope

They are runaways, truants, children of abuse. All find refuge at the county's first youth shelter, New Beginnings.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Two and a half months after running away from home, Sherilyn, 15, was picked up by Brooksville police and taken to the New Beginnings youth shelter.

By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- She walked alone in the dark, a duffel bag slung over her shoulder.

Her body already ached, and she had so far to go.

She had begun this journey on a November morning 10 weeks earlier when she stuffed clothes in a cheerleading bag and hid in a bathroom at Rogers Park near Weeki Wachee, waiting for a ride.

What am I doing? she thought then. What choice do I have?

Her mother was gone. Her older sister couldn't keep her. She had no home.

Sherilyn stayed that first night in a dingy trailer with no water and rotting walls. She thought she heard bugs crawling in the dark.

For the next 2 1/2 months, she slept at a friend's one-bedroom apartment in Brooksville. She lingered at a skate rink. She had little money and few guaranteed meals. She was depressed.

One night she felt so alone.

She packed her bag once again and headed west along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. She was scared as she walked. More than once she thought about going back.

But if she had learned anything in her 15 years, it was this: Once you run, you can't turn around.

At 9 p.m. on Jan. 12, a Brooksville police officer stopped Sherilyn and asked where she was going.

"Home to Weeki Wachee," she said.

He placed her in the back of his patrol car.

Close to midnight, she dropped her bag in a small room with pale pink walls. She lay in the dark thinking: No one wants me. Where am I going to go?

Sherilyn made the journey here as all others do, down a slender drive lined with oaks and pines, toward a tin-roofed, yellow house that is Hernando County's youth shelter, recently named New Beginnings.

They come in the morning and by moonlight, on foot and in the back of patrol cars, crying and quiet, bruised and bewildered, lonely and languorous. More than 118 of them, 10 to 17 years old, have come since the shelter opened on Clinton Boulevard in August.

Some come with sad stories.

Others come with problems they have helped create.

"Most of our kids are not here because they sang too loud in the choir," said Doug Leonardo, the shelter's program manager.

Nevertheless, life has not offered many of them hope.

Most find a fragment of it here, around the shouts and sighs and giggles of teens whose Crayola drawings are framed in glass on the walls.

They find it while sinking into a soft blue couch in a counselor's office, in the spoonfuls of homemade meatloaf or green bean casserole at family-style dinners, in evenings spent sitting separately under coverlets, watching PG movies in a living room cluttered with board games and playing cards.

They find it while talking to teens whose lives are better or worse than their own. They find it through creating their own who's-got-it-worse hierarchy. Sometimes they fight. Sometimes they slam doors after shouting profanities at counselors.

They stay for weeks or months, depending on their situations. They stay because they no longer wish to live at home, or because they do not have one.

They are runaways, throwaways, chronic truants, kids whose parents hit each other, kids whose parents hit or molest them, kids awaiting placement in foster homes. The shelter does not accept kids who act out sexually, have violent criminal pasts or say they are suicidal.

But many are living lives that could lead them into the bowels of the juvenile justice system, their counselors say. The shelter hopes to catch them first.

The teens come from Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties, which before New Beginnings had the highest number of runaways in Florida for an area without a shelter.

It was a long time coming. County and state officials discussed opening the shelter for 10 years before finding a piece of land for the 7,000-square-foot building, which is run by Youth and Family Alternatives and located just west of the Sheriff's Office in Brooksville.

Before, children were taken to the RAP House in New Port Richey, a locale that wasted hours of driving time for sheriff's deputies, state caseworkers and parents who require regular meetings.

Additionally, officials believe scores of runaways in the three counties may not have been getting help because they did not know where to go. The Sheriff's Office handled close to 400 calls about missing juveniles last year.

So far, the shelter's beds -- 10 for girls, eight for boys -- have not been filled. The shelter housed its largest number of kids at once -- 13 -- last week.

For now, its pantry is filled with potato chips and brownie mix and large cans of corn. Closets are stacked with clean sheets and clothes.

But as word spreads about the shelter, counselors predict that their needs, which cost about $600,000 a year to fill, will only grow.

Nowhere to turn

Sherilyn, 5-foot-6 with blue eyes and blond hair, walked down a corridor on her first night at the shelter wearing two-toned jeans and a blue shirt. She heard the low rumble of bass before she entered the living room.

Several girls were trying to perfect the crip walk, a dance move. Sherilyn saw a jumble of socks dodging sofas, coffee tables and chairs.

She sat down and watched.

After several minutes, a 14-year-old girl looked over.

"Come dance," she said.

"I can't dance," Sherilyn replied.

She walked to the back and entered a bedroom on the girls' wing.

She lay on a hard mattress and stared at the ceiling.

"I don't want this stupid, crappy life anymore," she thought.

She missed her mom.

She thought about the good times, the camping trips, the visit to Weeki Wachee Springs on her seventh birthday.

Their lives had always teetered. Sherilyn's mother quit school. Her stepfather left. For a while, they lived in a motel.

But they stuck together mostly.

Until Oct. 19.

Sherilyn was taking care of her little brother, now 9 years old, while her mom was out of town. She was depressed. She found a bottle of pain pills in her friend's apartment. She swallowed them.

"I just took some pills, and I think they're gonna mess me up," she told her friend.

Eat some popcorn, he said.

She collapsed on the floor, and her little brother splashed water on her face.

Sherilyn was in a coma for three days.

A nurse in the intensive care unit reported Sherilyn's mother to authorities. Her mother didn't wait to see what would happen, Sherilyn said. She left town with her son.

"I know it's my fault," Sherilyn said. "I wish I had dealt with things differently. I thought it was the best way out of all my problems."

Sherilyn moved in with her older sister, 20 years old, who soon said she couldn't care for her.

She didn't want to live with a foster family.

She packed her bag and ran to Rogers Park.

In their dreams

A week into her stay at the shelter, Sherilyn still did not know what would happen to her. But she had made a few friends.

They got to know each other at the dinner table, in group therapy sessions, in visits to the park.

Sherilyn sat in a bedroom one Sunday afternoon, head propped on a pillow, talking about the dreams she had last night.

She was swimming in a cold river trying to save her brother from a pontoon boat. She was also eaten by an alligator.

"I've died in my dreams," she said, twirling her hair.

A 17-year-old with wavy brown hair, who had run away from a foster home in Ocala, sat across the room.

Last night, she fell off a cliff and almost drowned.

"I have weird dreams," she said, giggling.

A 15-year-old, who ran away from her home in Citrus County after a fight with her mother, pushed her face into a pillow.

"I have good dreams," she said. "Then people wake me up. Can we please get off the subject of dreams?"

They talked about stealing:

"I've never shoplifted. I've just stolen three cars."

"I stole gum from a convenience store. My mom made me take it back."

"I stole pantyhose when I was 6. I wet it and put it on my head."

They talked about getting in trouble:

"I slammed a girl's head into concrete several times. I gave her a concussion."

"I got handcuffed after I smoked a cigarette at the skate rink."

The 17-year-old from Ocala stood up. She missed her boyfriend and friends. She didn't know where she was. "Where the hell is Brooksville?" she had been asking counselors.

She was tired of being at the shelter.

"I hate waking up early," she said. "I hate having to go to sleep at a certain time."

Sherilyn gave her a dirty look.

"What, can't I express my opinion?" she said.

"We like it here," Sherilyn said. "Why are you saying bad stuff about it?"

The 17-year-old crossed her arms. "Because I don't like it," she said.

"It's a really good place," Sherilyn said. "It's a lot better than the streets."

The 17-year-old laughed.

"I love being on the streets," she said. "I love being able to do whatever I want."

Sherilyn swung her legs over the bed. She crouched over. Her hands shook.

"It's happening again," one of the girls yelled into the hallway.

The feeling swallowed Sherilyn. She could feel it rising as she shuddered in sharp bursts.

She sprinted outside and ran up the driveway until her breath was ragged and her body too tired to quiver.

Sherilyn had been having anxiety attacks almost every day.

One night at dinner, a 12-year-old put salad dressing on her fingers and licked it off. Buoyed by a few laughs, she put ketchup on her lettuce. "Yum, tastes like french fries," she said.

"If you don't stop, I'm gonna flip out," Sherilyn screamed.

That night she went to Brooksville Regional Hospital, where they gave her Xanax.

The attacks got so bad that a shelter counselor, Jean Giebler, took Sherilyn to see a psychiatrist at a mental hospital in Pasco County.

They sat in the waiting room for hours before a nurse came. She began a strip search.

Sherilyn lifted her shirt and bra but refused to drop her pants. They fought. Sherilyn was committed.

Giebler walked out of the hospital holding Sherilyn's shoelaces, taken as a precaution against suicide.

As Giebler drove home, she thought about the Christmas Eve when her dog died. Her husband had left with the dog and come home empty-handed.

She felt like that now, leaving Brooksville with a kid and coming back with shoelaces.

When she returned home, her husband was worried because she had been gone for nine hours on her day off.

"I need to be alone for a while," Giebler told him.

Someone to talk to

For weeks, the shelter and state caseworkers had been trying to find Sherilyn a home.

The shelter's ultimate goal is to reunite runaways with their families. Counselors have sessions with teens and parents to talk out problems and, hopefully, find solutions.

Ultimately, counselors have little control. The shelter will only house teens temporarily, and parents can remove their children at any time.

It's a different story for kids like Sherilyn, placed there by the state Department of Children and Families. The department pays for kids to stay at the shelter while trying to find suitable homes. The shelter has no say in their decisions.

For Sherilyn, state caseworkers found her 67-year-old grandmother, Betty.

Betty, who granted permission to the Times to use her and Sherilyn's first names in this story, had been worried about her granddaughter.

She knew Sherilyn had been on the run, and she wanted to help. She had asked Sherilyn's mother three years ago to let her live in Winter Haven, where Betty has a white house near a cow pasture.

Betty had raised five children of her own and has 14 grandchildren. She knew how to rear a child, with love and strict rules.

But Betty thought it might be crazy, a 67-year-old taking in a teenager.

She didn't think about it too long.

Sherilyn needed her.

Betty was going to be there.

Sherilyn was relieved when she heard her grandmother would take her. She packed her bag and said goodbye to the others at the shelter. She cried a little. The shelter had been good to her, and she would miss her friends.

As she headed to Winter Haven with her caseworker, she wondered how it would be.

But when she walked into that warm white house, pictures of family all around, Sherilyn knew it would be fine.

Betty has enrolled Sherilyn in the ninth grade, where she is slowly making friends and admiring a particularly cute boy in her math class. She also is planning a dentist appointment, which she hasn't had in nine years.

Sherilyn's two aunts, who live adjacent to her grandmother, have filled her closet with new clothes. Sherilyn also made a trip to the beauty parlor, where she had her hair highlighted and her nails done.

Their evenings go something like this:

"Decide what you want for dinner," Betty says.

"Pork chops," Sherilyn says.

"I don't have pork chops," Betty says.

"Do you have stuff for taco salad?" Sherilyn says.

"All we got is sliced cheese. I used all the other," Betty says.

Hamburgers, they decide.

Sherilyn is still taking medication for anxiety, but her attacks have mostly gone away.

"I have a bed; I have a home," Sherilyn said. "It's nice having family all around. I always have someone to talk to."

Betty looked over and smiled.

"I think we've got it pretty well under control," she said.

A vicious circle

The stories of the children at the shelter don't always have such hopeful endings.

After 30 days, about 90 percent of the teens who leave the shelter are still living with the parents or guardians with whom they were placed.

Those homes are not always good environments. Some teens will face another round of neglect or abuse. Some return to the shelter, others to the streets.

The 17-year-old girl who missed her boyfriend in Ocala was sent back to a foster home there.

She ran away again after several days.

She called the shelter from a pay phone. She cried and said she didn't know where to go.

The shelter told her to call the police.

They haven't heard from her since.

-- Jamie Jones can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to jjones@sptimes.com.

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