Making a difference: Helping homeless and at-risk youth

For 119 years, the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia has been dedicated to a single mission — to find a permanent home for every child in the Mountain State.

Steve Tuck, the CEO of CHS, has been working to improve the lives of children and families for nearly three decades. He’s been with the private nonprofit agency since 1992, and has been CEO for the past eight years.

The core mission of the CHS is to arrange adoptions and foster care. The agency also operates several emergency children’s shelters across the state. Speaking from the CHS main offices in Charleston, Tuck said that at no previous time in his career has the need for his agency’s services been greater.

“Trying to constantly articulate the need for foster homes can be overwhelming, but it has to be done,” he said. “Our emergency shelters are being taxed to the limit.”

Tuck shared a few statistics to show the extent of the problem. For the most recent fiscal year that ended in June, CHS took care of 823 children in 10 emergency shelters. The number of children placed in foster care rose to 773. A total of 145 children were adopted (most by their foster families). The agency’s Safe Haven Child Advocacy Center served 246 children who were victims of sexual and physical abuse. Transitional living programs provided support for 58 youth who were aging out of foster care into adulthood.

But numbers alone don’t convey the real-world impact. It’s the faces behind the numbers that tell the real story.

Cody’s journey

Cody Williams of Parkersburg could be the poster child for the Children’s Home Society.

The 19-year-old has spent most of his teen years homeless. He wears on his body all the clues of his short but turbulent life. The T-shirt he wears came from a clothing pantry. Dog bite marks are still visible on his arm, beside a burn he got from frying himself a hamburger. That same arm has a tattoo of a wolf.

He wears a platinum rope necklace that was given to him by his stepmother. (“There are only eight of these in the world,” he said.) He’s most proud, though, of a tie-dyed bracelet from Camp Horseshoe, where he worked this summer as a counselor.

On Aug. 12, three days before his 19th birthday, he sat in a Japanese restaurant in Vienna with his case worker, Michelle Pritchett. “I love this place,” he said, shoveling a forkful of noodles into his mouth. “They give you a free bowl of soup.”

Cody wants to be a chef. Pritchett was there to take him shopping for groceries. A social worker who graduated from the University of Michigan, she manages Cody and eight other youths in a transitional living program called SOAR — Success Through Opportunity, Action and Resolve. SOAR is one of the transitional living programs under the aegis of the CHS.

Daren Carswell joined Cody and Pritchett at the Japanese restaurant. Daren is also in the SOAR program and, like Cody, he’s 19 and has spent most of his teen years homeless.

“‘Homeless’ is a complicated term,” explained Denise Hughes, programs manager of the Arthur N. Gustke Shelter for Youth in Parkersburg, one of the CHS facilities. “We define homelessness as a situation in which a child has no permanent housing or is living in a place not fit for human habitation.”

This could include living with a family member who is not willing or able to care for their needs. It could include children who “couch surf” from home to home of various friends. In some cases, it includes children living in unsanitary or unsafe places.

Cody Williams has lived in every one of those homeless conditions. “It started when my mom hit my dad over the head with a plate,” he said. “I was 7.”

Cody, his 9-year-old brother and his mother left his father — who Cody said was abusive at the time — and moved in with a woman who was his mother’s domestic partner. Cody would come to refer to the partner as his “stepmom,” and to the stepmom’s parents as his grandparents.

It was Cody’s stepmom who taught him how to cook.

“She’s the reason I want to become a chef,” he said. But the home was poorly kept. “All kinds of people were living there, so I moved into a Quonset hut on my grandparents’ property. I only went inside to eat and shower.”

No one monitored his school attendance. He said he tried to join the track team his freshman year at Parkersburg High School, but his mothers would make him do chores rather than let him go to practice.

A social worker at Cody’s high school learned of the situation, and one day Cody was picked up by a Child Protective Services agent.

“I wanted to run from her,” he said, “but I knew if I ran, the police would come after me. CPS was going to send me 200 miles away when my uncle stepped in and agreed to take me.”

But that meant Cody would have to transfer to a different high school.

At first, that situation went well. “I was pretty happy at Parkersburg South,” he said. “I had cousins there, so I made friends.”

He got involved with the ProStart culinary program. He moved in with some friends of his father, but when that didn’t work out, Cody landed in the Gustke emergency shelter in north Parkersburg.

Because of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act that requires the school system to keep homeless kids in their familiar school, Cody was bused across town to Parkersburg South. “I lived at Gustke for about a month. I remember just sitting in the window seat all the time.”

But shelters like Gustke are temporary. So, when Cody turned 18, he became eligible for the transitional living program.

“Homeless teens who age out of the foster care program used to be just turned out onto the streets the day they turned 18,” explained program director Denise Hughes.

That changed gradually over time, as courts and social services agencies realized these teens lacked the safety nets and support to survive on their own.

“We begin with the goal of helping each of these young people to become an independent, well-functioning adult,” Hughes said.

Cody and Daren were both interviewed and apprised of the program’s expectations.

“We agree to work with local landlords to find them an apartment,” Hughes said. “We help them pay the rent and offer various services to support them.”

Among those services are weekly group counseling sessions; a food and clothing pantry; after-school programs; and pregnant teen services, like Right from the Start, Birth to Three, Parents and Teachers, and more. They receive counseling on safe sex practices, budgeting and basic life skills.

The teens are matched with mentors and transitional case workers, like Michelle Pritchett.

“I check on Cody a couple of times a week,” she said. “I take him shopping and help him solve problems associated with living on his own.”

Neither Cody nor Daren has a driver’s license.

Cody’s apartment has two rooms, a bathroom and a small kitchen where he cooks most of his own meals. He receives an SSI check for a psychological disability, and will incrementally take over paying his own rent. The apartment is located near CHS’s Parkersburg office in North Parkersburg, an area Cody calls “the ghetto.”

Hughes said that is by design. “We want these services to be provided in the neighborhoods where they are needed.”

Cody can pick up food and toiletries at the pantry and stop by the Drop In Center if he just needs companionship or help. He attends support group meetings there and even cooks for the attendees sometimes.

“One time he made chicken pot pies for all of us,” Pritchett said. She believes Cody is on the right track to be an independent, well-functioning adult, and that his positive attitude is his best asset.

“He has that resiliency that is needed for these kids to find their way out of poverty,” she said.

A teacher recognized Cody’s leadership potential and recommended him for a scholarship at Camp Horseshoe near Parsons. He later became a counselor at the camp.

“I still write letters to a girl there who I talked out of killing herself,” Cody said.

Daren’s struggles

Daren’s challenges are a little more daunting. He has no memory of his mother, who went to prison for drugs and died there. He was raised by a father and stepmother who he said “had no time for me.” At 16 he opted into a Job Corps program that moved him to Morganfield, Kentucky.

“I wanted to be a welder and this was the place that taught welding,” he said.

He lived in dorms and completed his welding certificates. But he said he could not stay focused on the online high school curriculum.

He ran away from the Job Corps and lived for a time with a girlfriend and her grandmother in Pennsylvania. “That was my biggest mistake,” he said. When that situation went south, he landed in a group home in Fairmont.

Fran-Coyne Davis is Daren’s life transition counselor. “I was able to find a landlord who would take a chance on a teenage renter. Daren is really neat and does a good job of getting along with his landlord,” she said.

Fran helps Daren stay focused on his studies for his TASC exam, a test that replaced the GED for a high school diploma equivalency.

“I really wish I’d finished high school,” he said. “I have a hard time staying motivated to do the online classes.”

He spends a lot of time playing PubG, an interactive online war game. He realizes he can only reach his goal of being a welder if he passes the TASC, but he feels stuck.

“I’m my own worst enemy,” Daren said.

Daren’s goal is to finish high school (he’s at the sophomore level of study) and complete the TLP program in Parkersburg. Then he’s leaving West Virginia.

“I want to go back to Florida where my dad is,” he said. “I can get work as a welder there.”

As for Cody, he wants to finish high school and then attend culinary school. After that, he and his girlfriend want to move to California.

He refers to the wolf tattoo on his forearm: “Wolves are special animals. They believe in family and know how to survive on their own. They remind me of myself.”

Susan Matthis Johnson’s column, “My Side of the Mountain,” appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.

FUNERALS FOR TODAY 10-22-19

Browning, Doris - 11 a.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Chambers, Richard - 1:30 p.m., Valley View Memorial Park, Hurricane.

Duncan, Richard - 1 p.m., Brookside Ministries Church, Mt. Carbon.

Jenkins, Earl G. - 2 p.m., Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.

Kitchen, Barbara - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Lusk, Terry - Noon, Koontz Funeral Home, Hamlin.

Older, Mary - 11 a.m., Oakwood Baptist Church, Charleston.

Price, Georgia - Noon, Sylvester Baptist Church, Sylvester.

Wade, Delmas - 1 p.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation Inc., Grantsville.

Wilson, Kathryn - 5 p.m., Waters Funeral Chapel, Summersville.