A summer `head start' toward college learning helps homeless youth

SUCCESS stories about homeless teens are in short supply. But a joint venture between a Manhattan youth crisis center and a college in Vermont may provide at least the makings of several. Peter Brown ran away from home in New Jersey when he was 16 and landed in the New York City bus station in the middle of the night. He called a telephone operator and asked if there was any place that took care of runaways. She gave him the number of Covenant House, which happened to be a block away. They took him in.

Three years later Peter, wearing Hawaiian print shorts and ever-present headphones, is typing labels in an air-conditioned library, as well as taking a college course at St. Michael's College, a small Roman Catholic college just outside Burlington, Vt. He's aiming to work in hospital administration. ``I want only the best,'' he says. ``I'm capable of doing it. I definitely want to be in school by January, as soon as I can get financial aid.''

How'd he get from there to here?

For most of the runaways and abandoned youths who land on their doorstep, Covenant House provides basic food, shelter, and clothing. The facility was started by the Rev. Bruce Ritter, a Catholic priest, who took six homeless boys into his Lower East Side apartment. Word spread of his shelter and in 1977 he opened the crisis center in Times Square. Fifteen years later, Covenant House is a $14 million operation, funded mostly through private donations, that houses over 200 youths a night on a short-term basis.

To help the most motivated of the youths bootstrap themselves back into society, Covenant House started a fledgling program called ``rights of passage.'' It provides job assistance, mentoring, and ``life skills'' classes in everything from cooking to taxes for 25 boys. The just-beginning girl's program will also house 25. So far, 27 of the first 35 boys who have gone through the 15-month-old program are either working or in school, says Michele Sienkiewicz, residence coordinator.

Six of these youths, including three of the first group of girls, were selected to take part in the experimental summer school program being held at St. Michael's. Its aim was to provide Peter and five other formerly homeless youths with ``as close as possible, a college experience,'' says the Rev. Mike Cronogue, campus priest at St. Michael's, who oversees the experiment. Funding for the $9,000 program is split between Covenant House and the college.

In this six-week ``Head Start'' for college students, Peter, Eddie Brown (no relation), Marcia Carcamo, Joe Machin, Cynthia Velazquez, and Constance Williams audit one summer school class, work on campus, experience group living in town houses overlooking the soccer field, and enjoy the fresh air of Vermont.

``Covenant House kids, typically because of family problems, have moved around and not done well in school,'' says Ms. Sienkiewicz.

Despite family problems and lack of resources, these black and Hispanic students, who range in age from 18 to 20, had potential. They all had high school diplomas or a general equivalency diploma. Marcia came alone at age 14 from Honduras to live with her brother in Louisiana and graduated from high school with a 4.0 gradepoint average. She went to New York to see which of the two colleges that had accepted her she liked better. Soon after she arrived, her money was either lost or stolen. Joe, who came from Puerto Rico, ended up at Covenant House after he lost his job, got ill, and was thrown out of his furnished room. He's hoping to get into Rutgers University this fall and wants to do Latin American theater and film. And Constance, who's aiming to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, grew up in group homes and foster care. ``Here and there, you know. I had a hard life,'' she says softly.

The college and the crisis center have been linked for two years since St. Michael's students began volunteering at Covenant House during spring break. The summer school program started when the Rev. Steve Hornat, the priest at St. Michael's who accompanied them to Covenant House, suggested that some of the ``rights of passage'' students come to Vermont and get a taste of college life.

At the college, the Covenant House students attend one regular summer school class, are privately tutored, and are taught study skills. After two weeks, says Fran Toomey, director of the special education graduate program, she's seeing progress.

``They're becoming more assertive, independent learners, and that's one of our goals,'' says Dr. Toomey. ``We want them to develop their own strategies for learning.''

The six were selected, says Sienkiewicz, because their educational background was more advanced, and because they were highly motivated. All were working at entry-level jobs found for them by Covenant House: Joe at IBM Corporation, Peter at an investment bank, Eddie at Kidder, Peabody & Co.

Chris McClure, who teaches broadcast journalism to Constance, Peter, and two regular St. Michael's students, says, ``It's obvious that they're smart. They're more sophisticated than I expected them to be.'' As auditors in his class, the two ``rights of passage'' students were not required to write papers. They did anyway.

The experience seems to have broken stereotypes for many connected with the venture. Jody Dyer is one of five St. Michael's students who volunteered to be sponsors and show the students around the area.

``They're a lot different from what I expected,'' she says. ``They're not all city kids; some are from other countries. I thought they'd be all hard and inward.''

The students' misgivings were also allayed. ``Everybody is so nice here!'' said Marcia. The St. Michael's students have welcomed them. - lending them a VCR and bikes and inviting them to make homemade ice cream, as well as to bowl, hike, and swim.

On one recent wiltingly muggy day, the students sat at the men's dining room table (the women live in the town house next door) looking at colorful brochures for L'Aqua Parc in Montreal, where they were going soon.

Joe made a place at the table for his plate of steamed vegetables and cheese and said, ``My life has changed so much since they gave me this opportunity. I feel they stopped the world for me. I thank God every day that I got this opportunity.''

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