At some point, many young people imagine themselves running away from home. But 15-year-old Laura Sugalski of Lakewood, Ohio, actually did it.
Her home life was pretty rocky two years ago when things finally snapped. Her mother confronted her about whether she had stolen some money. Ashamed and embarrassed to admit what she'd done, Laura took off.
For the next five days, with a little assistance from friends, one of whom dropped her off in nearby Cleveland, she lived on the streets.
Cold and scared, she cut off her hair to disguise her identity, and ate only one real meal during those five days, losing 11 pounds in the process.
But Laura is one of the fortunate ones. She called the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) and got help to start solving her problems. In less than a week, she was back home.
Not every runaway asks for help, though.
In fact, only about 5 percent of the estimated 1.3 to 2.8 million runaways and homeless youths call the hot line. But for those who do, it is an important lifeline.
About 120,000 calls come in each year to the NRS's toll-free number (800-621-4000), which is staffed around the clock in Chicago by a group of 140 volunteers. Each receives 36 hours of training in handling calls, not only from runaways, but also from parents looking for missing children, and sometimes from counselors, teachers, and friends of the youths.
When 17-year-old Bryan Gleason reports for duty at the hot line's offices, his own cares go on hold while answering calls from desperate teens and parents from around the country.
"It's a lot different from your normal conversations," says the young volunteer. "You're not thinking about yourself whatsoever. You're totally focused on the call ... and figuring out how a caller can stay somewhere or how they can get home."
While some callers immediately ask for information, others just want someone to talk to. At first, they may be so reluctant to speak that they hang up or remain silent.
That's when Bryan gently breaks the ice. He draws out callers and learns details of their situations, but as required by the switchboard, he avoids giving advice.
Listening to grim stories, he chooses his words carefully. "I might say, 'That must have been hard to deal with.' That sounds really simplistic, but maybe the caller has not gotten any sort of support, and hearing that is a big thing for them. We may not have directly comforted them, but they now have something on their horizon that may make their outlook a little brighter."
"The most dangerous ages for runaways seem to be from 14 to 16," says Judy Lichtman, the mother of a former runaway who compiles runaway stories and links on her Teens in Trouble website. "At that age, there is a disconnect between actions and consequences, a heady new sense of independence, and a focus on their peers and away from family. Combine all this with raging hormones, and it's a recipe for running."
Having said this, however, she doesn't want to leave the impression that runaways are just rebelling or looking for adventure. They often face grim situations.
Most runaways are fleeing unbearable family situations, according to Positive Alternatives Inc., a service organization for youth and families in Wisconsin. Most often the kids are trying to escape broken homes and domestic relationships that include physical, sexual, alcohol, or drug abuse.
To help discover which of these may be a problem, volunteers manning the hot line ask the young people who phone in why they called and what's going on in their lives. The volunteer's job is to try to ensure that young people and their families have access to resources in their communities. In some cases they arrange and mediate reunions, but they don't necessarily encourage teens to return home.
"It really depends on what the caller is telling us," says Maureen Blaha, executive director of the NRS. "In some cases, going home is really not an option. In those situations we link them to resources in the community that would provide them with safety and shelter."
Why do runaways call strangers on a hot line or access the NRS's website (www.nrscrisisline.org) rather than contacting people they know?
"They're not always comfortable bringing their problems to someone in their lives," Ms. Blaha explains. "When they call, that's one of the things we explore with them: Who's in your life you might feel comfortable talking with? If not a family member, then maybe somebody in your church or school. Our goal is to link these kids up with local resources so they have somebody who is more consistent in their lives than calling the National Runaway Switchboard."
Fortunately for Ms. Lichtman, her son kept in touch with phone calls every couple of weeks, but more often than not, runaways don't check in.
Debbie Sugalski didn't hear from Laura until the Switchboard connected them. Calls to the NRS are confidential, but the Sugalskis agreed to share their story.
Laura says she ran away because of "a buildup of a lot of things" at home and school. She was into drugs, wasn't getting along with people at school, and was distressed because her parents, now divorced, often argued about her situation.
Things reached a head when Mrs. Sugalski noticed a number of unexplained debits on her ATM card. That's when she confronted Laura as they were en route to the 15-year-old's dance class. Laura, however, denied any wrongdoing.
"I was extremely angry and told her that if she wasn't going to admit it, then the police could figure it out," Sugalski recalls.
When she later learned that Laura had failed to show up for her class, she called the police and filed a missing person report. She also posted fliers around town.
Three days later she found a link to the National Runaway Switchboard on a missing-kids website. She called, was comforted by a volunteer, and, to her surprise, was told she could leave a message for Laura in case her daughter called in.
Laura's friends were contacted and given the Switchboard number. Eventually mother and daughter connected through a message-relaying service, which resulted in a three-way conference call arranged by a Switchboard counselor. In cases like this, both parties must be willing to provide a name and phone number.
The two had a brief, tearful reunion on the phone that led to Laura's return a short time later. Since they began attending counseling sessions, their relationship has improved.
"Things are still settling down, we're still getting to be mother and daughter," Laura says.
Laura has since graduated from high school, attended community college for awhile, and now works at a gymnastics academy. She hopes to earn a gymnastics scholarship and is writing to schools across the country.
Looking back, she says her runaway experience taught her that it might be bad at home, but it's a lot worse on the streets. "There's a better solution," she says.
Lichtman says the situation with her son showed her that there's always hope. "Eight years ago, he was living on the streets on the other side of the country, yet today he is in college, on a good life path, and we have a wonderfully close relationship.
"Last year he came across my story on the Internet of what I went through when he was a runaway," she continues. "He sent me the most wonderful note apologizing for what he had put me through. And I've heard from many ex-runaways who turned the most desperate situations around and reconnected with their families.
"I don't mean to say that the healing process is an easy one. We both sometimes deal with the wounds from that time that haven't completely healed. But I think we also skipped some of the difficult stages most parents and children go through because I saw him as an individual much earlier than usual."
Bryan rarely gets to hear the happy endings that he may have had a part in. "You almost never know if it worked," he says, "but the attempt has been made."