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Support Florida youth centers to give kids a chance

By Cassidy Camp, Guest columnist
March 7, 2018

There is a stigma surrounding youth in shelters – one that assumes at-risk youth are all ungovernable and that they are at fault for whatever brought them to the shelter. The public seems to believe that shelters are just a stepping stone on at-risk youths’ paths to unremarkable futures, most likely in the criminal justice system.

But what if I told you the stigma is wrong?

Looking at me today, you’ll see a healthy and happy 21-year-old who’s soon to graduate with two bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University – I’ve been very fortunate. You probably wouldn’t guess that I was considered a “troubled kid” in high school, or that I lived in a youth shelter.

When I was 14, I went through several traumatic experiences, and over the next two years, I spiraled into a place of utter hopelessness. I began to have intense emotional episodes and near-violent outbursts because of it. I felt like nobody understood what I was going through, like everyone expected me to be magically “all better” when I just couldn’t be.

When I was 16, I ran away from home and was placed in the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter. After sitting through a mountain of intake paperwork, I stepped gingerly into the common room with nothing but bare feet, a photo ID in my pocket and the clothes I was wearing – I remember feeling terrified and so incredibly alone.

Immediately upon seeing me, a chipper woman came over, placed her arm around me and exclaimed, “Oh, honey! Let’s get you settled in.”

They provided me toiletries, clothes, shoes and a warm bed in a room painted like a beach with children playing in the sand. When I finally wandered back into the common room, I sat down on a couch alone until a girl came by, flopped down next to me and asked, “so, what are you in for?” as if we were all there for something that we did wrong. But that was the sad reality – we all thought we were bad because that’s what we’d been told.

I got to know other “troubled” youth in the three months I spent at FKCS, and it became increasingly clear that we were not “bad kids.” When you talk to a “bad kid” and truly listen to their story, more often than not they’ve been hurt and don’t know how to process it. They need someone to listen to them, to validate their pain, to help them heal and work on their issues at their own pace. Too often is a slow-to-heal young person considered a lost cause. That was me.

I won’t say everything at FKCS was perfect, because it wasn’t – kids fought and had meltdowns, and the staff occasionally got frustrated with us. But in those three months, I had support from both the staff and the other youth while I began to heal.

I learned to play basketball. I started to draw and write poetry as a healthy emotional outlet. I sang in a talent show the staff helped us put together. But the most important experience I had at FKCS was learning how to manage my emotional responses to stress.

Through the shelter’s individual and group counseling, I learned how to stay calm and to think about my actions before lashing out. I learned that I have control over of my own life and that I had the tools to persevere through the hardships of any situation. Through the support and understanding the shelter provided, I gained a sense of accountability and self-worth. I was allowed to have bad days, and the staff gave me space and respect while I worked through my issues.

I am so grateful for FKCS and the impact it had on my life. Without the life skills I learned there, I am confident that I would not be where I am today.

We need to break the harmful stigma surrounding youth in shelters – there is nothing shameful or “bad” about needing help. Most importantly, we as individuals and as a state need to support youth shelters and youth service providers in our Florida communities. These services often make the difference between self-destruction and success in at-risk youths’ lives. Youth shelters give “troubled” youth, like me, a chance to build better futures, not only for themselves, but also for their communities.