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Spectrum makes a huge difference

Susan Notes:

Maybe this article cheered me even more than usual because I had just read a Dallas Morning News piece about teachers being ticked off by new rules preventing them from counting missed homework and late assignments against a student's grade. I remember when teachers in my middle school were up in arms over the passage of a policy not allowing a grade of lower than 50 on the report card. It is pretty pathetic to exert professional energy for the existance of a zero.

I refuse to post this piece. But here it is: DISD plan to ease grading standards angers teachers. I worry about some teachers' penchant for vengeance. They do it in the name of justice, but any teacher worth her salt must know how unjust our world is, so let's call this for what it is: vengeance. Vengeance against all the petty affronts that assault teachers daily. It isn't pretty.

That said, I was touched by Faith Foley's story and her very real accomplishments. She offers a story of hope just 12 miles from where I live.

By Chris Bohjalian

If you're a teenager or young adult, how do you know for sure you've hit rock bottom? Is it when you're frustrated because you can't TiVo the latest installment of "Dancing with the Stars?" Or is it when you realize you just chose not to go to a party so you could stay home instead and post pictures of yourself on Facebook?

Or is it when you're sleeping outside in the woods near the Burlington waterfront because you're homeless and 20, and any money you can scrounge up goes to buy cocaine, methadone substitutes, and anti-anxiety drugs? This was precisely where Faith Foley, now 25, found herself in the spring of 2003.

Prior to that, she had, by comparison, been living large: Sleeping on the floor of a hotel in Brattleboro or crammed into a two-bedroom apartment with as many as ten other people. She had hoped things might get better in the Queen City. They didn't and it was then, as she shivered outside, that the St. Albans native realized what rock bottom really meant. Out of options, she turned to Spectrum Youth & Family Services and trudged from the waterfront to the organization's shelter on Pearl Street.

"It was very difficult to bring myself to go there," Foley recalls now. "I liked to believe I was better than Spectrum that I didn't need them. So I went there with my tail between my legs. But they were great."

Today Foley is a residential manager at the Spectrum One Stop Shelter, and this December she will receive an associate's degree from Community College of Vermont. Her long-term plan is to get a four-year diploma and then a master's degree in social work. She works at the shelter from late afternoon until somewhere around midnight, helping to care for the dozen young adults who are living there. Sometimes that entails giving out medicine and sometimes it means administering a breathalyzer test for alcohol. More often it means talking with them about their lives, and how they wound up homeless in the first place and their plan to get back on their feet. Most of them don't know her personal history, but when she thinks it will help the teenager, she is happy to share it: "Sometimes I'll tell them I know it stinks to have to come in at nine o'clock. I know it stinks to have to do a urine screen [to test for drugs]. Hey, I had to do it too, I'll tell them."

Foley credits the case workers and therapists at Spectrum for the way her life has turned around: They weaned her from her dependence on drugs, helped her get a job, and encouraged to go to college. "Spectrum makes a huge difference," she says. "Unfortunately, I think the public just sees a lot of kids hanging out. But we show a transient population that there's a better way to live. I don't want to sound like a clich, but we change lives. I've seen so many people come through here who are doing valuable things now."

The hardest part of her job is the reality that she simply can't help everybody. The shelter has 12 beds and often there are a half-dozen people on the waiting list. "It's horrible when someone shows up in the middle of winter and we don't have a bed. I give them food and blankets and refer them to COTS (the Committee on Temporary Shelter), but it's heartbreaking."

Moreover, as a result of the weakening economy, in her opinion it's only going to get worse. Lately, in addition to seeing young adults who are coping with substance abuse or mental illness, Spectrum is seeing young adults who simply can't pay their bills.

It's never been easy to be a teenager, and my sense is that in some ways it's even more difficult now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Fortunately, there are organizations like Spectrum out there and people like Faith Foley who have seen rock bottom and, now, the view from the mountaintop.

Write to Chris Bohjalian care of the Free Press, P. O. Box 10, Burlington, Vt. 05402, or visit him at www.chrisbohjalian.com.

— Chris Bohjalian
Burlington Free Press


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