Evan Zislis: Soap Box
Aspen CO, Colorado
There is a wonderful stretch of river running adjacent to Denver’s downtown core, with a manmade series of punch-bowl waves for kayakers and swimmers. I was enjoying the surf recently on a warm day, as a large, haggard cluster of teenagers swarmed the banks and stripped down to their underwear, sliding into the eddy nearest me. There must have been 15 or 20 ” and what a sight. Worn skivvies, dreadlocks, body piercings, tattoos, moldy backpacks and the kind of filth that only collects on the faces and fingers of someone living on the streets.
I was immediately intrigued by this extraordinary group, best described as a tribe of lost children. But lost to whom? You could see the stories on their faces, worn like a weather-beaten fence. I worked up the courage to eddy-out and strike up a conversation with a few, already soaking in the cool, brown water. I wanted to know who they were, where they had come from, who they had left behind and how they survived on Denver’s dangerous metropolitan streets.
They were delighted with my genuine curiosity, and others quickly joined in to share their own accounts of personal tragedy and triumph. Before long, the entire lot had gathered together, huddled in like a pack of playful monkeys. It was clear they were a family. They looked after one another, helping to uncover the basic essentials: food, shelter, warmth, companionship. There was little else. Several suffered with addiction. Meth. Pot. Alcohol. Tobacco. Inhalants. Some, whatever they could get their hands on. Several had been harassed, beaten or raped in the course of their journey. There was a young girl with an infant. There was an older teen who revealed to his parents that he was gay and had been kicked out of the house. He had not spoken to his family in over two years. One girl, perhaps 19, was reluctant to reveal that she had been a prostitute on and off for the last two years. The deep scar from her eye to her ear divulged more than her apprehensive words.
I listened intently, without judgment, careful not to probe too deeply or expose too much emotion. They shared personal secrets. Dark reports of neglect, abuse and abandonment. Most learned that independence meant some version of control over whatever circumstances pushed them out of their homes, onto their friends’ sofas and into the streets. As I listened, inside I screamed to myself, “WHERE ARE YOUR PARENTS?” A few explained that they had been beaten at home ” one raped repeatedly by her stepfather. Another by her uncle. A large handful simply had stopped talking to their parents and found no way to bridge the gap between expectation and compliance. With that kind of detachment, they left home in search of a new family, in whatever variation available to them ” despite the risk.
It is easy to see how circumstances can spiral out of control to the point where kids end up on the street. Several fights between youth and parents at home over an extended period of time can lead teens to find refuge at a friend’s house. Teens often replace the nurturing support they crave from parents with that of their peers. Over time, the void is filled ” satisfying the youth’s emotional needs ” many times creating co-dependent relationships with other teens who perceive themselves in similar circumstances. Naturally, they support each other, but often without the judgment, guidance and wisdom nurturing parents ideally provide. The fact is, people learn to adapt to stressful situations. The question is, will that adaptation mean survival or growth? Taking an active role in working together to bridge the gaps between parent-youth relationships requires patience and sometimes the assistance of a family professional.
Troubled teens are YouthZone’s specialty. We have been quietly working valleywide for over 30 years to help communities and families raise responsible, happy kids. Our team of youth and family specialists work with about 1,000 kids per year, helping them reconnect with themselves and their families. On average, YouthZone receives about 10 calls per week from parents seeking advice or direction. If things have gotten out of control for too long, it is not too late. If you know someone who might need a little help reconnecting with family, YouthZone is available from Aspen to Parachute. To get involved or to find out how you can support our programs and services, visit YouthZone online at http://www.youthzone.com or call us at 945-9300 for more information.
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Novelist John Grisham, the master of the legal thriller, is in Aspen this week to give the keynote at Tuesday’s Aspen Words Book Ball at the Hotel Jerome.