By Anna-Marie Menhenott
TREASURE COAST -- The hundreds of homeless teens on the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee have a safe place to go when it seems there's nowhere to turn.
The youth usually leave their homes because of family disputes or literally are running for their lives to escape abuse. When they run, they often end up living in abandoned buildings or sleeping on park benches.
Many also turn to petty crimes to survive and are exposed to infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and AIDS. But there's a safe haven which provides youth with much more than a warm bed and safe shelter. It helps them heal and work through life challenges to regain hope.
WaveCREST provides short-term shelter and counseling to some of the most endangered children in the area. Although the facility can only house up to 12 children, from age 11-17, at a time, the shelter helps hundreds each year.
"The children who show up on our door are in dire need of services," said Kristi Walsh, program supervisor. "We have children who feel like things at home can't be fixed to children who have run away from other states. We take them in, feed them, give them a place to sleep and then we work on what the root of the problem is. For some it's a fight with mom and dad, but for some it's something more, such as abuse."
The rules at WaveCREST follow those of Boys Town. Each child at the facility must earn points for good behavior. At the end of the week, the points can be used to go on field trips to local museums or the movie theatre.
"I find that each one of the kids that walk through the door is in need of some sort of structure," Ms. Walsh said. "We show them what is expected each day. They have chores to do and they help out with cooking, cleaning, laundry and general up-keep. This isn't a free service for them. They are expected to earn privileges and for the most part, they are happy to do so."
Although WaveCREST expects the residents to earn points to pay their way, the service is free to the community. The program is run by Children's Home Society of Florida and is the only home like it in the area.
Children who take up residence at the facility are bussed to school each day, with the exception of those who live in Okeechobee. Those students are given packages of work so they don't fall behind in their studies.
"We take the children to school every day, so it can become challenging," Ms. Walsh said. "At any given time there are high school children from Sebastian to middle school kids in Hobe Sound. We bus them to school and pick them up. It's important that they continue to have a sense of normalcy while they deal with whatever problems they're having at home."
Each day the children attend a group counseling session to try to put them in the right direction. Once the child leaves the facility, they are followed for up to a year. The return rate is extremely low, something Ms. Walsh and her staff are very proud of.
"We take pride knowing that we are able to help these children work things out with their families. Sometimes all they need is a break and someone else's perspective on a situation. If the problems are more serious, we take the steps to help them," Ms. Walsh said. "Our main goal is to prevent the situation from happening. Any child who shows up at a designated Safe Place is brought to us. So, at school, the children are taught that if they are in a dangerous situation, that they can find a Safe Place. Once here, we evaluate the situation and try to find the cause of the situation."
To celebrate National Runaway Prevention Month, WaveCREST opened its home to the Treasure Coast community on Nov. 5.
During National Runaway Prevention month, WaveCREST wants to bring awareness to the issues runaways and homeless youth face, and to educate the public about solutions to preventing youth from running away from home.
National Runaway Prevention Month is co-sponsored by National Runaway Switchline and the National Network for Youth.
WaveCREST is located on Selvitz Road in Fort Pierce. The Teen Hotline can be reached by calling (800) 881-8855.