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Former NY Times Reporter Addresses Avon Community about Youth Homelessness, Trafficking

Tina Kelley is the co-author of the book, 'Almost Home.' Her visit was sponsored by the Avon High School Center for Human Rights.

When a boy identified as Benjamin was less than 5 years old, he tried to cross a four-lane highway to see the mother Texas Child Protective Services took him from because she burned his hands with hot water when he was 18 months old.

In California, a young woman named Meagan would send her family a portion of her savings when they were low on cash even though her grandmother kicked her out of the house after learning she was gay.

Their scenarios were different, but there was one common theme – their traumatic experiences at home did not stop them from missing their families and seeking their acceptance.

These are some of the inspiring stories Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley tell in Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, a book about six youths they interviewed who came to Covenant House shelters for help when they had no place to go.

The book's October publication coincided with the 40th anniversary of the organization.

Kelley, a 10-year reporter for the New York Times who shared a Pulitzer Prize for staff coverage of 9/11, visited Avon High School Monday night for a book talk and signing. It was the first event hosted by the high school's Center for Human Rights.

"The way I came to this project was through my work at the Times," Kelley said.

Ryan, Covenant House president, became a source for her there and he asked if she'd co-write the book with him. Kelley, who first worked at Covenant House after college, described moments when Ryan ran into people who had once come to Covenant House.

"He wanted to describe what happened between point A and point B," Kelley said.

Corey Booker — the mayor of Newark, NJ who made news recently for challenging himself to living for a week on food stamps — wrote the forward to the book.

Covenant House has shelters in 21 cities in the United States, Canada and Mexico that serve many young people without homes and who are victims of human trafficking, according to its website. The organization mostly helps people between the ages of 17 and 21, Kelley said. Covenant House is privately funded and relies on donations to offset administrative costs.

Avon High School's Center for Human Rights co-founder and advisor Lou Pellegrino asked Kelley about what the draw for youths is to stay in an abusive home. Kelley said that "the psychology of a child is to blame it all on themselves."

Meagan, one of the people featured in Kelley's book, was willing to give her passion of studying to be a massage therapist up for a chance to make amends with the family that left her homeless, the book describes.

Several youths that become homeless have been aged out of foster care when they turn 18 and have not been adopted, according to Kelley. About 26,000 "young people a year reach that stage," Kelley said.

Around two million youths "experience at least one episode of homelessness a year," she said.

Reducing the number of children going into the foster care system could decrease homelessness for individuals in their early 20s, Kelley said. 

"The good news is that we really know how to solve a great deal of the problems that cause homelessness in the United States and Canada," Kelley said.

Every time a child is moved to a new foster home, they can lose six months of their education during the adjustment period, according to Kelley. She cited a study revealing that foster children are twice as likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans.

Kelley has done "sleep outs" a couple times, spending the night on the streets to get a sense of what a homeless person might experience – once on a sleeping bag and cardboard box in Washington D.C., with ear plugs in and security guards nearby, and another time in South Orange, NJ with a local church.

"I wouldn't have had a prayer of making it out there," Kelley said, referencing many teenagers who struggle with homelessness when they turn 18 and no longer have a home.

She found the New Jersey sleep out to be more telling. Kelley witnessed people fighting in a car and was challenged with the question of whether not to intervene. While the police were aware of what her group was doing and were available to help if needed, she said that the participants felt vulnerable to being accosted by strangers.

"It was scary," she said. "It made me realize how tired you are the next day."

Chapter eight of Ryan and Kelley's book focuses on how you can help youths like the six highlighted in the book. It could be as simple as baking birthday cakes to bring to homeless shelters for young people who might not have had that luxury at home, she said.

Kelley said that she is drawn to this work and raising awareness about the issues homeless and trafficked youths face because she had a "lovely home growing up" and she feels lucky.

"This particular age group of kids, it is very hopeful working with them," Kelley said, who considered being a foster parent before she wrote the book.

She also mentored a 23-year-old, another way to help, which is also detailed in the eighth chapter.

It is important for youths to have an adult who believes in them, she said. But Kelley also couldn't help but feel inspired by the people she interviewed.

"I was amazed by how welcoming they were and how at ease they put me," Kelley said.

Almost Home has been on the bestsellers list for Newsday, Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post.

The high school's Center for Human Rights, made up of at least 15 students, was founded by social studies teachers Pellegrino and Stuart Abrams and special education teacher Ryan McCarthy last spring. A human rights course they taught at the high school covered many interesting topics. Pellegrino said that they wanted to expand the lessons learned beyond the classroom and reach the greater community.

The students sold books after the event, which Kelley signed. The majority of the proceeds will be donated to Covenant House.

Almost Home is available for purchase in local bookstores like Barnes & Noble in the Shoppes at the Farmington Valley in Canton and can be purchased online. Kelley is available for future speaking engagements. For more information, contact her at tkelley@covenanthouse.org.

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