By Lois Rogers | Features Editor
In early spring of 2012, Covenant House began planting roots in Asbury Park.
The 40-year-old organization that focuses on helping homeless youth get their lives in order across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, set up offices and an outreach in the New Jersey Shore community’s West Side Center with the hope of turning some young lives around.
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Since its establishment in 1972, Covenant House has reflected Catholic social teaching as it reaches out to provide a continuum of care to homeless youth aged 16-21.
As the first lay president in the history of Covenant House, Kevin Ryan, a Jersey Shore resident and member of Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, has carefully maintained the ongoing tradition of providing shelter, food, immediate crisis care and an array of other services to homeless and runaway youth.
What sparked his decision to take Covenant House into Asbury Park on an outreach level can partly be found in his blog.
Last March, he posted in despair that the “news coming out of Asbury Park has not been good. An 11-year-old girl cleaning her room on a recent Sunday night was rushed to intensive care after being shot in the face. The bullet was intended for someone else.”
The next paragraph outlined the fact that six people had been shot in the city in January, three in February, including the girl, and three in March. “The local Boys and Girls Club which strives to keep young people entertained and safe, has seen a drop to 50 kids from 70 in its afterschool program because some parents are afraid to send their kids to the neighborhood where several shootings have occurred…” Ryan reported.
“What kind of world are we creating, where our children are afraid to go to the Boys and Girls Club?” wondered Ryan, a resident of Fair Haven and a member of Nativity Parish there.
In a recent telephone interview, he added further reason for seeing what steps Covenant House might take to improve the situation. The father of six shared memories of when his son, John, was playing Pop Warner football and the schedule took his team to Asbury Park.
“I remembered this boy from Asbury, a quarterback. My son was a wide receiver and they (interacted) a lot. I remember thinking the kid from Asbury was scrappy and talented. Several weeks later, he was shot and killed on the streets.”
This just shouldn’t be happening, he thought. The early months of 2012 made it clear the time had come to act.
It wasn’t long before fund raising was underway – from car washes by the kids in Ryan’s home town to more formally organized affairs – and Covenant House was collaborating with community agencies and non-profits in Asbury Park to work out the logistics for housing the program.
Soon, the outreach team, headed by program manager Marcel Quinones, was in place and working the boardwalk and the streets looking, as Ryan had asked, for young people who wanted alternatives to “guns, gangs and drugs.”
The team began with the basics, reaching out to young people suffering on streets of the resort city. Outreach workers went into the community with a van, some sandwiches, water and blankets offering unconditional love and support as they forged relationships with young people in crisis.
Over the ensuing months, Quinones said, the outreach team offered them guidance, support and access to shelter at Covenant Houses with those facilities.
On the night of Dec. 12, as Covenant House hosted a tree-trimming party in the festively decorated gym of the West Side Community Center, Quinones noted that the outreach team was achieving results.
A number of young people were making the most of the program’s initiatives to help them get their GED’s, find employment or seek residency in their housing programs in Atlantic City and Newark. The young people now realized they had options, Quinones said, and were focusing in on them instead of just hanging out or getting into trouble.
Dave Hall, Covenant House director for North Jersey, said the outreach program had been especially successful in helping young people get identification. “Some of the kids have never seen a birth certificate, never seen an ID. We set them up with ID which opens doors for them,” Hall said.
Among those who turned to the Covenant House outreach team was Joe-Mar Anderson who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He spoke to the kids at the tree trimming about how he had just earned his GED with help from the outreach team and was about to take up residence in Covenant House in Newark where he planned to further his education as he worked.
This turn of events, Anderson said, resulted from a chance meeting with one of the outreach workers.
“I was out on the street doing the same thing every day: wake up; run the streets, go home. The outreach worker came to talk to my friend, who wasn’t interested, but I listened to what she said.
“She said, ‘you don’t have to live like this.’ I called (the program) Monday and I talked about my situation and they said, ‘try to be positive.’ Now, I have my GED and my goal is to go to Essex County College and begin to study architecture.
“I learned how to save my money for independent living,” said Anderson, adding that he would now have the ability to “focus on the positive.”