Baha'i News -- Group gives food, supplies to homeless teens

Group gives food, supplies to homeless teens

ERIN WALSH
Staff Writer

OCEANSIDE ---- A small group of volunteers has formed to help homeless teen-agers survive on the streets of Oceanside, and they are asking the community to contribute to the cause.

The 15-or-so volunteers make up the newest chapter of Stand Up for Kids, a national organization that began in San Diego more than a decade ago that has just reached North County.

The local group has a simple mission: to give food, clothing, hygiene products and resource phone numbers to teens who are struggling to survive on Oceanside's streets.

"Our job is to do whatever we can to keep these kids from dying on the streets," said founder Rick Koca, a retired Navy officer who started the first Stand Up for Kids chapter in downtown San Diego in 1990.

The organization soon took off in other cities, and now has 27 chapters in 13 states, including volunteer outreach groups in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. In San Diego, the group also runs a teen drop-in center where street kids can rest, eat, clean up, and hang out in a safe place.

The Oceanside branch is more simple. A handful of volunteers meets each week at a Baha'i worship center, which allows the group to use its Mission Avenue building as a base of operations. There, the volunteer counselors load their backpacks with donated food, hygiene supplies and clothing and take to the streets of downtown Oceanside on foot, looking for teens who could use a meal, a toothbrush, or somebody to talk to.

"Some kids are really psyched because they haven't brushed their teeth in a while, or they just want to see somebody who is not threatening to them," said volunteer Gina Giarisso, a 17-year-old San Dieguito Academy student who volunteers with Stand Up every Wednesday night. She is one of just four outreach counselors with the Oceanside group.

Counselors must be at least 16 years old and go through several weeks of training before hitting the streets. They must then do 60 hours of counseling with a supervisor before hitting the streets on their own. High school students are encouraged to apply, but all teen counselors are accompanied by a supervisor over the age of 25.

Stand Up for Kids requires fingerprinting and background checks on all potential counselors.

"We don't let anybody out on the streets or anywhere near kids without checking their backgrounds and making sure they're ready," said Lisa Frost, executive director of the Oceanside branch.

Stand Up for Kids runs entirely on donations, and all of its local organizers are volunteers. In order to run the $1,000-per-month operation in Oceanside, the group needs donations of money, food, clothing, soap, and specialty items such as cellular phones.

Because the group has only a few counselors, they also are looking for more volunteers ---- especially men ---- in order to expand their outreach operation into other parts of Oceanside, including the San Luis Rey River Valley near Highway 76. Several homeless people ---- mostly migrant adults ---- live in the river valley, but without male counselors, Stand Up for Kids won't send volunteers into the potentially unsafe area to check for unaccompanied children.

"We need people who are sensible but not afraid to put themselves out there at night, in places not everyone would want to be," said outreach counselor Stacia Fiore. "It's not exactly a cute and cuddly job, but it is very rewarding because you see your work directly helping other people."

Though Stand Up for Kids uses space at a religious center, the group has no religious affiliation.

"We don't ask kids to find Jesus before we help them," Frost said.

The leader of North County Solutions for Change ---- one of the largest homeless advocacy groups in North County ---- praised Stand Up for Kids for gaining the often elusive trust of homeless teens.

"This group has a reputation for being able to reach kids who have been otherwise unreachable," said Chris Megison, executive director of Vista-based North County Solutions for Change. "That in itself is a success story."

But not everyone supports Stand Up for Kids. Though street cops sometimes help point out homeless kids to the group's counselors, Oceanside Police Department investigator Vivien Gregg said the volunteers should be doing more to report homeless teens to the police.

"By not reporting them, you're contributing to their delinquency and enabling them to be homeless," Gregg said.

Koca replied that the organization actually cuts down on crime by allowing homeless teens to subsist without breaking the law for food and money.

"People say we enable kids, and in a sense, they're right," he said. "We enable them to survive one more day without stealing, begging, or selling their bodies."

"Survival is very harsh out there on our streets, whether we want to believe it or not. If what we do helps keep Oceanside from burying a homeless kid today, we've done a good job."

For more information or to become a volunteer and/or donor, visit www.standupforkids.org or call (877) 799-8811. Interested parties can also reach Stand Up for Kids by e-mail at Oceanside@standupforkids.org.

Contact staff writer Erin Walsh at (760) 901-4090 or ewalsh@nctimes.com.

3/24/02


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