By: Katie Sobiech
“Life is short. Cherish every moment of it…”
This was the theme of the drama “Life’s Not Over” recently put on by Akron Public Schools Project Rise, with the help of many coming together for one purpose: to bring to light troubled, homeless youth.
Approximately 800 students attending Akron city schools were identified as homeless last year.
What is it like to be homeless? The struggles and battles? Writer and director of the play, 18 year old Tyron Hoisten, found out first hand by doing his research. Hoisten met with a group of homeless teens, revealing much of what goes on inside the life of the homeless young person.
During the meetings he says, “I didn’t say anything at all. I just listened and took in a lot of information.”
He used what he found to create a serious, yet comedic play, which portrayed the harsh reality of what nearly 1,000 homeless teens are facing right here, right now, in Akron.
The Start of Something New
It all started with a phone call from one of the guidance counselors at Ellet High School.
“There were about 3 or 4 young people not living in their homes anymore,” Debra Manteghi, District Homeless Education Liaison and Program Manager with Akron Public Schools, explained.
Instead, they were staying with friends or relatives. The guidance counselor was concerned.
“Part of my job is to provide some outreach to the students that are homeless, including unaccompanied youth. And unaccompanied youth is a little tricky because many times they don’t want to disclose that they aren’t in their homes anymore. They have fears of repercussions,” Manteghi explained.
One of those fears is being placed in a foster home.
“That would be traumatic for them so they try to stay with friends, which is referred to as couch surfing,” Manteghi said.
Manteghi has found that many of the youth leave their homes by choice, yet some are put out of their homes for different reasons, normally due to longstanding problems that they are no longer able to deal with.
“Sometimes after talking to the parents I can understand why things happened the way they have,” Manteghi said.
This dilemma inspired Manteghi to launch a new program, Rising Stars, focusing specifically on homeless youth.
Along with Rising Stars, Project Rise tutors, Alex Kostenko and Chiew Johnson, began going into Ellet High School on Fridays to mentor and teach life skills.
“Some of the circumstances are very heartbreaking and heart-wrenching…hard to believe sometimes,” Manteghi said.
Johnson, who tutors at different shelters depending on the needs, has worked with several young women at Harvest Home, a homeless shelter for women and children.
“I was made aware that there is a need for mentors just to listen to teens who are having a hard time,” Johnson said.
She was referred to 3 girls at Ellet High School in particular who were facing issues. One attempted suicide and the other two bordered on not finishing their senior year of High School.
“We were there to help them cope and get through this difficult time in their life, and to encourage them to graduate,” Johnson explained, sharing “I think all of us have storms in our lives and we need people to surround us, and unfortunately these girls didn’t have adults in their lives.”
Many of the homeless teens struggle with rejection, and feeling no one truly cares about them.
“When they capture the essence that you really care for them and that there are no strings attached to the help that you’re giving them, then they are able to open up and share their life experience,” Kostenko said, “Once that façade is taken off, the sky is the limit.”
The entire drama, Life’s Not Over, was inspired by one young girl, “Catherine”, who Manteghi dedicated the play to.
Catherine stayed at the Harvest Home for a while, having nowhere else to go.
“It was very hard for her; that’s not a place for a young person,” Manteghi said, “Harvest Home does a magnificent job providing services to our homeless population, and without the Haven of Rest ministries in our community I’m not sure we’d be able to serve the people as well as we do in the Akron Community. But, it is not the right place for an 18 year old girl or boy.”
The Horizon House, which provides housing for 18-24 year olds, was filled.
“Housing is very limited, it’s unfortunate. They need to expand because in no way, shape or form is an 18 year old ready to make it out on their own anymore,” Manteghi stated.
Johnson also worked with Catherine.
“She was very difficult to work with,” Manteghi said.
But, after a long car ride with Catherine, Manteghi understood why she was the way she was.
“I heard her story from birth to where she was at that day and it was not pretty at all. I understood completely then what her predicament was. We see these things in movies and on TV of what young people go through, and I’m sitting there looking at her right in front of me,” said Manteghi.
Manteghi was very moved by Catherine’s circumstance, and she says it told her a lot about what is going on in family life today.
“Catherine considered becoming a dancer, she’d give blood to get money, and they can be preyed upon by the adult world and that will happen if they are not protected by someone…and that was how this whole play came about…” Manteghi explained.
“We need to look at what’s happening, we need to be able to provide some type of intervention for the kids,” Manteghi said.
For more information on Project Rise and how you can help homeless youth please call 330.761.2969.