It Takes an Ensemble
Virtually every staff member across our entire Covenant House movement has stepped up to respond to a critical situation or to innovate a program or campaign to inspire our youth to push forward. We call them heroes, but the truth is, our ability to provide love and protection to young people overcoming homelessness and trafficking requires all the talents of an ensemble cast of one committed, united community.
Cynthia Adams, associate executive director of Covenant House Michigan (CHM), relays a story that makes this abundantly clear. Marissa*, she says, came to Covenant House from a traumatic childhood. The one thing that kept her connected to other people, Cynthia says, was her art.
“It was a medium that she used not necessarily to tell her story, but it opened her up. It made her more communicative in terms of talking to other people,” Cynthia says.
“She carried a little sketchbook with her at all times. In those moments when I thought she felt left out, she would just take out her sketchbook and draw. She enjoyed being around people, but didn’t participate in conversations,” Cyntia says, until, that is, someone asked about her artwork. “Once you started asking questions, she could talk for hours on end. Her art was almost an extension of her personality.”
When Marissa started experimenting with using makeup rather than paints in her portraits and other pictures, her creativity caught the eye of a local leader. But instead of supporting her, he exploited her vulnerability. He drew up a contract, ostensibly to promote her, but promised her just $1 a year from the sale of her work, with the rest of the proceeds going to “promotion.” Even worse, he convinced her to give up her paintings to him to get started.
Marissa knew immediately she had made a mistake. Giving up her paintings was like cutting off an arm or giving away a part of her soul. Cynthia and then-Executive Director Gerry Piro managed to get Marissa’s paintings back. But the man immediately sued Covenant House. Over the course of six years, he would sue CHM a total of three times, losing every time.
“Marissa knew very little about what was going on with the legal cases. We tried to protect her from that because she would have internalized it and thought it was all her fault,” Cynthia says.
Besides the lawsuits that were countered by our legal team at CHM with support from Covenant House International, the man threatened to track down Marissa to convince her to give him back her paintings. After she won an opportunity to study at a prestigious art school, where she would get her high school diploma, he even threatened to intercept her on campus.
CHM’s street outreach team took the precautionary measure of driving Marissa to and from the boarding school, which was nearly three hours away. On her school breaks, our Rights of Passage staff readmitted her to our program and continued to work with her to build up her mental health and get her ready for the next semester. Our staff also helped her change her cell phone number, so the man couldn’t contact her that way.
After Marissa graduated, CHM staff helped her get stably housed. “She has an apartment now, but we continue our aftercare and supportive services for her. Covenant House has become her family. Our street outreach team works very closely with her, and we also connected her to a mentor,” who supported her move into independence, Cynthia says.
It truly took an ensemble cast at Covenant House Michigan to make unconditional love palpable and real for Marissa and to support her every step of the way to safety and independence. “She was worth every second we put into helping her through this situation,” Cynthia says.
The big picture, though, is that “Marissa is just one of many,” Cynthia underscores. Even as Marissa was surrounded with relentless support, so were the dozens of other youth at CHM and the tens of thousands of young people our Covenant House federation reaches each year across our entire movement.
“It just goes to show the need for Covenant House and embracing these young people, being there for them, being their support system. We’re here to make sure they get the services they need, but also that they leave here healthy and on track to an adulthood that’s going to be promising and successful,” Cynthia says.
And that takes our whole committed, united community to achieve: staff, youth, and every supporter.
*Marissa is a pseudonym used to protect this young person’s identity.
Photo credit: Bureau Detroit.