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The Teen Project: Helping Homeless Teens

Foster girls
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Laura Doss

Lauri affectionately refers to the young women who live in her Mission Viejo personal home or the nearby Teen House as "my girls." All are survivors of physical, sexual or emotional abuse who were put into state custody. Lauri usually seeks them out, five for each home, by sending e-mails to social workers, child advocates and teachers. The girls can live at the house for up two years and save money to move out. Once they're on their own, TTP fills their apartment with donated furniture. They can stay involved in the aftercare program indefinitely.

Chelsea, 21, remembers the day she moved into the peaceful home in August 2006. It was "waaay" different from what she had endured on a daily basis at foster care: screaming kids and reprimanding administrators and guards. "There is no drama here," Chelsea says. "If there's a problem, Lauri talks about it and doesn't freak out. She just knows how to handle things because she can see the bigger picture." That's why everyone calls her the Teen Whisperer.

Though she has never formally adopted any of the girls, Lauri is committed to parenting them for the rest of their lives. While most teens get lots of guidance from their parents, foster kids have limited one-on-one contact with a caring adult. "These kids have more responsibilities than your ordinary teen," Lauri says. "But in my home, I take care of the big stuff like giving them structure and love." To boost the girls' self-confidence, Lauri gives them a platform to express their opinions and ideas during family meetings, held regularly at both houses, in which they learn how to communicate and negotiate needs.

She has taken all her kids on supermarket runs to shop for healthy food, accompanied them to fill out job applications, role-played in mock interviews and even popped the hood of the car to demonstrate an oil change. She also enrolls them in first aid and CPR training. Regular foster children, on the other hand, have few if any adults to consistently help them with everyday tasks.

Lauri does not live at the Teen House, so she hires a "house mom" to guide the residents. She also depends upon a cadre of volunteers to share their expertise with the teens. Every Sunday a volunteer goes to the facility to offer tutoring and teach skills such as cooking and financial planning. TTP helps the girls pay for college by drawing funding from a variety of sources. But the linchpin of all the programs is the rule mandating sobriety. "Ninety-nine percent of our kids are genetically predisposed to substance abuse," says Lauri. "We take kids to recovery meetings and hold a weekly 12-step meeting at home to teach them how to respond to environments where there are drugs and alcohol."

Looking back on all the lives she's touched, Lauri knows that her love has helped lots of broken kids to blossom. "It's powerful to watch the girls as they build their future," she says. "They keep me alive."

Services for Homeless Teens

Desperately looking for a shelter in Texas, a homeless youth found the Teen Project's website and e-mailed Lauri. When she asked for his number to explain the directions to a facility, he said he was in a public library and didn't have a phone. E-mail was the only way to reach him. "That's when it hit me—homeless kids were going to local libraries for free Internet access," Lauri says. To address this situation, she created Protection and Direction, an online database with a listing of 17,500 shelters around the country. In March 2010 she went one step further and launched the Short Code texting program. Kids anywhere in the nation can text the word "shelter," "sober" or "abused" along with their zip code to 99000, and within 30 seconds they will receive information on the shelter closest to them.

Want to help Lauri fight teen homelessness? Donations and inquiries can be made at theteenproject.com.

Read about Lauri's book at familycircle.com/theteenproject.

Know someone who's helping to change your community? Send details along with a photo to localhero@familycircle.com.

Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.