COLUMBIA — Kerra Wieberg, 20, was back at the Columbia Public Library on Thursday. She used to spend hours there, trying to avoid the cold in the winter and the heat in the summer when she was homeless.
"A lot of homeless people hang out at the library," she said. "I used to hang out here so much to stay warm with the heat."
This time, however, Wieberg was there to share the story of how she fought her way off the streets and back into a community. Wieberg was joined by Unrica Parrow, 20, and Philip Leak, 19, to share their stories and opinions of homelessness with a crowd of more than 40 Columbia residents at the library Thursday night. The panel discussion was hosted by Rainbow House, an organization that provides emergency and transitional facilities for homeless youth in Columbia.
The three panelists discussed their paths into and out of homelessness and took questions from the audience about how the community can do a better job of reaching out to support homeless youth.
"Help them with encouragement and by pushing them. It's easy to give up, so push them to stay in school, to get a job and keep a job, even when they are down," Wieberg said. "Be understanding and sometimes even use a little tough love."
Parrow said her mother struggled with abusive relationships and homelessness and that she also struggled to break the cycle of poverty that leads to difficult situations and bad decisions.
"I did think about selling my body," Parrow said. "It took my grandma in Iowa praying on the phone with me to get that thought out of my head."
Parrow battled to break out of the patterns of abuse and neglect that dominated her childhood and teenage years before moving to Sol House, the transitional facility for homeless youth run by Rainbow House. In 2010, nearly 1,500 Missouri residents age 17 and under spent time in transitional housing like Sol House, according to the 2011 State of Homelessness in Missouri report.
"I made one bad decision that led me to Boone County jail for seven months," Parrow said. "I came home to nothing, but when I went to Sol House, the staff took me in. That was my family."
She plans to leave Sol House and move into her own two-bedroom apartment next week. She has a job at the Quality Inn and is planning to take her message to local schools to share her experience with students and tell them that there are resources if they need help.
"My biggest accomplishment was finding my own place, my place that I could call home," she said.
"No matter what you go through in life, God will never put more on you than you can bear," Parrow said. "God allowed me to go through that for a reason, he had something more for me. He wanted me to speak, so I am going to speak. I have a calling in my life."
Leak told the audience it is often difficult to ask for help, but there are things the community can do to help young people struggling with homelessness.
"Help them find a job. I put in lots of applications in Columbia, but I had to go to Ashland because that was the only person willing to give a homeless youth a job," Leak said. "We're not looking for people to preach to us how to live. We are looking for a friend, a helping hand."
Helping in the schools
All three of the panelists said they had close relationships with teachers and staff at their schools. Leak lived with a secretary from Hickman High School for six months, and Wieberg said she would intentionally miss the bus to stay back with a teacher she was especially close to.
There were 240 homeless children enrolled in the Columbia school district for the 2010-2011 school year, according to the state of homelessness report.
"If they go to the teacher a lot, they may have problems at home," Leak said. "They go to the first person that will show them love."
Wieberg said many students who have behavioral problems in class likely have challenges at home they need help with.
"I was in the principal's office so many times," she said. "There should be a bulletin board across from that seat with phone numbers of resources for kids that need help. I probably would have called one of those numbers."
Urme Ali, an instructor at MU who teaches a class for future educators, said after the panel discussion that it is important for teachers to do a better job of bridging the gap between the world they know and the world of their students.
"Educators have a hard time imagining a world other than their own, often one of privilege," she said. "They need to take themselves out of their own context and understand the challenges that their students face. The most important thing is creating that bridge and dialogue between the teachers and the children in need."
After the panelists spoke, Deronne Wilson of the Boys and Girls Club told the crowd if they look carefully, they can find the kids that need support.
"Pay attention to those kids that have the same clothes on and haven't had a haircut in weeks and are sneaking second and third helpings," Wilson said.
He stressed the difference that individuals can make if they are willing to help just a single child.
"We are talking about resources, resources, but you should take the onus on yourself to reach out and help," Wilson said. "If all of us take the time to help one kid, that's 50 kids we have helped."
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