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Desiree with her baby half-brother Cameron. Photo: Sarah Harris
Desiree with her baby half-brother Cameron. Photo: Sarah Harris

Sixteen and homeless, in Parishville woods

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When you think of being homeless, you think of living in shelters and on the street. You imagine a city. But homelessness happens here in the North Country, too. And it happens to children.

Desiree Wieczorek is in 10th grade at Parishville-Hopkinton Central School. Desiree and her family were homeless for about five months last year. They lived in the woods outside Parishville. And it wasn't social services that first helped Desiree and her family move into a real house; it was the school.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

It only takes five minutes for Desiree Wieczorak to walk home. On a wet March afternoon, we walk through downtown Parishville and turn onto a side street.

Desiree's sixteen. Her long brown hair is swept into a side ponytail. She wears heavy eyeliner and neon bracelets. Her earlobes are lined with piercings.

Desiree says her favorite part of the day is coming home to her family.

"The fact that I’m usually the first one home of my brothers and sisters. So it’s quiet and then there’s Cameron and my dad and Missy." 

The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris
The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris
Desiree pulls off her boots in the mudroom. Inside, her dad Kenny and stepmom Missy are watching TV. Desiree goes straight to play with her baby half-brother, Cameron, who’s just waking up from a nap.

"He’s going to love his birthday present that I got him, that I made him out of clay," Desiree says as she helps a gurgling, waking Cameron play with a baby toy. "I’m in the process of making him a "Cars" penny bank."

Desiree reading aloud during class. Photo: Sarah Harris
Desiree reading aloud during class. Photo: Sarah Harris
Desiree takes me on the grand tour of the house. She and her sister share a cute girls' room. Drawings and photos paper the walls. Desiree has zebra print sheets, and a stuffed giraffe that was a present from her boyfriend. An antique doll sits primly on the dresser next to a row of books.

The Wieczoreks used to live in Port Byron in the Finger Lakes. Desiree’s life fell apart when her mom left to live with an ex-boyfriend, an alleged sex offender.

Desiree’s dad wasn’t OK with it. He got custody of the kids. He remarried and had baby Cameron. And when the school year ended in 2013, he brought everyone north to Parishville, to family property where they’d camped every summer. It’s beautiful, wild, and remote. He says that there, he could keep the family safe.

"I still have the same feelings for that place as I had when I was little," Desiree says about the camp. "I love it up there – you can breathe better, there’s so many things to do, the animals,­­ just everything."

But this was more than camping. For five months, the family lived in the woods in a small camper and a series of tents. There were 11 people, one little baby.

"We lived there with my grandmother and my grandfather and my aunt, the six children, my dad and his wife. We had no running water, no electricity, and we would have to walk, like, almost a mile just to get to the camp after school."

Their camp was highly organized, with specific spots for doing dishes and brushing your teeth. They used an outhouse, and would walk 20 minutes to bathe in the river. And they cooked over the fire: hotdogs, hamburgers, chili, eggs, sausage, toast, bacon.

Desiree says that out there, the family got really close.

"'Cause there was no one around to communicate with. We were pretty much by ourselves. We only had each other to depend on." 

And they did have fun—playing racquetball, hanging out, even watching movies. 

"That was off of our mom’s laptop and we’d run that off the car," Desiree explains. "So if we didn’t have car battery, we really couldn’t do much."

Eventually, it came time to enroll in school.

Parishville-Hopkinton guidance counselor Melissa Scudder remembers being called down to the main office to meet the new family. 

"And I went down there. There they all were, and they took up the whole main office and were filling all the paperwork up."  

It wasn't easy for Desiree, adjusting to a new school while living rough out in the woods. She says for a long time, she tried to hide the fact that she was homeless.

"But then I really couldn’t, because of us having a fire, and the smoke getting onto our clothes, and us not having a way to wash it, kind of like gave it away, because we had the scent of smoke on us.To come to school when I was homeless and to see all these people get on the buses and leave to go to their houses, or leave to go places—it made me feel like garbage, because I had nothing."

Guidance counselor Melissa Scudder says it didn’t take long for the school to figure out Desiree’s living situation.

"She was very open. She said we’re living in a camp in the woods. She gave us some real pictures that made us understand how hard it was." 

And they knew they had to do something. 

Guidance secretary Geri Lynn Wilson starts to cry as she remembers her first visit to the camp.

"Well, I think I just got—involved, probably—emotionally," she says, sniffling. "I didn’t realize how bad it was until I went to visit. To see them up there—they were so happy—very, very, very happy family. When you visualize the camp it was very small, but they made it work, you know?"

"As hard as it was, they tried to keep up their hygiene. See them cooking over the fire, trying to keep the baby warm with little mittens and hat—it struck me, you know?"

So Mrs. Scudder and Mrs. Wilson got to work. But they didn’t have a lot of time; winter was getting closer.

"The weather was getting colder and colder," Desiree remembers. "And we were all getting sick.  Like, we couldn’t start the fires because of how cold it was."

Mrs. Wilson couldn’t stop thinking of the Wieczerak family out in the woods.

"I’m having a really nice dinner and—What are they eating? Or, How are they sleeping? Are they warm enough?—worrying about them in the tents."

So she talked to her pastor. They rallied the community. People started bringing in clothes and money. One person even gave a giant bag of apples from their orchard.

She’d bring the girls into town for haircuts, or give them a ride from the camp to the school dance.

And she made it her mission to find them a permanent home.

Hear part 2 of this story, in which we hear more from Desiree and her family, and learn how North Country schools like Parishville-Hopkinton support homeless students.

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