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Desiree with her dad, Kenny. Photo: Sarah Harris
Desiree with her dad, Kenny. Photo: Sarah Harris

Sixteen and homeless, pt. 2: homeless no more

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Today, we continue the story of 16-year-old Desiree Wieczorek. She's in 10th grade at Parishville-Hopkinton Central School. As Sarah Harris reported yesterday, Desiree and her family spent much of last year living outside, homeless. Today we'll go see to the land where they lived. And we'll learn more about how North Country schools support homeless students.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

"This is where we would bathe," Desiree says as we walk along the river on her family's land. "There is a rock right there, that is like a slide, that we would sit on and slide into the water and it would get deep. And the girls would come down here and bathe first, and when we were done and go up there, the boys would come down or vice versa. This is where we'd go swimming, too. And we would hop every single rock."

The west branch of the St. Regis River of the Wieczorek's property. This is where they would go to fish and bathe. Photo: Sarah Harris
The west branch of the St. Regis River of the Wieczorek's property. This is where they would go to fish and bathe. Photo: Sarah Harris
It's a little hard to imagine now. The river's partly frozen and snowy.

Desiree's family owns this property. Her great-grandmother was born in a now- dilapidated cabin on the land. Every summer, the Wieczoreks came here to camp.

And when things got bad, this was their refuge. Here's Desiree's dad, Kenny:

"I was happy because I knew I was getting them away from a lot of negative things and I was putting them in a positive environment, because, I mean out here, I can protect them from pretty much anything, but in the city, things come at you everywhere, you know?"

A surprising thing happened when the Wieczoreks were living out here. They got to know each other better. They're a boisterous, loving family. And living in the woods reminded them of that.

The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris
The Wieczorek family. Photo: Sarah Harris
"If people got to live—or even tried to live—this way, they'd understand the value of family. And it brought us closer together." He says it made their relationship stronger.

But as the weather got colder, it was harder and harder to keep going outside. Mrs. Scudder and Mrs. Wilson back in the guidance office were working hard to find the family a house.

The community started bringing in money, food and clothes. HEARTH, a homelessness prevention project, and the Neighborhood Center in Potsdam chipped in, and the family was able to get seed money for rent.

Last October, the Wieczoreks moved into their house.

Desiree says she thinks it was on a school day. "My dad and my stepmom were packing, and we asked why they were packing, and they said it was because we were moving into a house." She says the best part was the warm shower. "It felt like I was in heaven." Desiree says, upon moving into the house, she felt "all the emotions you could think of."

Desiree's story isn't so unusual.

In the 2012-2013 school year, there were 3,218 homeless students in the greater North Country. 697 of them were in St. Lawrence County. But what does it mean to be homeless in such a rural place?

Under federal law, any student without "fixed, adequate, or regular housing," is homeless.

Homeless can mean living in a structure that isn't attached to the ground. Living in a motel, or a shelter. It can mean kids who don't live with their parents, kids who couch surf.

In the North Country, most homeless students are doubling up with other families.

Or it can mean living rough, like Desiree.

Every school district in New York state has a designated person who helps homeless students get the services they need. In Parishville, it's Melissa Scudder. She says working with students has "really opened [her] eyes" to all the different types of homelessness.

Scudder says not having a stable place to live is a major barrier to learning: "You've got to have a warm place to sleep at night, you've got to be comfortable, you've got to be able to study. When you come to a new school and you have nothing, you don't even have a backpack on your first day, you don't even have a pencil or paper—how can you start school, how can you be successful unless somebody gives you a break?"

Homeless students have the right to be bused to the district of their choice. They qualify for free and reduced lunch. Providing services to homeless students does cost school districts extra money. But Melissa Scudder says the support matters.

"I think we're a really poor district. Actually, we've had to cut back an awful lot, but we don't want to cut back in ways that are going to affect the students' lives. They just became part of our heart. We wanted to make sure they had everything everybody else had."

What's next for Desiree?

Desiree says her family needed everything. And that's what the school gave them.

"Because the first day of school we came here and we had no school supplies and the school kind of provided it for us. And then, I don't know, they've pretty much provided everything for us."

As she walks home from school, Desiree tells me about her plans. She wants to open a daycare center.

"I know when I'm 18 I'm moving out of my dad's house... I'll be still living in Parishville because I'll still be in high school. But after I graduate high school, then I'm going to college. Then I'm going to start my own business."

Melissa Scudder says she'll help her get there.

"I'm really excited that Desi likes little kids, and I want her to be able to go to Seaway Tech next year. We've got to get her through her classes this year so she can go to learn more about working with little children, and then for me as a school counselor, to think about helping her get into college, to make that work for her, that makes me really excited. And I can't wait for her to come back in five or 10 years and tell me how she's doing."

Desiree's lucky. She's gone through a lot – but she has her family. Her story has a happy ending. But last year, there were over 3,000 kids like Desiree in the North Country. What about them?

You can listen to more stories about homelessness in the region from a series "Close to Homeless," produced and broadcast in 2004 by NCPR.

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