Tuesday , July 01, 2014 - 12:00 AM
OGDEN – There is a reason the new executive director for youth services at the OUTreach Resource Centers is able to connect with kids who often are facing the most desperate of circumstances, including homelessness.
She’s been there herself.
Rachel Peterson speaks carefully about her own days on the streets, only sharing her story when she believes the information will help someone in need.
“There are times when I say ‘I understand where you are coming from,’” Peterson said. “I don’t know if they get the extent that I understand.”
And the results are powerful, say those around her.
“She has a listening ear,” said Justin Tait, 23, of Ogden. “She gives them the best advice. She can because she’s been in their position.”
At 28, Peterson isn’t that far removed from the age and circumstance of those she serves.
Peterson took over efforts to serve youth directly from former Executive Director Marian Edmonds Allen when Edmonds Allen was hired as a national program director with the Family Acceptance Project.
Responsibilities for adult services and community engagement were given to Charles L. Frost.
“(Peterson) actually relates more to the youth, if that’s even possible,” said volunteer Stephanie Hales of Ogden, who also happens to be 28.
But even after four months, Hales said she looks forward to even more progress Peterson will be able to instigate.
“A lot of youth haven’t come back because they didn’t believe Rachel could handle it,” Hales said, naming about 10 or so youth, some of whom she’s seen in town and questioned.
“They were afraid of being let down by the new person or having something go horribly wrong,” she said. “It takes them years to come out to most people in their lives. And when they do, they have such negative feedback, it further deteriorates them.”
Hales said a “funny thing” happens to youth who come to the OUTreach Resource Centers.
“They feel safe here and can feel friendly and they don’t have to worry about what people think. They get to be authentic. Outside of here, they have to fit in a box that isn’t them in order to survive.”
And surviving is just the tip of what Peterson hopes for those youth who come to believe homelessness is their only alternative, many of whom are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ).
“It’s adaptive for them to not trust people,” Peterson said of those youth she serves who often are in crisis, noting the difficulties she faces in helping them.
But Peterson said life doesn’t have to be that way for those youth to follow. She said if she can change the thinking of those who reject them, these youth will have a fighting chance.
“When I teach the community how to treat these youth, then I will make a difference,” she said.
Peterson explained that LGBTQ youth have difficulty in that they have few positive, monogamous role models to look to in discovering how to pattern their lives. She said without such role models, their choices often are not healthy ones.
Peterson is a doctoral student at Utah State University studying socio behavioral epidemiology. She is a social statistician in the area of quantitative psychology.
She said her career was headed into the field of research, but she’s discovered through her work with Edmonds Allen that she prefers working in the real world with real problems.
“All the people I meet are the exact kinds of people I want to be surrounded with,” she said. “I have met more amazing people I admire and can live with than I ever had before.”
Having stretched herself far more than she imagined even knowing the circumstances of those she served, Peterson said prevention will do far more for Utah’s population of homeless youth than anything she could ever do to pick up the pieces of shattered lives.
“By telling them that it’s not okay (to be LGBTQ), we are not giving them education on how to be healthy,” she said. “We are leaving this to people who could be exploiting them. Healthy, normal relationships are something a lot of these youth have not even seen.”
Peterson was one who testified in the last Legislative session to get a new bill passed to allow agencies 40 more hours to help youth who are homeless. Previously, they have been limited to eight hours. Now, they will have 48.
Much of the aim of the bill is to allow agencies who help the youth time to reach out to parents and to give them a better shot at reunification where possible.
Now the bill is in its rule-writing period. The public may comment on the proposed rules as they are going forward.
Peterson hopes to continue to influence efforts to better serve Utah’s youth in order to keep them off the streets.
Contact reporter JaNae Francis at 801-625-4228 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @JaNaeFrancisSE. Like her Facebook page at htt://facebook.com/SEJaNaeFrancis.
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