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Home provides safe harbor for wayward teens

Published Sep. 29, 2005

(ran PW PS editions)

The RAP House gives homeless teens and runaways a place to try to work through their anger and find solutions to their problems.

The teenager from the wealthy family stared at the vacuum cleaner in disbelief.

"I'm a brat and I don't do that," she complained as the other members of the Runaway Alternatives Project House began their daily chores.

"You don't realize how lucky you are," said another resident of the Hudson shelter for runaway, ungovernable and truant teens. "I sleep behind restaurants when I'm thrown out."

Some kids run away to escape abuse or homelessness. Others flee home after arguments over school, boyfriends or curfews.

And the RAP House is there _ whatever the reason _ to provide shelter and counseling to 10- to 18-year-olds from Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties.

With more than 450 teens passing through the split-level house on Wildcat Lane each year, the program run by the juvenile justice system needs more space.

In January, the RAP House will move to a 24-bed facility on a wooded four-acre tract on Pratt Drive in Port Richey.

Contractors will break ground for the new shelter in September, thanks to $900,000 allocated by the state Legislature during the 1998 session and $250,000 from the Pasco County Board of Commissioners.

The shelter serves as an emergency room for family problems, said Kathy Nicastro, program manager for RAP House.

With the average stay of 10 to 12 days, Nicastro aims to keep the runaways safe, alert the parents and offer support to both kids and parents. Four out of five teens are reunited with their families.

"Ninety-five percent of our job is trying to access what happened and what folks need," Nicastro said. "You have to know a little bit about a lot of things, from Medicaid to teenage pregnancy."

Counselors then find programs to fit the families' needs, from substance abuse classes to residential programs, Nicastro said.

"Our goal is trying to make kids resolve whatever it is that got them here," Nicastro said. "You have a chance to teach kids life skills. We almost become pseudo-parents."

The shelter uses chores such as cleaning bathrooms, cooking and sweeping to teach the teens how to be self-sufficient.

Daily group meetings focus on how to communicate with their parents and manage their anger.

Counselors sometimes have to show residents basic hygiene skills, said Lisa Kondek, day shift leader at the RAP House.

Kondek once became a surrogate mom for an 11-year-old girl who was put in the shelter due to an abusive father.

The girl, who stayed at the shelter for a year, had head lice and didn't know how to brush her teeth or dress herself.

"She came in here like a 5-year-old and she left here as a 12-year-old," Kondek said proudly.

While the girl moved in with a foster family, some teens never find a stable home and often come back to the RAP House when things become unbearable again.

"They just go from problem to problem to problem," Nicastro said. "Frequent fliers. That's what we call them."

Nicastro said once the kids trust the counselors, they call when they get into trouble. When there are severe problems at home, the shelter is sometimes the only place to go, she said.

"We know we've made a connection if they can come back and trust us."

And even the teens that reunite happily with their families don't easily forget their experiences at the RAP House.

A few days after the girl who refused to clean left the shelter in her family's shiny convertible, Nicastro received a thank-you call from the teen's father.

Nicastro said the father couldn't believe how appreciative his daughter was, and it seemed as though she came home with a new perspective on her problems.