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Inside the Ride

Valley Metro Rail connects teens with life-changing help


Imagine being 16 years old and not having a roof over your head.

Imagine being locked out of your home by your parents.

Imagine feeling like you have no choice but to run away instead of facing abuse or neglect.

Now, imagine being a teenager facing any one of these scenarios and having no place to turn for help.

It’s a heart-wrenching reality for an estimated 600 teens wandering the streets of Maricopa County looking for a place to call home.

Safe Place gives them refuge.

“Safe Place gets kids off the streets,” said Kristi Lewis, Lead Youth Care Worker at Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development. “They’ve been homeless, locked out or on the run. They’re out on their own being an adult themselves.”

The youth outreach program is designed to provide immediate help and safety for teens 17 and younger who are wandering the streets.

Established in 1983, Safe Place provides youth with shelter, food and support in more than 1,500 communities throughout the United States. Tumbleweed has managed the Safe Place program in Maricopa County since 2005. The agency currently fields a call from a distressed teen every three days.

“A lot of times we help kids who only have the clothes on their back,” said Lewis.

Through a partnership with Valley Metro, all 32 light rail stations are designated Safe Places. A teenager can go to the Emergency Call Box located at any light rail station 24-hours, seven days a week and ask for help. The call box connects the teenager to Passenger Assistance Aides who contact Tumbleweed. A trained Tumbleweed staff member or volunteer meets the teenager at the light rail station and begins to evaluate the appropriate services to meet the teenager’s individual needs.

“Our first priority is their safety and well-being,” said Colton Washburn, Safe Place Outreach Coordinator.

Washburn was Safe Place’s first responder when a frightened 16-year-old runaway called the Safe Place hotline from Central and Thomas last July. A Valley Metro security officer noticed the teen who said he had been on the run for three weeks, hitchhiking, eating from dumpsters and panhandling for cash. He spotted the yellow Safe Place sign at the light rail station and asked the security officer for help. The pair connected with Tumbleweed and received much-needed support in less than one hour.

“Once the teenager got to our Safe Place location, he was so exhausted he could barely sit up,” recounted Washburn. “He said it was just a relief to not have to worry about a place to sleep or eat.”

Tumbleweed contacted his caregivers in Nevada. Two days later, there was an emotional reunion full of tears, hugs and relief.

“Safe Place provides us with the opportunity to let another kid know that there is somebody to go to, even if it is for just 24 hours, so that we can connect them with other resources that can help them,” said Lewis.

Since July, five teenagers, between the ages of 14 and 17 years old, have received the help they need from Valley Metro Rail light rail stations. In each case, the teens were connected to the services provided by Tumbleweed.

It’s because of life-changing stories like these that Valley Metro is committed to the community it serves. In August, Valley Metro designated four new light rail stations in Mesa as a Safe Place.

“Light rail stations are a community asset designed to provide a safe and welcoming space for everyone, especially our youth,” said Steve Banta, Valley Metro CEO.

In addition to Valley Metro Rail, there are Safe Place locations across the Valley at convenience stores, banks and city libraries.

As Lewis believes, it takes an entire community to get involved and help those youth who may feel like no one cares.

“I meet the most resilient kids,” said Lewis. “They’ve had to survive as though they were adults. It’s amazing how they get through it. They’re awesome, wonderful people.”

To learn more about Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, visit Tumbleweed.org or call 602.841.5799.

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