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Formerly homeless, young Catholic creates program for homeless youth

Posted: Friday, December 20, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- As a child, Angela Lariviere bounced among temporary housing, rundown hotels and other people's couches 39 times in a search for stability -- the only constant in life being religious faith.

With a single mother battling mental and physical illnesses, Lariviere and her four siblings at times did not know where their next meals or next beds would be.

''I never thought anyone else lived like I did,'' said Lariviere, who was dubbed ''the gypsy'' by schoolmates.

But after getting a job through AmeriCorps with the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, Lariviere realized that she had been homeless as a child and that little had changed in her home state since then.

That discovery prompted her to form the coalition's Youth Empowerment Program in 2000. Throughout it, Ohio's homeless children advocate for changes in state laws, school policies and shelter rules affecting them.

Because of her work, the 30-year-old Lariviere was the 2002 recipient of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development's Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, given to a young Catholic who has fought poverty and injustice.

Lariviere attended various churches as a child and converted to Catholicism so she and her husband could raise their children in one faith. She is a bright spot in a difficult time for the church as the clergy sex abuse scandal drags on.

''I focus on the parts of the church that I agree with -- the faith, the religion, the commitment to the community,'' Lariviere said, explaining that the church's troubles have not shaken her belief in God or her mission to serve.

Both remain central to her life at work and at home.

If she is not leading community service projects with the empowerment program's homeless youth, she is working on similar efforts in her parish, St. Ladislas in Columbus, with her husband, Charles, and their two children.

''It's just what I do,'' Lariviere explained matter-of-factly, shrugging off any notion that her life is extraordinary.

Lariviere credits the success of the empowerment program to the 700 young people whose input determined the issues the group would address and how the organization would be structured.

''They wanted to be involved in something. They wanted respect,'' Lariviere said. ''They wanted to see changes happen -- and they have.''

Funded mostly by grants, the program is for homeless children and young adults ages 10 to 24 who serve on seven youth-run councils across Ohio that represent the interests of the state's 35,000 homeless children.

Last year, the councils successfully lobbied for a state law that protects the rights of homeless children to get an education. They also persuaded shelters to drop rules that barred boys aged 13 and older from staying with their families.

Kevin Blackledge, an AmeriCorpsVISTA worker who works with the program, said that while the effort is driven by young people, it would not have been possible without Lariviere's vision.

''The kids trust her. For a lot of them, she's their mother. She supports them, and gives them a chance to do something about their situation, to help change it,'' Blackledge said.

The teenagers -- most of whom are not orphans or street kids but rather in community shelters and transitional housing with their families -- call Lariviere a leader, a friend, a sister, and, most of all, an equal.

''She's been in the same situations,'' said 14-year-old Nick Molina. ''So many people don't understand us. She does because she's one of us.''

Thirteen-year-old Sasha Bowers said Lariviere treats young people in the program as adults.

''She knows we're old enough to understand what's gone on in our lives, and she knows that we have more responsibilities than other kids our age because she did, too,'' Bowers said.

The youth tell stories about how Lariviere drives them to meetings or projects no matter where they are staying, whether it's minutes or hours away. She lets them do laundry and hang out at her home; she feeds them and gives them money if they need it. Most of all, they say, they can count on her to take them in if they would otherwise have to sleep on the streets.

''That's more than her job,'' said Burhan Dahir, 19, a Somalian immigrant in the program since its inception. ''That's just who she is.''

Mark Huddy, vicar for Catholic Charities and Social Concerns in the Diocese of Columbus, calls Lariviere a sign of hope.

''It's her faith commitment and her own experience that have given her both the power and the passion to do this kind of work,'' Huddy said. ''That's a quality that not everybody has.''

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On the Net:

Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio's Youth Empowerment Program: http://yep.cohhio.org/yep.htm

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development: http://www.nccbuscc.org/cchd/



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