Charles McKenley and his crew have seen just about everything – from a boy being shot dead while running toward them to a pregnant teen living under a bridge.
It’s these kinds of hectic encounters that keep them coming back week after week, driving a van through Westchester’s most desperate neighborhoods on a mission to find and help troubled youngsters.
Finding them is the easy part, as they proved when they pulled onto Orchard Place, one of the toughest streets in southwest Yonkers, on a recent Friday night.
"What’s up y’all?" McKenley, who supervises the Street Wise outreach program for Children’s Village, hollered as he stepped from the van and confronted several adolescents who were hanging out on the sidewalk. One was a 13-year-old boy who had reportedly gotten into trouble lately for robbing cars.
"How’re you doing in school?" McKenley asked the boy, who was standing next to a mother who staggered while sipping beer from a plastic cup.
At McKenley’s invitation, the child stepped into the van, flinching a bit as a man outside shouted at him, "Don’t come back tonight, I’ll kick your ass!"
The van, staffed by five people and equipped with a couch, educational materials and health supplies, provides these kids with a temporary refuge. It operates year-round on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, touring urban communities including Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, White Plains, Mount Kisco, Peekskill and Ossining. They stop wherever they see clusters of kids.
"It’s the whole idea of bringing the mountain to Muhammad," said McKenley, 45, who grew up in the Schlobohm Houses public housing complex in Yonkers and now lives in Peekskill. "So many social service agencies have community centers and wait for children to come to them. But many youth who are living on the fringes aren’t going to go to a place to get services. We bring the services to them."
Team members lure teens inside with free snacks. Then they sit them down on the couch and lecture them for a few minutes about life and safe sex.
They also offer HIV tests and condoms, as well as information about other services Children’s Village provides, including job training, a runaway shelter and an emergency hotline.
The Street Wise program operates on a budget of about $150,000 per year, funded by the federal government and private sources. It was created in 1998 by Aron Myers, division director for Children’s Village’s Westchester Youth Services, based in Dobbs Ferry.
McKenley leads the street outreach team, which includes Kim Zinzal, a social worker who provides counseling, and 21-year-old Jhenee Grannell.
The staff also includes two "peer advocates" – 18-year-olds who, like Grannell, were raised in Yonkers and still have a fresh understanding of what it’s like to grow up in the inner city. This personal connection is the main reason they chose this job, and it’s also why many kids seem to trust them.
"Most of the time, youth are scared to ask questions," said Grannell, who started working for the agency’s drop-in center in Yonkers when she was 15. "It’s good for us to go out and speak to them, because they’ll feel more comfortable talking to people their own age, their peers."
But this is not the most stable of working environments. All members of the team have stories to tell about their experiences.
Cherelle Johnson, 18, told of her encounter with a teenage mother she found eating at McDonald’s with her baby.
"She explained to us that her mom kicked her out of the house and she needed a temporary living situation," Johnson said. "We helped set her up with the shelter."
Carlos Gutierrez, 18, recalled the night a homeless 17-year-old boy who hadn’t eaten for two days stepped into the van because he wanted an HIV test. They gave him the test and information about the shelter and hotline.
"He went from a sad facial expression to happy," Gutierrez said. "We were kind of like giving him hope. But he never got in contact with us again.
"We went constantly to see if we could find him, but we can’t," Gutierrez said. "That’s the reason we work on this job, because there’s definitely people out there like him and we hope we can help them, at least one every day."
Zinzal said her toughest night came two years ago, when a teen was shot execution-style as he ran toward the van screaming for help. He died in front of her.
Riding with the van for six years, she has seen it all. One night, a teenage girl told her that she had been impregnated by her mother’s boyfriend. Zinzal set her up with shelter and joined her in the hospital when she gave birth.
On another shift, she gave an HIV test to a 12-year-old girl who was having sex in the bathroom of her school. She came up positive.
Since last year, 10 children and adolescents have tested HIV-positive in the van. That’s why the team gives graphic lectures about sexually transmitted diseases.
"Just ’cause you can’t see it, feel it or smell it doesn’t mean you don’t have it," Grannell, rifling through pictures of various diseases, told the boy from Orchard Place, who is sexually active at age 13.
McKenley has been keeping track of this child, who was recently seen sleeping outside and whose mother just got out of jail.
"Don’t be on the street," McKenley admonished the boy as he exited. "If I see you again, you better just get on the van."
The team spent another hour driving through the city, stopping when they saw children and repeating the drill. Then it started to rain, and all the street dwellers ran for shelter.
"It’s time to call it a night," McKenley said as he drove back to their starting point in Getty Square. On the way, he saw a familiar teenager wandering along Main Street.
"Where you staying now?" McKenley asked the 18-year-old, who had spent a month in a homeless shelter and said he was now living on his own.
"I ain’t dead," the teen replied, then added, "I could have been dead or in jail if it wasn’t for you all."