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Wacky hair dissuades volunteers til they see scared kids

When Bridget Cannon first began volunteering with Spokane’s Crosswalk teen shelter of Volunteers of America 20 years ago, she felt intimidated by the street kids and runaways with weird piercings, wackadoodle hair and bad attitudes.

Bridget Cannon
Bridget Cannon started as a volunteer and now is director of youth services.

She volunteered four years and was hooked, even after she completed a certificate in teaching at Eastern Washington University in 2002.  She was hired in 1998 as shelter supervisor,  In 2001, she became independent living coordinator for foster children, then family services specialist, helping reunite youth with families, then Crosswalk program manager.  Now she is director of youth services.

Over a year, about 1,000 youth from ages 13 to 21 come to Crosswalk for a warm bed, hot meal, dry clothing and hygiene items.

“They also come because they choose to be there,” Bridget said. “They need something different in life, starting with a meal or a shower.  After we deal with their basic needs and they know we are adults they can trust, they ask us to help them move out of their predicament.”

Beyond meals and showers, Crosswalk is a place to help youth find a caring adult to talk with and begin to go back to school by taking classes there.

“The environment at Crosswalk is holistic education, not just focusing on the academic,” Bridget said.  “We come to know who they are and what their strengths are.  We see them relax.

“At first, I had seen what many other people see.  The kids are different,” said Bridget.  “We humans do this.  We see some people as being something other than what we are.  We put them on the outskirts.  Sometimes it’s a leper, a prostitute or a Samaritan.  Sometimes it’s a runaway right here in Spokane.”

She explained that the teens often lack personal hygiene, have dirty clothes or use foul language as their defense to keep people away.

“Some kids’ defense becomes offensive, so they are scary. They don’t want another adult to hurt them,” said Bridget, who had been a cook in New Jersey while and after earning a degree in history in 1982 from Juniata College in Huntington, Pa.  When she moved to Spokane, she cooked at a restaurant.  She decided she did not want all her friends to be from work, so she volunteered at Crosswalk.

During her first few weeks of volunteering, a girl, who looked like the girl next door, came in.  She didn’t look like the others.

“She was upset, but after a few minutes we pieced together her story,” Bridget said.  “She was from California and her mother had kicked her out, because she had been cut from the high school basketball team.”

Her mother had sent her to Spokane to live with her father, but had not called to tell him.  He didn’t want her.  So just before Christmas, he dumped her in front of this shelter in a city where she knew no one.

“It wasn’t that her situation was worse than the others,” she said.  “It was nothing compared to some of the things I’ve seen, but I watched her cling to the staff and I saw how afraid the was.”

She didn’t have the heavy eyeliner or baggy clothes to hide behind, because she had not learned she needed a tough exterior to protect herself by scaring everyone around her.

“Because of that, I could actually see her,” Bridget said.

The Crosswalk staff advocated for her, talking with her mother and helping work things out.  When the situation was stable, Crosswalk bought her a bus ticket and sent her home.

“Even after this girl was tucked back safely in her California bed, I never forgot what I saw,” Bridget said.  “That’s when I started seeing past the crazy hair and dirty fingernails.

“I started seeing the teens for what they were beneath all that.  They were terrified children, alone and scared to death,” she said.  “I could finally see them, and so I invite others to see them.

“If anything, Christianity teaches us that the different people are important.  Our differences make us a strong and diverse human family,” Bridget said.  “Under it all, we are the same, children of God, dependent on God and each other for help.”

“Churches have been around since day one,” Bridget said.  “Some of the churches here from the beginning are still bringing meals and volunteers on their appointed day of the month.”

Churches also do events to raise funds.  A church replaced broken tables the youth used in the school with new tables.  Some churches have come to sort food in the food bank or clothing in the clothing bank.

“Volunteers grow to accept, love and nurture the kids,” she said.  “The faith community does so much for Crosswalk.”

Founded in 1985, Crosswalk is an emergency shelter, a school and a group of life saving and life-changing programs working to break the cycle of youth homelessness.  It provides emergency shelter every day of the year.  Its services are free and voluntary.

It is a program of Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

Youth who come to Crosswalk have had complicated personal histories that include family conflict, lack of education, substance abuse, mental health issues, high risk for depression and suicide, sexual abuse and/or parental abuse.

Crosswalk restores hope and encourages personal responsibility among the young people by providing family reconciliation services, clothing and personal hygiene items, employment assistance, life-skills training, parenting classes, access to medical and mental health care.

Its programs also include access to substance-abuse treatment and prevention, tutoring and enrichment activities, college scholarships, transportation and access to transitional housing.

Crosswalk teen shelter in Spokane and Crosswalk North Idaho, a drop-in center in Coeur d’Alene, both serve meals to nourish homeless youth and to gain their trust, so staff and volunteers can begin to support them in making changes.

Meal providers include churches, civic organizations, businesses, families and individuals who bring one meal a month.  Often those who prepare the meals stay to serve the meals and visit with the youth.

Other VOA programs in the region include a home for transitional and permanent housing for pregnant and parenting teens, young women, disabled and chronically homeless adults, homeless veterans, young men and chronically homeless veterans.

It also offers energy assistance to prevent homelessness, an emergency shelter for single women and services for teens aging out of foster care.

For information, call 838-6596, email, or visit


Copyright © March 2014 - The Fig Tree