The In-Between

07/26/2011 11:08 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2011

Hanna Duff is a School on Wheels volunteer tutor. She has been tutoring in a girls' group foster home for almost two years. This is one of her experiences.

I would like to tell you about Melissa. Excuse me. Queen Melissa. Her socks never match. She can guzzle red Kool-Aid like no one's business. She is terrified of horses... and nature in general. She's 16 and has about 16,000 Facebook friends. She loves leopard-print skirts, anything purple, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Melissa was abandoned by her family at 12 years old, addicted to meth before entering 6th grade, and deemed "defiant" by every adult who has ever worked with her. When I first met Melissa, she was sitting at the kitchen table glaring at me over a pile of unfinished math papers. "Are you gonna help me or what?" she said. The group home she'd been living in for years was practically writhing with noise. Three girls thundering up and down the stairs. One girl rattling dirty dishes in the sink. Another girl screaming at her baby's father over the phone. The staff was nowhere to be seen. Test #1.

At School on Wheels, we've called homeless children the "invisible population." Kids living in group foster homes may be even more invisible in our communities. I didn't even know what a group home was until I started volunteering at the two-story building just down the road from my house. Basically, a group home is for kids who are "in-between". Not quite "bad" enough to be locked up at juvie; not quite "good" enough to be living at home with their families. In some cases, kids just end up there because they have nowhere else to go. Melissa is one of these kids... and one of the rare 7 percent of foster youth who have been in the system for over five years.

As I stood there in the kitchen, twirling my School on Wheels badge in my fingers, I could almost hear the questions running through Melissa's head. Why are you here? Are you going to hurt me? Will you run away like everyone else? I sat down across from her and reached out to touch her hot pink binder. "Are these your friends from school?" I asked, running my fingers over the bright photographs. "Yeah. I go to Jacksonville." Maybe it was our affinity for old school hip-hop or the fact that we went to the same middle school. Maybe she decided to trust me because I'm not paid to care about her, like a social worker or a behavioral therapist. Or maybe she just realized that none of her tests could scare me off. I would be in her life for good.

To me, being a School on Wheels tutor means caring about Melissa as a whole person. Yes, we spend hours working on To Kill a Mockingbird vocabulary and biology projects. But more importantly, we spend time together. We sit down to dinner every Thursday with Kaylie -- an occupational therapist who cooks with the girls. We watch the last few minutes of Prison Break together before we start tutoring. We talk about the skater boy she has a crush on in her English class. I celebrated her 16th birthday with her. I listened when she told me about her family abandoning her on Christmas Eve, many years ago. I hugged her after her best friend, Daniel, was shot to death.

Group home kids are smart. They can feel the difference between a person who genuinely cares about them and a person who simply goes through the motions to get a paycheck. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy for these kids to get lost in the "in-between" forever and repeat the cycle of trauma, homelessness, and abuse. As a School on Wheels tutor and a concerned adult, I believe it is our responsibility as a community to show these kids a way out.

For our School on Wheels students, we know that education is the key to breaking this cycle. Education is the one thing that cannot be taken away from these kids. But before expecting a group home student to open a book or even sharpen a pencil, a trusting relationship must be established. Recently, a social worker told me that it is almost impossible for traumatized children to learn. It is unrealistic to expect group home kids to succeed in school and anywhere else if they have not been given the opportunity to address trauma. This is why it is so important for kids like Melissa to have caring adults in their lives.

Overcoming trauma does not necessarily mean art therapy and group counseling. I can feel Melissa healing when she is calm in my presence. I know that she trusts me when she shares something about her day. I can see that she feels safe with me when she scoots her chair a little closer to mine. Maybe we don't talk about group homes because the kids who live there have a past. We don't talk about group home kids in an effort to hide the ways in which we have failed them. Maybe caring about group home kids seems too complicated, even though they desperately need our love and attention.

With time and healing, I know Melissa will make herself visible when she's ready.