09/04/2012 09:59 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

When Those Who Have Nothing Give Back

In the almost three years it took to write Almost Home: Helping Kids Move From Homelessness to Hope, our book about homeless young people who have been helped by Covenant House, I was floored by the generosity of the kids we came to know.

Creionna, who came to Covenant House New Orleans with nothing but a six-week-old baby and a well-provisioned diaper bag, was soon giving diapers to some of the other young mothers at the shelter, and is now working full time as a case manager in a clinic serving her city's poor.

Meagan put together a Cinco de Mayo party for the other kids at the Covenant House Hollywood shelter soon after arriving there, to share her Mexican heritage with her peers, and she routinely sent half her paycheck home to the family that had kicked her out of the house because she is gay.

Paulie, who was in and out of the Anchorage Covenant House eleven times during his teens, wanted to give back to the kids who stay there, so he volunteered at a holiday dinner to show them that people outside the shelter doors care about them.

Sometimes the help homeless kids provide to others is more psychic than physical, as we saw with Muriel, a young woman in Vancouver who had been trafficked by three different pimps before she turned 20. As she progressed on her journey from homelessness, she encouraged other residents of our British Columbia shelter to come with her to meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, and to try out the free classes offered by a dance center near the shelter. When a former resident passed away, Muriel helped comfort her peers in a way that the counselors in the shelter couldn't quite. It was a sign to us that she was well-equipped to reach her dream of becoming a counselor to homeless young people some day -- she wants to come back to work at Covenant House, and is in college now to start her training.

Muriel isn't the only one of the six kids we profiled to aspire to a career in the helping professions. Benjamin, brutally abused as a toddler, lived in three dozen foster homes, institutions, and other placements before aging out of foster care at 18, went to work as a counselor to at-risk young people in his Texas town, and dreams of becoming the principal of a school for troubled children.

It's one of the reasons I'm so excited that the book, which I co-authored with former New York Times reporter Tina Kelley, will be coming out from Wiley on October 1. Soon, people all around the country will learn what we at Covenant House have known for 40 years -- that our kids are good kids, despite all the efforts of abusive parents, negligent institutions, and crushing poverty to turn them bitter.

I pray you and I will never be tested the way the kids in Almost Home have been, that you'll never lose your family and walk among strangers with all your possessions in two plastic trash bags, with scant education and no resources to rely on.

I don't know if I could survive what they did. And even if I could, I doubt I would emerge from such trials with my soul intact, and my hand ready to reach out to others. Their altruism, rising out of the cruel circumstances of their childhood, is one of the reasons I love and admire kids, and have great hope for this country. I hope you will too when you come to know them.