Mi’Karee Stafford has a new plan for his future: Graduate college, be successful and help others.

“I want to be something in life, and come back to the community and give back,” the 14-year-old says, sitting in a sunny office in a Henry Street house one afternoon.

Previously, the Savannah teen headed in a direction that “wasn’t really the best,” he says.

But his mother found the overnight youth emergency shelter Park Place, “a tremendous help,” says Kristin Loman. Loman’s son has a new attitude and solid mentors.

“It’s more like a family,” she says.

The house offers 12 beds for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth, ages 11 to 17. But a new program, FAM (Family Always Matters) now extends Park Place’s reach.

’What a lot of kids need’

By the time teenagers reach Park Place, “the bottom’s already fallen out,” says Park Place executive director Julie Wade.

“Raising teens is really hard, like, period,” she says. “So if we can help families through that process… then that’s what we’re trying to do.”

She started FAM in October, offering more services to empower families to stay together and keep state departments — the Division of Family and Children Services, and Juvenile Justice — at bay.

But to build unity inside the home, teenagers need a place to go outside the home.

The FAM program at Park Place is more lenient than school. And the teens don’t sleep at the Henry Street house like other teens at Park Place.

In their small group of about a dozen, the youth build friendships among themselves and trust in adult role models.

“A lot of kids in our community are missing some of those personal connections… I think that’s what a lot of kids need,” Wade says.

Serious conversations

Sitting a few feet away from Mi’Karee is Kendall Walker, the FAM program manager and a mentor to Mi’Karee.

Walker, 25, hesitated to work in a shelter.

“It took them about three months so convince me,” says the former college advisor at H.V. Jenkins High School.

But the teens at Park Place weren’t all troubled like Walker imagined. They have hopes and dreams yet deal with problems from their past.

“'Homeless’ doesn’t have a look,” Walker concluded.

Walker relates to their stories.

He grew up with government assistance, almost impoverished and without knowing his father.

He hit highs and lows in school, excelling as a young student before giving in to peer pressure in high school. His grades dropped. He felt depressed. And though he again did well in high school and AP classes, he didn’t apply to college.

A visit to Savannah State University’s campus, where he’d graduate, revived his drive.

He’s open about his story, and the teens in turn confide in him.

“I find myself being like the honorary dad,” Walker says.

Walker knows the teens are listening when they return a day or two later to tell him more about their career goals.

“I can have serious conversations with them and I appreciate them,” Mi’Karee says.

Shaping their own narrative

Park Place helps teens with their behavior and anger, but counselors work with those actions.

Walker helps them with everyday life — hygiene, academics, extracurricular activities, manners — and dreams.

“They have the opportunity to write their narrative, their story,” Walker says. “It’s in their hands now.”

Could they be entrepreneurs, making money from their own ideas? Other teens elsewhere show it’s possible on social media.

The FAM group raised about $300 through a car wash one recent weekend. Should the money help the teens incorporate? Or should they use it to design a logo for their brand? Maybe they’ll buy materials for a product they’ll make. Walker explores the options with them.

The teens may lack resources and live with light poverty. Those issues aren’t the main problems though. Fatherlessness is, according to Walker.

The young men get the love of females all the time, but many have never witnessed a male’s care.

Walker hasn’t found an easy answer on providing that paternal figure.

He tries to be his best self and like the father he wished he had. But he knows the need will eventually stretch him thin.

He reaches out to mothers to see if they can contact the child’s father and hopes to recruit men in the community to be role models. 

But teens like Mi’Karee have a been-there example before them. Walker, a college graduate, returned to youth to give back.

“Like, he’s done it before,” Mi’Karee says. “It’s not always impossible. You can be something with your life.”