Not all young people are into politics. But many channel their youthful idealism into helping others in a more direct way. Our "20something" series continues with a profile of a 21-year-old woman who works at a homeless shelter for young people in Oakland. For Venus Morris, the center is much more than a volunteer opportunity, it was once the place she called home.
By: Durrie Lawrence
In a small room full of artwork and board games, Venus Morris teaches a class for teens not much younger than herself. These students are preparing to become peer advocates at Dreamcatchers, a shelter and support center for homeless youth in Oakland.
For six weeks, the group goes over conflict management skills and addresses a lot of the problems the youth here face.
"They're runaways, foster children. Some of these children have been sexually exploited. Domestic violence with their parents. Parents being drug addicts," explains Venus Morris.
After completing their training, the peer advocates will help the small staff at Dreamcatchers with supervision and daily duties. In this branch of the Foster Youth Alliance of Alameda County, about 60 kids come through the doors every week.
"It's just somewhere to come and be safe, period. If we didn't have Dreamcatchers, the kids that do come here, they'd be on the street," says Morris.
Sarai Smith-Mazariegos supervises Venus and the other staff here at Dreamcatchers.
"Venus has amazing skills. She's only 21, and she's taken in so much from everyone around her. She's really dedicated to the issue of runaways. Kids being thrown out of their homes, in a sense actually pushed out of their homes, and she was pushed out of her home. I see her dedication to it because she understands it," says Smith-Mazariegos.
"I've slept at bus stops, I've slept in parks. You really don't know what can happen to you when you're hitting that corner at two o'clock in the morning," Morris says.
Near the tracks of a commuter train, Venus remembers that night in April of 2009, when after a heated argument her father kicked her out of the house.
"He had already been telling me that he was going to put me out when I was younger. That he was going to put me out, that I was going to be out on my ass when I was 18, But I didn't believe it, and then when I turned 18, he actually put me out. I was scared, I didn't want to come here. I was like, why should I have to go to a shelter? ...[Why] hasn't anybody else hasn't taken me in? How come I don't have my own room? But Dreamcatchers was comfortable. It felt like home, it was safe, and it's still safe to this day," she says.
Like any home, Dreamcatchers has had its share of tragedy. Venus points to a cement wall full of photographs, dried flowers, and messages written in chalk.
"This picture right here, this was my first peer educating class that I taught... and this is Nika," she says.
It's been about a month since the center's director, Nika St. Claire, died in a car accident, and the small staff at Dreamcatchers is still struggling to cope with the loss.
"I'm crushed, but at this point in my life I just have to move forward. I plan on becoming some kind of therapist. I'm going to become a social worker of some kind of sort, and I'm doing that in honor of Nika. I mean I'm doing it for myself, but I'm doing it because I know she would know I can do it," Morris says.
Venus says she hopes to go to college next year, but for now, she'll stay focused on finding a steady source of income. She's living with a friend and searching for a job, while earning a small stipend for teaching at the shelter whenever she can.
"From that first day I came here, I've always wanted to give back to my community and back to the place that helped me. Because I don't know where I woulda went or what woulda happened to me if I didn't come to Dreamcatchers that day," she says.
As she continues to find her way, Venus Morris says she knows Dreamcatchers will always be a part of her life.