Ryan’s House host program renews hope for island’s homeless kids

Heidi Svahn, left, admires her pseudo-granddaughter Marley, with mom Lydia Rodriguez, 17, and Julie Wrazin. Svahn and Wrazin hosted Rodriguez for several months after she became homeless in November.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Heidi Svahn, left, admires her pseudo-granddaughter Marley, with mom Lydia Rodriguez, 17, and Julie Wrazin. Svahn and Wrazin hosted Rodriguez for several months after she became homeless in November.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

OAK HARBOR — Homeless and pregnant, Lydia Rodriguez was at a difficult crossroads.

The teenager, at the time 16, had to decide her next steps about her pregnancy, school and the urgent matter of shelter. This non-episode of MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” had its dramatic moments, but what expecting teenager would be entirely calm? A lot of problems were avoided when Rodriguez stopped couch surfing and called Lori Cavender, the executive director of Ryan’s House for Youth, who is known across the island as the van lady for her boxy white van that supplies homeless youths from Clinton to Deception Pass with clothing, soap, school supplies and sleeping bags.

“I kind of didn’t have a choice because I was homeless,” Rodriguez said.

That simple conversation led to a couple of phone calls with Heidi Svahn and Julie Wrazin, both 48, of Oak Harbor. The women had raised their children and were considering adoption and foster care, when Cavender called them with a dire need: House a pregnant teen for an undetermined length. Rodriguez moved in by December and moved out in June, ready to create a new space for her baby daughter and her.

“This is kind of a passion for us,” Wrazin said. “We’ve raised five kids between us.”

Ryan’s House for Youth has expanded its services. The nonprofit still has its main goal of building a shelter for homeless teens on Whidbey Island in the Scatchet Head area on South Whidbey. The property at 7800 Mortland Drive was donated, and raising capital to build a home from the foundation up has been slow-going with dwindling grant funds, though the well was recently finished. Although the future shelter will be on the South End, Cavender was adamant that homeless youths are an island-wide concern.

“We need people to understand that opening their doors to a young student isn’t inviting in a juvenile delinquent,” she said.

“They’re basically students that are staying in school and want to be part of a family.”

Such was the case for Rodriguez and her host family. Though expecting a child while enrolled in high school was not ideal, Svahn and Wrazin quickly realized during a phone conversation with Rodriguez that she was not a trouble-maker and would be a perfect trial case for a host program through Ryan’s House. The two social workers know the need for supportive families when it comes to teens in trouble, and how compassion can positively affect a youth. With 104 homeless youths identified by Ryan’s House and island school counselors, there is a hole in the social safety net.

“These kids, a lot of them would have succeeded if they had some more support,” Svahn said.

Solving homelessness for youths is a ways out for Whidbey Island, and Cavender knows it. With the shelter a year away from completion at the earliest, something had to be done in the meantime, and the host program offered Cavender a temporary solution to a birth-of-civilization problem. As of July, after only five months or so of officially soliciting the program to families on Whidbey Island, five teens found a placement ranging from a few days to a few months.

The process begins with a youth requesting placement with a host family. Host families are given background checks through the Department of Social and Health Services and the Washington State Patrol, as well as a house visit by Cavender. Then a kind of courting begins between the youth and the host, where both parties try to feel out whether living together could work.

“The student has to feel comfortable with them (the host family),” Cavender said. “We need a variety of host families so we can find a perfect fit.”

Rodriguez living with Svahn and Wrazin, they all admitted, was not perfect. Like often happens with new parties residing together, they went through growing pains. Not only were they learning to co-habitate, the three moms jointly cared for a newborn girl, all while becoming familiar with one another — six months earlier, they had never met. They even moved from a three-bedroom rental to a house Svahn and Wrazin bought in the north part of town, where the host parents noticed their monthly bills increase only about $50 or $75 with Rodriguez in the house.

“I think that’s why you moved out, (the house) was too big,” Svahn said to Rodriguez.

For the most part, Svahn and Wrazin enjoyed hosting Rodriguez and baby Marley, now 3 months old. Between being pregnant and then having a newborn around, Rodriguez was too tired to get into trouble, Svahn said, laughing. The support of a family, or at least what substituted as a family, came in handy when the teenager was in labor.

“Heidi, she held me while I got the epidural,” Rodriguez said.


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