LEWISTON — By the time Dianna Walters entered New Beginnings’ teen shelter for the first time, the 15-year-old had been in the state’s child welfare system for years, teetering between foster families and group homes.
From the teens she lived with in those places, she learned about suicide and cutting, sex, drugs and alcohol.
She chafed at the rules. And she yearned for power, even a little bit.
“When you’re in the system, you don’t have any control over your life,” said Walters, now 27 and a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine.
She was sharing a tent with a boyfriend when she found a listing for New Beginnings’ shelter in a phone book. It was only a few hundred feet from the patch of woods where she’d been sleeping in Lewiston.
Walters found the only home she’s ever known.
This March, the agency marked its 30th anniversary.
“We’re really proud,” said Marion Carney, who has worked at New Beginnings for 14 years and runs the shelter. “To sustain it and build on it over the years is what you hope for.”
The alternative is unimaginable.
“I would have continued drifting without them,” Walters said.
Earning its name
New Beginnings was created in 1977 as the state was moving away from traditional homes for runaways: large, residential facilities with dozens of beds.
A board of directors was formed in Lewiston, but it took three years to open a shelter. And the city didn’t want it at first.
“I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone say, ‘They’re going to strangle your grandmothers in their beds,’” said Mary Ruchinskas, who worked with New Beginnings at its start.
In 1980, New Beginnings’ first shelter opened in a former restaurant in Greene. Five years later, after the city’s rules and leadership changed, the shelter moved to Main Street in Lewiston.
In both locations, New Beginnings offered kids as young as 12 a three-week haven.
New Beginnings had its rules, particularly condemning violence and hate speech. But it was a “low barrier” facility.
Other shelters used restraints to control kids’ behavior. Others kicked out offenders who stayed out too late or argued too often.
“You shouldn’t have the need for restraints if you are creating a safe, supportive environment,” Carney said. “We have very little violence here.”
Few of the thousands of kids who have been helped by New Beginnings were ever kicked out.
And some of those came back.
“Somebody could have blown out of here in a really bad way, maybe threatening staff or having broken a window, and forced out,” Carney said. “Six months later, it wouldn’t be out of the question to reconsider that person.”
The calm approach goes even to the facility’s budget, which spends a regular part of its operating money on fixing holes in the walls.
“We will very rarely close the door on anybody and say, ‘You are banned from our program,’” Carney said. “There’s pretty much no such thing here.”
The shelter has the worn look and sound of a college fraternity.
Rooms are furnished in sunken couches and chairs. Walls are littered with homemade signs. Music blasts from some rooms. Video game gunfire erupts from others. Yet, the mood is laid back.
“We do like to keep things as mellow as possible,” worker Heather Nugent said.
On a recent day, two girls hung out in the shelter office, chatting with Nugent as she answered the phone and worked on her computer. Both talked about problems with their families and coming here, where they said they felt safe.
As they walked through the building and proudly showed off their bedroom, one word came up again and again.
“What really amazed me when I first started working here was that we would have somebody come in. They would check it out, and within a few hours, they would call it ‘home,’” Carney said. “They’ll say, ‘I’ll be home on time.'”
“Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people say to me that it felt like the only home they ever had,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the calls I get at Christmas from former youth. It’s like call home for the holidays.”
One of the young girls explained it simply: “If you don’t like it, it’s a house, not a home,” she said.
Listening led New Beginnings to open a separate drop-in center on lower Lisbon Street.
“We had this idea that there were kids out there somewhere,” Ruchinskas said. Often from kids at the shelter or from other outreach services they learned about a community of kids that seemed to exist by helping each other. One would get an apartment and several more would crash on the floor.
Many live precariously, falling into relationships for a drug or a place to sleep, Ruchinskas said.
At the drop-in center, they get a cushion from the street. From 1 to 6 p.m., they can eat something, play a game of pool, make a phone call or grab a shower.
Here, too, there are few rules. Kids must keep the hate speech and violence outside. They can’t do drugs. Everything else is up for discussion.
“These kids are asked to leave everywhere,” Ruchinskas said. “They’ve been thrown out of better places than ours.”
In the best cases, the drop-in center is an entry into New Beginnings’ services.
Some kids then go to the shelter, where they might also undergo mediation with their families. The goal is “familiy re-unification,” Carney said.
Minors might enter the state’s child welfare system. Older teens might receive help into one of New Beginnings’ apartments, overseen by caseworkers.
After 30 years, Ruchinskas has her prizes, such as Walters, who hopes to one day change state policy on foster homes.
Ruchinskas, New Beginnings’ community services director, has seen second-generation runaways and abused teens. She remains hopeful but guarded.
“I cut people a lot of slack,” she said. “I say, ‘I live in hope but I work in reality.’”
Hearts still break.
“I think everybody thinks we’re a little crazy for the work we do,” Carney said.
She aches when she sees a kid who shows lots of promise but is failed by his or her family.
“That’s really hard for me to see,” she said. “You think, ‘This person would be a star in their life, as far as grades and sports and drama club, all the kinds of things that more stable youth is able to experience.’”