by Marty Demarest

From the outside, it could be anyone's home. Perhaps the child of an older Spokane family, whose expansive house has withstood the changes in its lower South Hill neighborhood. Or maybe the child of a single parent who would rent an apartment carved from the large building.

But the children who live in the house on McClellan Street just below Sacred Heart aren't well-off. They're not even always fortunate to have a single parent that they can go home to. At any given time, the Crisis Residential Center houses 10 children between the ages of 13 and 17. Some of them have served time in juvenile correction centers; some of them have grown up without parents or stable foster parents; and some of them just have trouble dealing with the world the way most people do. But all of them need a home.

Julia Cricchio is the program manager of the Center, and though she and her staff of 30 dutifully refer to each of the organization's wards as "clients," it's clear that they understand that on a human level, they are children.

"We make sure that everyone's eating," Cricchio says, as she walks through the building's kitchen, where two bunches of bananas rest on the counter, developing spots. "One of the things about many of our clients is that they don't always get to eat healthy meals. So we feed them, and all of our meals are prepared by a cook." Gesturing toward the refrigerator, where a list is posted, she continues, "and everyone has chores."

Order is something that's often missing from the lives of the center's children, who Cricchio describes as "at-risk youth: street youth, drug addicts, runaways and often people who are dealing with physical or sexual abuse. Or perhaps we'll get a crisis call from a father who has a 15-year-old female who is refusing to attend classes, is dabbling in marijuana and hanging out with the wrong kids. So the father is pursuing some sort of intervention. So we'll screen his call and decide if the family needs a federal or a state program. And if the family is appropriate, we'll set up an application process for one of the beds."

As part of their five- to 14-day stay, admitted children agree to follow the center's rules in exchange for counseling and care. But they also receive the chance to be treated like normal kids -- setting the table and eating a communal meal, playing video games with their friends in the afternoon and taking walks to the park.

"Right now, though, we're struggling with the funds for entertainment," Cricchio says. "Normally, entertainment wouldn't come into play with such short-term stays, but because we do have kids who stay so long, we want to take them to the movies, roller skating, baseball games. Some of these things are things that the kids have never done before."

Generally, either state or federal agencies pay for the children that stay at the center, but the life that they lead while there, and the environment in which they find themselves, is significantly dependent upon gifts. And at the Crisis Residential Center, every dollar shows. With pride, Cricchio shows the newly renovated girls' bathroom, purchased with donations. While to many observers it would look like an average home bathroom, the reason for Cricchio's enthusiasm becomes clear when she opens the door to the stained, corroding shower in the boy's bathroom. Funds ran out before they were able to renovate everything.

But the repairs that Cricchio and her staff take the greatest pride in lie between members of families, or just between frustrated, confused children and the world around them. "We often see clients that return on a frequent basis," she explains. "Typically wards of court. And so we might see them every three or four months. And I've been quoted when they return on something that they remember that I said. So many things filter through adolescents, and to know that something that I said made a mark on them somehow -- that feels great. It's just a matter of making sure that we can do that every day."

The Crisis Residential Center: 532-2000, ext.107

Publication date: 08/07/03

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