Could Be Worse
Milwaukee youth counsels teens whose lives are even tougher than his
By Sarah Worthman
Oscar Walton walks into Pathfinders, locking the deadbolt behind him.
Moving down the hall, he hears a couple of people making food in the kitchen. He smells macaroni and cheese, a staple at the house. Upstairs, he can hear the bathroom door close, and some girls chatting about their day. This house is never empty.
On the East wall of the office, he checks the schedule to see who else is working and when he's scheduled for another shift. The kitchen is his next stop, to see what else is in the fridge.
Oscar is a volunteer at Pathfinders, a shelter for homeless and troubled youth in Milwaukee. At just 17 years old, he has become an advocate for the many youth who stay there, with backgrounds very much like his own.
Despite experiencing health problems of his own, and close family members heavily involved in gangs, drugs and violence, Oscar prevails.
At birth, Oscar was diagnosed with a disease called Prune Belly Syndrome. This disease is characterized by the absence entirely, or partially, of abdominal muscles. Oscar is unable to play contact sports and has required many surgeries. Most people feel that he is overweight when they first look at him and Oscar says he has been ridiculed for it.
Prune Belly Syndrome requires multiple stomach tucks to keep the organs in the right place. This condition is almost like a permanent hernia. There are no abdominal muscles to hold in the organs.
“I always kept his clothes where you couldn’t tell,” said Letha Zolicofer, Oscar’s mom. “I always kept a one piece outfit. He had to wear adult sized diapers. They came all the way up and I wrapped them around.”
But this is not the only hurdle he has had to overcome. Since he was young, Oscar has had multiple family members and friends that have been heavily involved in gangs, drugs and violence.
For the safety of all involved, we have given this person the pseudonym “James”. James has been diagnosed with some mental disabilities, but has been in Oscar’s life for a very long time. Oscar recalls this memory of James.
At just 10 years old, Oscar had just received his orange belt in taekwondo. Lying on his stomach, face propped up on his hands, he watched cartoons intently, happy with this new accomplishment.
Outside the door, he could hear James and his mother fighting. Before he could even stand up in response, James stood in the hallway, just outside the door, and drenched himself in lighter fluid.
Oscar looked on in astonishment and fear as James whipped out a lighter.
Oscar said that although he feels his entire family is very dark skinned, James looked as white as a Caucasian after the fire. James face and arms were very badly burned and took months to heal.
“When I was younger, I didn’t understand why he was going through these changes. I just knew he would start stuff, but I didn’t understand why,” said Oscar.
Another memory Oscar has of James also exhibits behavior that Oscar will never forget. It was an early Sunday morning, just after church.
“I’ll never forget the day he went to church and he left feeling ‘enlightened’,” said Oscar. “He was gonna’ turn his life around. He actually sounded good, like he had an epiphany or something. Then later that day he spit in some lady’s face.”
Neither his mother nor Oscar knows why James spit in the woman’s face. “They called people down there to get him, and he’s goin’ down there with just knives and they got guns. This is all in the same day!”
“The only thing that saved him from going back down there was I called the police. And I’m pleadin’ with people like this,” explains Zolicoffer as she presses her hands together, looking as if she is praying. “I’m sayin, ‘please don’t hit him, he got a brain injury’. I’m gonna call, he’s gonna go back to the hospital, you hit him you might kill him!”
Zolicoffer then coaxed James back into their home, where she called the police. James attempted to escape out the back door, but the police caught him there. He then spent the next month in the mental hospital.
Oscar’s father has also been a strong influence in his choice to assist other youth at Pathfinders. It has been a few years since he has seen his father, and only remembers very little about his involvement in Oscar’s childhood.
One of the only memories Oscar has of his father is of a rummage sale. “One time I spent the night at his house,” said Oscar. “We went to like 10 rummage sales in a day and I got a toy from each rummages sale I asked for.”
“My mom always played the mother/dad role,” said Oscar. “I felt it would always be instrumental if I had my dad here because I never learned how to shave by myself or anything. I don’t want to be cliché with the throw the ball catch thing, but you know.”
“Most of the time I remember being at my dads I would see him for the first hour or so, then he’ll go out and I’ll be stuck with my sister and her kids, and I’ll go to sleep. He wasn’t there during the night or nothing, so he wouldn’t be there when I was spending the night,” said Oscar.
But Oscar sees many of the issues he faces in his life in the lives of the young people that find their way to Pathfinders. Many times he sees these things before he even makes it to the shelter. At school, home or even just walking to take the bus he sees the youth violence, gangs and tragic loss of lives.
“He’s a close friend of from middle school, his name’s Troy,” said Oscar. “He got shot early on in his life; before middle school actually. That’s a young age to get shot. But it was for something about his brother. He said his brother got into something with some dudes, the dudes see him walking, and they shot him. He got shot at a young age.”
During the interview, Antonio, Oscar’s cousin stopped in. Antonio was wearing a black t-shirt, with a printed picture of Michael Bender. Bender is a cousin of Antonio and Oscar, who was shot early on a Sunday morning outside of a Riverwest bar. He was 24 years old.
“We seen a lotta’ people pass away young in our family off of stuff like this,” said Oscar. “Nine times outa’ 10, they go back to the same thing they was doin’ before.”
So Oscar tries to keep what youth he can from going ‘back to the same thing they was doin’ before’ by mentoring at Pathfinders. This gives Oscar an opportunity to be a good influence on these troubled teens.
Lisa Gumm is the program manager at Pathfinders. She explains the severity of youth homelessness in Milwaukee. “On average, 75 to 80 percent of the time we are at full capacity at the shelter,” said Gumm.
The house has just eight beds, and the shelter is never empty.
One of the most common reasons for youth coming to the shelter is because they are “throwaway” youth.
Gumm explains this label as youth who are experiencing “conflict, abandonment, sexual orientation/gender, family AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) issues, and mental health of family member and/or youth.” These are youth whose families don’t want them.
They need a break.
“Some kids come because they need a break, some come because their parents just need a break,” said Oscar.
“But I found that from working at Pathfinders, that it’s a cause,” said Oscar. “It’s a real big problem with teen homelessness, well youth homelessness and not only in Wisconsin, but in America.”
“Even now, my senior paper at school is on teen homelessness in America. I never thought I would have felt so strongly about it, I just thought I was going to be there volunteering. But when I got the paid position, I was like, ‘maybe I should take this more seriously.’ That’s kinda’ where I got my passion from,” said Oscar.
For the youth that are really physically homeless, many of those causes are due to chronic poverty which leads to house hopping; some will runaway because it is unsafe at home due to abuse, and/or neglect.
“Roughly 20 percent of youth will repeat their stay at the shelter throughout his/her adolescence,” said Gumm.
Oscar said that these repeating visits sadden him because these kids leave and don’t seem changed at all when they return most of the time.
“I see kids that come there a number of times and they seem like they’re just there when their three months is over to have a vacation,” said Oscar. “They come just because they like to come there or something.”
But not all youth that come to Pathfinders leave just to return a little while later. One of Oscar’s best friends is Anthony Banks. Anthony did return to Pathfinders like many of the others, but he returned as a mentor and a leader.
“One of the guys, my close friend I work with is Antony Banks,” said Oscar. “He stayed at the house [Pathfinders] a number of times and he has since turned his life around. He plays sports a lot and goes on a lot of the community service trips I go on.”
Joseph Stanley is the head psychiatrist at Pathfinders. “Many adults try to put teens in adult roles, we call that ‘adultism’. But they’re still kids,” said Stanley.
Stanley explained that by giving youth an opportunity at the group meetings, which many of these same kids also work at Pathfinders, they have an opportunity to develop leadership roles instead of adult roles and find value in helping others.
While Oscar does find that value in helping others, a lot of his passion for helping youth comes from his mother. For Mother’s Day, Oscar got his mom a card, like many people do, that said Happy Mother’s Day. What is different than most 17 year olds, is Oscar wrote nearly an entire page inside the card explaining how much he loves her.
Oscar is graduating in May from Bradley Tech High School. He is now deciding if he would like to attend UW Milwaukee, or continue his mentoring other youth by joining the Americorps.