Keller, 50, who supervises the Runaway and Homeless Youth Program at Pioneer Center for Human Services, uses the roughly one-hour sessions to help the youngsters in the Let’s Talk groups cope with what’s going on in their lives.
Anything discussed never leaves the group, Keller said. Some children might be dealing with a parents’ divorce. Some might have just been homeless, are having trouble with teachers or experiencing drug problems. Some could have behavioral problems or an unstable home life.
“Some of the kids may be on the verge of running away, don’t know how to handle what’s happening in the home,” Keller said. “[We] sit down and talk about that and give them the resources to make an informed decision.
“If they want to sit there and listen, great,” Keller said. “This is their comfort zone.”
Keller works with homeless youth in McHenry County, helping them reunite with their family and getting back on their feet. She even provides snacks to the youngsters in her groups.
“Susan has dedicated herself to helping hundreds of youth find housing and build up their natural support system to overcome major challenges that would otherwise result in their being homeless,” said Christin Kruse, chief development officer for Pioneer Center. “Susan has a true passion for helping youth at risk or in crisis; she gives not only her time, but her heart and soul to these kids.”
Keller’s job involves working directly with youngsters who might be thinking about running away from their homes.
“Susan provides insight and guidance for teens struggling with high-risk behaviors, often helping them overcome problems they’re facing,” Kruse said. “She helps these youth become more confident, secure individuals who are able to overcome obstacles to succeed in their passions of life.”
Pioneer’s runaway and homeless youth program sees about 500 youngsters a year through various diversion programs. And a recent county census of homeless people found 196 homeless high school students in McHenry County.
“A lot of these kids are couch surfing,” Keller said. “When they get to the point where they don’t have a place to go is typically when we get called in. Obviously, we want to get called in sooner.”
Keller and her staff of five people work with parents and children to try to solve family problems. Sometimes, parents are frustrated with their children and lock them out. There are times when children refuse to go home.
“In both situations, we put those youth in an emergency shelter, and we work the case and find out what’s going on,” Keller said.
After determining the problem, Keller and her staff act as mediators between the youngsters and parents. They set up family meetings until the situation is resolved.
“We spend a lot of our time teaching parents how to re-parent; they get stuck in their rut,” Keller said. “Everybody gets stuck in the way they do things.”
Some parents don’t do family dinners or anything fun with their children, and some parents parent out of anger, Keller said.
“We have them bring up scenarios [like] what happened in the last fight, and say where they went wrong,” Keller said. “Sometimes, they start fighting in front of us. We say, ‘Stop. This is exactly why you’re here. This is what you need to do.’ We do a lot of redirecting and trying to get people to understand their part in the problem.
“It’s a lot of therapy,” Keller added.
Keller decided she wanted to help youngsters when she returned to college in 2004. She was in her first psychology class and heard the much younger students talk about how some of them had a hard time growing up and nobody believed in them, she said.
“I couldn’t believe this is what this generation said,” she said. “I sat there and said, ‘I need to get into the field where I can help this generation.’ ”