Iowa first lady Mari Culver was speaking in a setting similar to an average public school in southeast Iowa. Here, however, the youngsters appeared even more attentive.
“I think the major misconception in the public is that we have bad kids here,” said Tammy Loerzel, the American Home Finding Emergency Youth Shelter director. “We don’t have bad kids. They may have come from environments where they didn’t give or receive respect.”
There may not have been very stringent rules or guidelines, either. Before Culver’s arrival Wednesday morning, Executive Director Tom Lazio of American Home Finding said some youngsters are allowed to run wild either because the parents are dealing with their own legal issues, are in jail or have perhaps come under the spell of substance abuse.
Other children have been physically or sexually abused, have run away — frequently for some of the above reasons, or have exhibited “delinquent” behavior.
Typically, law enforcement, the courts or the Department of Human Services will refer a young person to the shelter.
“Some kids are in shelters for things they haven’t done wrong,” said Culver.
Other young people who’ve gotten in trouble benefit from the one-on-one school instruction and a structured environment with clearly explained expectations.
“Are there a lot of rules here?” asked Culver.
Yes, said most of the kids.
“But none which are that hard to follow,” added one resident.
“So who thinks a lack of rules, a lack of structure and boundaries, got them here in the first place?” asked Culver.
At least half the kids raised their hands.
It doesn’t take long for residents to see that positive behaviors will earn them respect at the AHF shelter. Culver said she believes young people put into a positive environment have a chance at a good life.
“This is not going to be the color of your lives [forever],” said Culver to the youngsters. “If you set goals and work hard, you can [achieve those] goals.”
There are others who believe that too, which, she said, is why government officials listen to her reports on shelters, and what their needs are.
Before leaving for her next stop, the first lady, as a “reading ambassador” for Scholastic Books, let each resident choose a book of their own.
“That book is yours to keep.”
Just for fun, she asked questions from one of those books, an almanac, including: Which state has the most people, which has the least amount of people, what was the largest land animal, which video game system was the most popular last year and what was the highest grossing movie of 2008.
“This is a very well-run shelter,” Culver said later. “It’s well maintained, one of the cleanest I’ve been to and the kids here are respectful.”
And those kids got all the questions right — except for that last one, the answer to which was “The Dark Knight.”
Mark Newman can be reached at 683-5358 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org