Before running away from home, one Stanislaus County teenage girl bounced around between 12 foster homes in two years.
Another girl was given up by her mom after the mother already had four girls. She didn't want the next three girls who were born, but kept the youngest, a boy.
Both runaways made their way to Hutton House in Modesto, where each year nearly 300 teens find shelter, clothing, food, counseling, and help going to school and reconnecting with parents or relatives.
The teens get a place to stay for two weeks and counseling with their parents.
"It's very much like an emergency room. We pick them up, dust them off and get them some help," said Valrie Thompson, Hutton House's manager. She said runaways often are dealing with a variety of circumstances, including drug use, physical or sexual abuse, and mental health challenges.
Operating since 1976, Hutton House is one of a few runaway shelters in the state, with homes in Stockton and Fresno closest to Stanislaus County. Counselors also staff a 24-hour hotline and offer classes for parents and teens to help families communicate better and cope with stress and anger.
Modesto City Schools Superintendent Arturo Flores toured the downtown Modesto home Friday. He was surprised by the large size of the two-story house and enjoyed talking to three teens as they showed him their bedrooms.
The walls are bare, but teens get to pick their bedspreads as a way to express themselves. They can make two-minute phone calls each night. A central computer in the living room is equipped with solitaire and programs for writing papers, but no Internet.
The garage houses shelves of food such as canned fruits and tuna and boxes of cereal. An office closet is stuffed with "emergency clothing."
Counselors served Flores and the three teens lunch, where they sat around a table like a family. Flores asked the teens and counselors what the school district can do to help. Teens suggested tutoring in math, science and English.
"Some kids are going through their things and it's hard to concentrate on schoolwork or they don't want to do it, but if tutors are here, it would help them a lot," said one runaway.
Flores also shared stories of his childhood and growing up with nine siblings. He talked about going to college and urged the teens to push through their challenges. One teen said she likes playing soccer, and Flores told her colleges give scholarships to female soccer and golf players.
Flores' visit coincided with National Runaway Month, a time for counselors to spread awareness about runaways, mainly the size of the problem and the few resources available to handle the demand. Runaway shelters are expensive — Hutton House's annual budget is $500,000, funded mostly from federal sources.
Hutton House helps teens ages 13 to 17. It has eight beds; teens can only stay for 15 days. More than three in four runaways return to their home or that of a relative. Others are homeless.
Without Hutton, "I'd probably be on the streets right now or I'd be hopping from friend's house to friend's house," said one runaway.
Hutton House's hot line is 526-5544. To find out more about the shelter, to sign up for a parents-teens class, to volunteer or to donate money, call 526-1623 or visit www.centerforhumanservices.org/huttonhouse.