Whoever coined the phrase "growing up is hard to do" probably never met Luretta. But he should have.

For 17-year-old Luretta, growing up was a struggle to stay alive.

Since she was 14, she has endured repeated beatings by her stepfather, four temporary homes and a pregnancy out of wedlock.

Then she joined Independence Road, a program designed to give homeless youth a new lease on life by learning to live independent of the state of their families.

From a basement apartment near the corner of Florida and West Virginia avenues NE, counselors first attempt to resolve the problems between youth and parent that might have led to the separation.

"But the older the youth, the more difficult it is to deal with them," explained Ken Atkinson, director of SAJA, Special Approaches to Juvenile Assistance, Inc., the nonprofit group that operates Independence Road.

"After three or four years, the kid and parent are sick of the system. The kid says, 'I'm close to 18. I'd rather go out and get a job than be with my family.'"

Most of the youths who come to Independence Road are referred by social agencies in the metropolitan area. Others are temporary residents of SAJA's Runaway House, an emergency shelter for youths.

"Often times the group homes are overcrowded," Atkinson continued. "Many times the youths may turn 18 and then they're not eligible to be in a specific social program anymore."

It is these special needs of homeless youth that SAJA's grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare was intended to meet -- to teach older homeless youth who may lack basic educational, social and employment skills how to live independently.

The first step is planning and needs assessment, which includes deciding on priorities, educational and vocational testing. Homeless youths are sometimes temporarily housed at Runaway House.

"Well before you get your high school equivalency (diploma), you must get a room and a job," Atkinson explained. "The thing we've seen is that the kids could get a job at a McDonald's or something, but they didn't stay . . . Then we ask 'What kind of education do I need to achieve my goal?'"

The program is willing to lend its support through loans -- to be paid shortly after employment -- and scholarships. A large part of the training teaches youths to be responsible for their actions, including paying bills and getting to work on time.

Finding housing, Atkinson says, is the least of their problems. "We've found that kids are pretty resourceful," he said, adding that most of the youths find housing through the newspaper.

After a two-week intensive introduction period, youths are counseled regularly for at least five months by Independence Road staff.

Some need the counseling more than others, Atkinson said: "Some people will get a job and pay their bills on time. Others will spend their first week's pay on a stereo system."

Although the program has only recently started, staff members say it's the logical next step in meeting the needs of homeless youths and will probably be a success.

"Independence Road is a step towards that group whose parents and public agencies refuse to deal with them -- they're destitute," Dodie Butler, SAJA executive director, said. The program has already received much support from local agencies and the community, she added.

Luretta is considered an ideal candidate for Independence Road. When she reaches 18, she will cease to be eligible for the social programs that have helped her make it. As a staff person and participant in the program, she plans to finish high school and then apply to medical school.

"It's a very hard thing to do, when somebody puts you out of your house. "You have to go to all of these different places just to find a place to stay," she said about recent years.

"You feel left out, like you don't belong to anybody. I'm very glad I found this job."