When Debby Shore was a girl, the shelves of her Pittsburgh home included two books that were to have a long-lasting influence on her life. One was “Les Miserables.”
“It made so much sense to me, that there was redemption, that there was change possible,” she said of Victor Hugo’s epic novel.
In her role as founder and executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a nonprofit group that works with homeless young people in Washington, Debby has seemingly melded the plots of both books: With help, inspirational figures can emerge from the most dire of circumstances.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand charity fund drive.
Debby’s father was a chemist, her mother a professor of social work. “There was a way in which my parents were both very deeply involved in being a person in the world, who utilized their smarts and capacities on behalf of improving the world,” she said. “I got this sense that the world can change and people can change and there’s great hope if people are given opportunity.”
Debby went to Antioch College, a progressive Ohio school. She spent her junior year in Washington working with runaways. It was 1971, and teenagers were swarming to Dupont Circle and Georgetown. Some had been thrown out of their homes, victims of the “Generation Gap.” Others were hooked on drugs.
In 1974, after two years of working for the District’s recreation department, Debby started a program in the basement of Christ Church in Georgetown. It was called Zocalo, after Mexico City’s town center, a place where government services were located but also a place of community and shared experience. From 1 to 9 p.m., teens could leave the streets for coffee and conversation.
Debby was at the vanguard of a change in the way homeless teenagers are treated. By talking with teens rather than at them, it was often possible to repair damaged family ties.
“We need to hear what young people are saying,” she said. “We need to assume that they have some wisdom about their own lives, that they are the authors of their own transformation.”
In 1977, David and Evangeline Bruce — a U.S. diplomat and his wife — helped the charity buy a building on Maryland Avenue NE. A few years later, the nonprofit group renamed itself after their daughter, Sasha Bruce, a Radcliffe graduate who had died in 1975.
By then, the focus had shifted. Sasha Bruce Youthwork was less about runaways crashing on their way from Florida to New York City and more about addressing dysfunctional families in Washington. It’s amazing, Debby said, the number of kids from poor District homes who are kicked out at 18, ill-equipped to handle life.
“It’s not an expectation that you or I would have had,” she said. “We went to college. People took care of things for us. And yet we expect a 19-year-old who has been homeless for a few years to somehow manage it all.”
Today, Sasha Bruce Youthwork has a staff of 140. It runs an emergency drop-in shelter that’s open round-the-clock. It offers transitional housing where clients can live for up to 18 months and independent living for young mothers. It helps high school dropouts earn their GEDs. It does HIV testing and counsels teens on sexual health. It works with youngsters in the juvenile justice system.
Since 1974, it has served more than 13,000 homeless young people between the ages of 16 and 24. About 90 percent of the clients who spend time in a Sasha Bruce Youthwork shelter are reunited with their families.
“In the main, children really want their parents to be functional, and parents really want to love their children,” Debby said.
Getting teenagers off the streets remains critically important. “You talk to the kids who are couch surfing, they’re endangered, a lot of them,” Debby said. They often have to do unhealthful things in exchange for a place to live, she said.
I asked Debby how she defines success for Sasha Bruce Youthwork. She said: “I think it’s young people who are self-sufficient and able to live on their own, taking care of their responsibilities, their children if they have them, their rent. They’re able to make their way in the world as a contributor. And that they have some capacity for happiness, that they’re feeling some joy in their lives.”
She was silent for a moment and then said: “Is it that simple? I think it is, actually. It’s the same thing I think we want for our own kids.”
You can make a tax-deductible contribution to Sasha Bruce Youthwork by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com and clicking where it says “Donate.” To contribute by mail, send a check payable to “Sasha Bruce Youthwork” to: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, 741 Eighth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Attention: James Beck.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.