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Help for Troubled Teens

Wise, always available, tough yet loving, funny, pretty much impossible to fool — Lisa Fatu puts her considerable maternal assets to work mothering invisible teens. “I’m used to the 3 o’clock (morning) phone calls,” said the Santa Rosa native and former hardcore problem child. At 29, she’s a crisis-time surrogate mom to kids who vanish from home or had no home to begin with or were kicked onto the street by their parents. “They’re thrown away,” Fatu said at her own home-away-from-home, the James E. Coffee House teen shelter in Santa Rosa run by Social Advocates for Youth. “We had a kid just left on the doorstep,” she said. She pondered a moment and came up with three cases of teen abandonment in just the past four months or so. “That’s a lot of cases,” she said. The Coffee House had a different name when Fatu took shelter there as a drugged-up and combative kid of 15. Now her job at the 365-days-a-year shelter boils down to this: “To listen and to be there,” she said. Many of the teens who show up and often defy her and other staffers to care about them have been physically, sexually and/or emotionally abused. Some are on drugs, some prostitute themselves, some are clean-cut and studious but live under bridges. “I don’t find anything too shocking anymore,” Fatu said. Though no longer shocked by the horrors borne by some children barely in their teens, she swears she’ll find new work if she ever quits believing she can help them to restore their lives. Fatu regularly witnesses success stories. Some of the 12- to 17-year-olds who appear at the Coffee House when they bottom out accept counseling and other services, pull themselves back up, heal, perhaps make peace with their parents and ascend on a better path. Often they’ll return to hug Fatu, thank her and tell her their good news: They’ve finished high school, or maybe college. They’re working a good job or getting married, or they’re about to have a child. “That’s my reward,” Fatu said. On the other hand, she can anticipate that about once a year, a teen she’s come to love nearly as a daughter or son will die of street violence or be sent to prison, or raped. She grieves or rages like any mother would, and she keeps on. When she leaves the Coffee House after a long and probably emotional day, Fatu switches roles. She and her husband, David McCloud, have two children, Julian, 7, and Malia, 8, and Fatu is more a mother than an aunt to her 18-year-old nephew, Alfonso. Through most of her own teens years, Fatu was so angry and out of control she couldn’t have imagined having a family of her own, much less a job as a positive force in the lives of other young people. “I liked drugs,” she said with characteristic candor. She said experienced abuse as a youngster and it played a role in her chasing drugs, running in the streets, fighting and generally raising hell. She was 15 when she made her way to Social Advocates for Youth’s Teen Shelter, later renamed in honor of Community Baptist Church pastor and youth advocate Dr. James E. Coffee, who died in April at age 76. At the shelter she met counselor Jennie Nestor, who’s still working with kids at the Coffee House. Nestor slowly befriended the defiant young Fatu, recognized her intelligence and potential and talked her into becoming — at age 16 — the Teen Voice on the board of SAY. Fatu was pulling her life together but still using methamphetamine and playing with trouble when, at 18, she became pregnant. She said she got clean from drugs for sake of her unborn child. When tests showed the fetus had hydrocephalus and spina bifida, Fatu and her future husband resolved to continue with the pregnancy and accept their child as she was. But she died shortly after she was born. Her parents were devastated. Fatu was so depressed and angry she went back to meth. Then an awakening came. At age 19, she realized there was one thing she could do for the daughter who’d died. She vowed to herself, “I’m going to prove to her I’m a good mom.” “That was the last time I used drugs,” she said. She was hired by Social Advocates for Youth and began working with kids who are in crisis and need someone to talk to, ideally someone who’s been in their shoes. “This job is 24 hours a day,” Fatu said at the Coffee House. “Kids have my cellphone number and I don’t hide where I live.” She said her blessings are many and include the privilege of being a mother to teens who truly need one. And in her prayers, she said, she tells the daughter she lost, “Thank you for giving me my life back.”

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