Wednesday, January 4, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Times Fund For The Needy -- First Place A 2Nd Chance For Kids -- School Gives Stability To Children In Shelters

This is another in a series of stories on The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy.

Eight-year-old Rahmeece Howell is dreaming large.

By 2009, he'd like to build himself a pair of wheels - "a semiautomatic with electrical 3-millimeter security system."

He'd like to tinker in the construction business, building and fixing houses, says the youngster, pausing from playing with action figures in a sandbox.

And he's going to give his family a home: a mansion for Mom, Dad and younger brothers.

"Where my whole family can live a lifetime. That's what I want in the future," says the bright-eyed, karate-and-football-playing youngster, wearing a Seahawk ballcap askew on his head.

Rahmeece is a lot like the other children at his Seattle school, First Place. He likes the environment, the field trips, the fact that other children don't bully him around. And he has similar dreams.

Query the children about their wish lists and they'll tell you: I want a home. A million dollars. My family back together.

First Place is a school for children who are on the move. The students don't like to call themselves homeless - that means sleeping on the street, not having a roof over your head. Instead, students and teachers say First Place children are in "transition."

"It means that you're going to go someplace, but not right now," Rahmeece explains.

First Place is a fresh start for children and their families wanting to leave shelters, motels and other temporary housing.

The K-6 school, which has served more than 1,500 children, was created in 1989 when parents staying at homeless shelters found it difficult to enroll their children in the regular public-school system.

At First Place, families can worry less about registration forms and transportation and focus on finding a home, a job, clothing, health care or anything else they might need.

Counselors know the system and offer referrals. There is counseling provided for parents and children, and a clothing bank.

And children, picked up by school buses from shelters and motels, can focus on schoolwork instead of worrying that they will be singled out, poked fun at or put down.

There is comfort knowing that your classmates can relate to what it's like shuttling from place to place, leaving behind belongings, neighbors, newly formed friendships and even other family members.

In classrooms bursting with photographs, student artwork, paperback books, toys and donated furniture, a student whose mother recently lost her job sits alongside a youngster who has been on the run.

These are children aware of poverty, drug addiction, violence and domestic abuse because they've witnessed it firsthand. About 80 percent of the students here have experienced some type of domestic violence. As a result, the school's location is kept confidential.

The school day unfolds: A maximum of 48 children each day roam a hallway, mingle in a classroom. Cereal and orange juice have been eaten. Lunch and a snack will be provided, too.

The children settle down. It's time to get to work: Circle Time. Time to talk about someone finding a home or to welcome someone new.

Homelessness is sobering on children, leaving them withdrawn, with low self-esteem, angry.

"We try to provide a caring place. Here they can buckle down and learn," says Deb Brinley-Koempel, the school's social-services supervisor.

"Did you know everyone here has been in a type of shelter?" a teacher will ask a new face joining Circle Time.

It's Monday, and students in grades three through six meet with counselor Gene Harris. This is the Express Group, a more structured group-counseling session that was named by the children.

The group is held on Mondays because weekends often can be the most traumatic. It is Harris' tool to help children deal with violence.

For an hour, the 8- to 12-year-olds sit in a semicircle, listening and fidgeting as they open up to each other.

Christopher remembers a drive-by shooting, when youths assaulted his brother and robbed him of a new bicycle. Robert recalls a drug deal.

Others recollect stabbings and suicides. They talk about feeling sad when a person has died of natural causes but feeling mad when when someone, especially a child, dies from violence.

Harris asks them how they can avoid violence. "Live in a good area. Make friends with nice people," the children say.

"Respect one another. Know what's acceptable behavior. Make sound choices," Gene adds.

First Place students stay an average of eight weeks. When lives are in better order, students transfer to the regular public-school system.

Rahmeece is in his second year at First Place. His family was derailed by substance abuse. Dad wasn't able to maintain a job; Mom couldn't find work.

The family moved from a violent neighborhood in Chicago to Seattle about two years ago. Rahmeece has lived in about 10 places in recent years.

"It's like someone pushing you around all the time," Rahmeece says about being in transition. "I don't like it."

The family is recovering. It's about to move from one apartment into more permanent housing, and Rahmeece's parents are receiving outpatient treatment.

If things stay on track, Rahmeece and his younger siblings, who also attend the school, will probably leave First Place at the end of the school year.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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