The Colgate Scene
November 2000
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Taking it to the streets
Susan Manly offers help to embattled New York City youth who face darkness in the heart of town
by John D. Hubbard

Susan Manly left the corporate world to serve others as a mental health clinician for New York street kids.
Susan Manly '85 is planting seeds.

     A mental health clinician with Streetwork, a drop-in and counseling program for homeless and street-involved youth in New York City, Manly feels she is "bearing witness to their humanity."

     Streetwork's mission is to reach out to the city's disenfranchised youth (between the ages of 13 and 23) and offer "respite from hunger, cold, loneliness and fear." Part of Safe Horizons, a large, private non-profit, the project provides the kids "the opportunity to reclaim for them- selves a sense of dignity and self-worth." The project employs 25 and typically sees 350 clients a month.

     "First and foremost is to help kids save their lives," says Manly. "Our whole purpose is harm reduction." To that end, the project offers on- site legal and medical assistance and psychological therapy. There are all kinds of referrals for housing, rehab and education, as well as showers, a clothing room and lunch.

     The atmosphere is upbeat and non-judgmental. Streetwork has the only youth needle exchange in the city and counselors might help a teen select an outfit for her "stroll" one day and pick out a suit for an interview the next.

"The kids are compelling and I'm crazy about them," says Manly. "The work is fascinating. I find myself spacing out at home, lost in someone else's story."

     The stories can be harrowing; tales of children who have never had a break, kids who face horrible trauma and violence. They are victims of all manner of abuse, have no homes or minimal shelter. They face disease, drugs and dangers at every turn. Multiple personalities show up commonly and combat fatigue disorder is seen often. Yet, Manly is struck over and over by the resiliency she encounters.

     The majority of the clients are not runaways, but survivors of dysfunction and personal disasters. Sex is a volatile dynamic, from gender issues to its use as a tool to make it on the streets. Streetworks responds by making HIV prevention a vital component of its program.

     "The counseling staff is unbelievable." A powerful blend of people committed to social justice and those who have survived the streets themselves, the staff at Streetwork has been able to reach kids in peril.

     "There is this amazing communication breakthrough when we find a common ground and a mutual language. It's fun here. Kids feel a lot of love. Through this kind of caring, the kids open up more and begin to think about what they want to change in their lives."

     It seems so simple. Streetwork can help steer its clients through the steps toward acquiring social services aid when the simple suddenly becomes complex and the obstacles can seem insurmountable for a kid with no safety net. A copy of a birth certificate, for instance, or money to decorate a dorm room -- Streetwork deals with problems great and small, as would a loving family. There is unconditional support.

"I love this program. It is an incredibly warm and vibrant place. At the core of what we do is express love."      "I love this program. It is an incredibly warm and vibrant place. At the core of what we do is express love," says Manly. She sees this expression as a means of building corrective behavior and establishing trust.

     "Most of these kids have never met an adult who didn't misuse them."

     Manly typically sees clients who might need therapy in addition to their counseling and those who are more chronically mentally ill. She also helps coordinate the mental health program and supervises some of the counseling staff.

     Before joining Streetwork two years ago, Manly was a clinical supervisor with Gay Men's Health Crisis and, earlier, a unit director at The Bridge, where she worked with chronically mentally ill adults living in the community.

Her career path took an abrupt turn in 1986 when Manly's brother David '71 died of AIDS. Among Susan's responses to the loss was to increase her volunteer work.

     "I found it was more rewarding than my job in public relations at American Express," says Manly, who returned to school to earn an MSW at Hunter College. She has been serving others ever since.

     As a mother, Manly is especially sensitive to her clients. "The reality of their lives is so extreme in a city of such wealth." The dichotomy is not lost on Manly, who knows when she heads home, many of her clients return to the streets.

     "I have this amazing three-year-old (Susan is married to John Pelosi '85, an arts lawyer), but the world Sophia will grow up in can only be as good as the world these kids know.

     "I have been so lucky in my life, it feels right to be here helping in a small way. It makes sense of the discrepancy I sometimes struggle with."

     There is a packet of sweet pea seeds pinned to a bulletin board in Manly's office. It is a reminder that there is a time to sow.

     "I'm planting seeds," she says again. And then Susan Manly smiles.

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