By John Burton
FAIR HAVEN – Kevin Ryan sees his work as a struggle between the light and the dark, between despair and hope.
He believes that, though it doesn’t always seem that way, the light eventually wins out.
Ryan, who is president of Covenant House International, which helps homeless youths, is also the co-author of a recently published book detailing some of that organization’s work.
“For kids who are despairing, who feel alone in the world, this light, it’s more than encouragement – it’s oxygen. It keeps them breathing,” he said. “And to see that every day and to be part of that is one of the greatest privileges of my life.”
Ryan, who lives in Fair Haven with his wife and their six children, has been working with Covenant House for much of the last 20 years. He has been serving as the organization’s president for the past four years, overseeing the organization’s work in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, helping approximately 57,000 youths a year.
The organization has helped more than 1.2 million kids during its 40-year history.
The work, the 45-year-old Ryan said, involves helping young people, usually between the ages of 15 and 20, who are on the streets “for whatever reasons.”
Those assisted by Covenant House may have been discarded by families or have families that have imploded because of drugs. “It could be that the kids were abused or exploited so they leave home,” and find themselves out on their own where they face further exploitation and dangers, he said.
With his work with Covenant House, Ryan has seen these young people as they face that darkness in their daily lives and it leaves Ryan wondering, “How do you go from crushing marginalization to hope?”
That question is answered through the stories of many who come to Covenant House and is explored in his book.
Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope, co-written by former New York Times journalist Tina Kelley, tells six stories of kids who came through the door of the various Covenant House sites in the U.S. and Canada, and those who helped them move on to better lives.
Since its publication in August the book has been listed on the bestseller lists of the Washington Post, Newsday and Publisher’s Weekly.
Ryan noted recently that Almost Home was named to J.P. Morgan Holiday Reading List, which offers works with inspiring stories.
One of the stories in the book tells of a teenage girl trying to make her way through Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and a woman, a cook for the local Covenant House operation, “who helps this teenager cross the bridge from poverty to opportunity,” Ryan said.
“We wanted for people to read these stories and say, ‘I really want to do something about this,’ ” to coach, to mentor, to volunteer, to contribute, he said.
The book offers recommendations on how readers can get involved.
Through the work of his friends and acquaintances in the Two River area, and the efforts of students at Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School, Covenant House has been able to open its most recent facility in Asbury Park. The organization, which operates mostly on private donations, opened its door there in a converted storefront on Dewitt Avenue about a year ago.
The darkness Ryan sees can be pervasive. He has seen almost all who come seeking help share a common trait of blaming themselves for their situation.
“They thought they had done something wrong and they wanted everything to be all right,” he said.
There was a time some years ago when he felt he wasn’t making enough of a difference through his work, he conceded. Then one day, he entered a restaurant and ran into a young woman, Vinnie, who he helped years ago escape from a terrible situation. Her aunt had sold her into indentured servitude after Vinnie was orphaned at a young age. Vinnie faced repeated sexual abuse and wound up living in the Port Authority bus station in Manhattan where police discovered her and stepped in.
When Ryan met up with her again, she was working as a waitress and attending school in the evenings studying to be a nurse. She was in a healthy, loving relationship with a man and was planning to marry.
That encounter sparked in him a realization. “I thought, how in the world does a kid go from having their childhood taken away from them and repeatedly victimized and broken down, how do you go from there to the light?”
The answer became clear.
“It is the light that shines on the darkness every time one of these kids walks in the front door for the first time because there are these people all across Covenant House who are the light for these kids,” he said.
Ryan has also worked for the United Nations and was first commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families.
He and Kelley will be collaborating on another book that will document the trafficking of children in Latin America.