Finding hope

. January 30, 2013.

Where can youngsters turn when they are alone and living on the street? What can they do when troubles at home are unbearable? Who can parents talk to if they suspect their child is thinking of running away? Colleen O’Brien hopes they will turn to her.

O’Brien, 38, is director of youth development for Ozone House, with locations in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. “Ozone House is a nonprofit that serves young folks age 10 – 20 and their families,” says O’Brien, a Ypsilanti resident. “It’s for runaways, homeless and at-risk youth.” Ozone House offers a number of free services, from a temporary shelter and professional counseling to a drop-in center that serves hot meals and provides constructive activities for young people. The organization also mans a 24-hour crisis line.


Seeking support

“A lot of youths call us for support for family conflicts,” she says. “We’re a safe place for kids to call if they’ve run away and don’t know what to do.” Several problems plague the youngsters who visit or call. “Most young people talk about that they feel they don’t have someone who is really listening to them about what’s going on in their lives. Some don’t feel safe,” she explains. “A lot of young people are trying to figure out who they are and who they’ll be and they don’t feel they have support to test things out. A lot of young folks say they need positive,
safe and affordable things to do with their peers.”

Parents can take active steps to help their children, O’Brien says. “One thing that is important is to be knowledgeable and thoughtful about developmental needs. Make sure they have creative opportunities,” she said. “Make sure they have structure and clear limits.” What can a parent do if a child takes actions that violate family religious or philosophical mores? “It’s challenging when your child goes against your values. Parents are scared for them or feel this isn’t how you were brought up,” she says. Parents sometimes jump to a punishment or an ultimatum. That excludes the young person from the conversation. Young people really fear judgment. Talk to them.”

Finding a way

What works for one child may not work for another, she said. “I do think what I hear from young people is counter
intuitive. People often express ‘I know my parent cares about me because they won’t let me talk to them a certain way or do what I want’,” said O’Brien. There are no “bad kids.”

“I think young people are really affected by their environment. Often, when you really look at young people especially,
‘troublemakers’ they are acting what they see,” she says. “They have some need that is unmet. The only way they can communicate that is through their behavior.”

O’Brien was introduced to Ozone House in 1994, when she started volunteering on the crisis line as an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Michigan. “I really liked it. I tried to be a sounding board. I felt like it was an opportunity to talk to folks who didn’t have somebody to talk to,” says O’Brien. Her work over the years has helped her become actively engaged with youngsters – including her four-year-old nephew. “I feel that knowledge has really shaped how I interact with my nephew and how my sister and mother interact with him. We have a lot of discussions,” she explains. “Having that knowledge changes how you look at things.”

For more info on Ozone House, including locations and hours visit You can call their crisis line at 734- 662-2222.