Cindy Williams regularly receives calls from Baltimore City residents who have just turned 18. The callers usually say they've heard that she runs a shelter for runaway and homeless youth and is the person teens turn to when their parents are no longer legally obligated to provide a home.
"We get so many calls from young people that say, 'My birthday was yesterday, and my mom told me to get out,'" said Williams, founder and chief executive officer of Loving Arms Inc., a nonprofit emergency shelter for youths ages 12 to 24.
A Baltimore resident, Williams offers children age 14 to 18 three weeks of shelter at a spacious Gwynn Oak rowhouse, complete with computers and a flat-screen TV; those older than 18 may stay a longer time. The shelter also provides clothing, family counseling and academic support.
On Saturday, those who benefited from Williams' hospitality returned the favor, leading the third annual Thanksgiving Outreach meal at the Liberty Recreation Center in Baltimore.
Students prepared and served turkey dinners to approximately 50 homeless adults and their children. The event also provided social services information.
"I enjoy giving back because I know I'm not in a good situation right now, and [the shelter] is helping me, so I enjoy helping others," said Shankea Conigland of Baltimore. She said that she was forced to leave home in April, three months after her 18th birthday.
An Edmondson-Westside High School senior, Conigland said she was referred to Loving Arms by a student resource officer. She has been a resident at Loving Arms for about a month.
"I told her I had nowhere to go, and she took me in that same day," said Conigland, who added that she has been accepted into Garrett College, where she plans to major in nursing.
"It's hard being on your own, trying to do things on your own. Everybody needs some kind of help," said Conigland. "Coming to Loving Arms gave me some type of stability. Being there makes you feel like part of a family."
A former Brooklyn, N.Y., social worker who worked finding homes for struggling youth, Williams launched Loving Arms in 1999.
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In addition to assisting the youngsters, Williams, 52, also provides assistance to families and tries to bridge gaps between parents and children, educating kids and their parents about available resources.
Often, she said, children come to Loving Arms from troubled families in which the parents either failed to seek out support services or have sought help in vain.
"Something should have been done when they asked for that help," Williams said.
The organization has acquired additional properties in the city, Williams said, and hopes to provide services to more young people.
"If we do not, as a city, address the issue of homelessness as it relates to youth under 18," said Williams, "and those young adults between 18 and 24, we will never end homelessness. The portal is opening and widening every day."