Originally published March 21, 2013.
The girl who came to the door at Huntington House was obviously upset.
She was crying, says shelter manager Carolyn Ray, who eventually determined that the teen had run away after a family dispute.
"She was just running ... She didn't know where to go," Ray says. "She saw the sign and said, ‘Can you help me? Can you help me?'"
The sign, posted in the windows of Huntington House, was the bright yellow and black decal signifying the shelter's status as a "Safe Place" - one of dozens of such sites spread throughout Huntington County, places where teens facing a crisis can go to ask for help.
"I calmed her down; I talked to her," Ray says. "Then I called the Youth Services Bureau.
"My job was just to get her a place to go where she could talk out her problems."
It's the only time during Ray's two years at the shelter that someone has come because of the Safe Place sign; all it took to help was a phone call.
But Ryan Beeching, who coordinates the Safe Place program for the Youth Services Bureau of Huntington County, says that incident is just one example of a broad safety net doing its job.
"It's our way of being able to provide 24-hour crisis intervention for youth and families," Beeching says.
Huntington House is one of 45 schools, businesses and social service agencies that are part of the local Safe Place network, a national program that spread to Huntington in 1990.
"We try to have sites that are used by kids and have the ability to give kids individual attention," Beeching says.
Those sites have long been identified by the bright yellow and black diamond-shaped sign, bearing a graphic of an adult hugging a child.
New signs are going up, and while they will retain the colors and shape, the graphic will be replaced by the words "Safe Place."
Of the 45 current Safe Place sites across Huntington County, the schools are the most used, says Jan Williams, executive director of the Youth Services Bureau.
Owen's South, the Parkview Huntington Family YMCA and the Huntington City-Township Public Library are the longest serving sites, she adds.
The library may have three or four contacts a year with youth through the Safe Place program, library Director Kathy Holst says - a number that's not overwhelmingly large.
But, she says, "when it happens, it's extremely important to have some safe alternative for these kids."
Younger children referred to the Safe Place program through the library often wander in because they're skipping school or weren't sent to school, Holst says.
"After a period of time, we call the Youth Services Bureau and they figure out where they're supposed to be," she says.
A more likely scenario for an older teen is that he or she has run away from someplace, Huntington County or beyond.
"They need a place to be warm, a place to use the Internet," Holst says. "They have no place to go."
Holst or someone on the library staff will call the YSB, and a YSB staffer is sent to help.
At that point, Holst - like Ray - leaves the youth in the care of the YSB.
"We do not know what happens afterward," She says. "We trust it's OK."
The Youth Services Bureau operates a 24-hour crisis line so that someone is always available to respond to the Safe Place sites.
Triggers sending youth to a Safe Place site can seem like everyday family problems, says Melissa Keighin, a YSB staffer who works with the Safe Place program.
But then they explode.
"Sometimes the conflict turns violent," she says.
"Sometimes the parent or the kid has just had it; the parent tells the kid he can't stay here any more."
In some families, Beeching says, the parents have never developed the skills to handle those problems; there may be poor communication between the parent and child.
The child may have mental health needs, and the parent doesn't know how to deal with them. Financial problems may send a family into crisis.
"It may not necessarily a major issue, but it can build up to a point that they can't work it out," Keighin says.
That type of conflict, Keighin says, may put the child at risk of abuse or push the child to run away.
Staff at each of the Safe Place sites have been trained to respond to the initial contact, then let the YSB staff take over, Beeching explains.
"Last year, we had 82 calls," Keighin says. "Some of them were fairly simple. Maybe there was no food in the home, so we contact Love INC. Others might be considering suicide or have an addiction; we set them up with long-term services and do follow-ups."
Some of those youth made contact with a Safe Place site themselves, while others were referred by a school guidance counselor.
But it's not just youth who call for help. Parents who simply don't know what to do with a child also call, Keighin says.
The Safe Families program can offer mediation services to work out conflicts, a place to go for students who are kicked out of school, and other services, Beeching says.
"Our goal is to set families up with more services," Keighin says.
That can include family therapy, goal-setting, budgeting lessons, help in setting and staying within boundaries, anger management and learning to deal with emotions.
Holst says that occasionally - very occasionally - a youth will return to the library to say thanks for the help.
Many more don't, but that's OK.
"I think we are fortunate to have something like this in place to help these kids," she says.