Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 13, 2000
In the year after Karen won her freedom from state custody at 16, she completed her high school education. She got a driver's license, an apartment, a microwave, an aquarium, an answering machine. And a cat.
And she saved several hundred dollars - to buy health insurance. This impressed Carol Bacon, the judge who'd freed her, and her court services monitor, Debby Lancaster. The idea that this wild teen runaway was saving for health insurance - they both smiled.
Under the skin, though, Karen Countryman felt fear. In the past, running away had always been an option. Now she'd sworn off running.
"I was worried," Karen said later.
"Life is not easy for anyone, and though I'd won my freedom, it wasn't a done deal that I'd be OK.
"There was some chance that I could have gone bad, drugs or crime or whatever.
"I really missed my Mom, and I missed the structure and all those guardian angels at the Children's Home who had looked out for me.
"I was just existing."
Now it was January 1998. Karen was 17. She had a job at a linen store on Rock Road. She liked it - folding and refolding all those linens and towels, making bed and blanket arrangements. It appealed to the perfectionist in her, the bit of her soul she'd inherited from Mom. Perfection defined in the folds of sheets.
But she was bored.
-- -- --
What happened next was a God Thing, said social worker Sjonna Hermanson.
"There is no other way to explain it," Sjonna said.
Sjonna was riding in a van a couple of nights a week with social workers, looking for runaways. Sjonna knew Karen from Monica House, a home for teen girls. She'd held Karen in her arms while Karen screamed during those gut-wren ching nightmares. Monica House had closed, and Sjonna had gone to work for Street Outreach.
With a federal grant, Risa Rehmert of the Wichita Children's Home had started Street Outreach nearly a year before. She put a couple people a night in a van and sent them out to look for runaways.
Police knew more than 1,200 children a year were reported as runaways in Wichita; in reality, there were probably a lot more.
Most of these kids were finding places to sleep on the couches and spare beds of friends. But some were living on the streets, literally flirting with people from the prostitution or drug trades.
Street Outreach workers would drive mostly in the dark, stopping all over Sedgwick County, everywhere from Sim Park to coffee shops like the Bohemian Bean. They looked under bridges along the Arkansas River. They drove streets prowled by gangs like the Crips or the Latin Kings.
Wherever they ran into teens, they offered help, food or shelter. They passed out Street Outreach cards with phone numbers for the kids to call if they needed anything. They passed out sandwiches to kids who looked hungry. Sometimes they even passed out condoms. Kids try all sorts of things to hurt themselves; Risa was trying all sorts of things to save them.
One day Sjonna heard Risa say that she needed more help, that the part-timers weren't showing up enough.
And suddenly it hit Sjonna.
Oh my God, she thought.
She had seen that girl, just a few days ago.
Karen. Free but looking lost, saying she wasn't sure what she was going to do with her life. Saying that she missed all her guardian angels at the Wichita Children's Home.
Sjonna spoke up to Risa.
"What about Karen?"
Risa listened. It took maybe two seconds to make up her mind.
No one at the Children's Home - not Risa, not Sjonna, not Jamie Johnston - felt any hesitation about hiring Karen, who had been a runaway only a little more than a year before.
In fact, they thought: This was perfect.
"She had lived on the streets," Jamie said. "She had seen what she could have been, seen kids getting sick or diseased, seen people getting hurt, hurting themselves with chemicals and alcohol, getting into prostitution.
"She had talked to kids out there when she lived out there. She knew kids who were selling their bodies just to get food or to get a blanket to sleep under for just one night.
"She'd seen it all.
"And now she could help these kids."
Karen was shocked.
"I never thought anyone would trust me with that kind of responsibility," she said.
"And did I want it? Hey, I was folding linens. You bet I wanted it."
Risa decided to send Karen out five nights a week with Will Ellis. Karen and Will were a perfect match: Karen at 17 was a street child. Will, in his 40s, was a longtime husband and dad. Karen was 5-foot-7; Will towered over her at 6-foot-8.
Karen was perhaps the most playfully talkative kid Risa had ever met; she could get anyone to open up. And while Will was perhaps the most silent man Risa had ever known, he was also a 12-year veteran of social work, the guy who had already worked with some of the toughest street kids in Wichita. He could talk his way through any kind of trouble. And he would watch over Karen.
And now these two would be tested, in a way no one had foreseen.
On Karen's first night on the job, a father called the Children's Home. His daughter was threatening to kill herself.
Staff members quickly got a suicide intervention counselor involved. The counselor, talking to the father, determined that the girl was not a serious suicide threat but probably needed to talk.
The decision was made to send out the new crew: Will Ellis and the new kid, Karen.
But some staff members didn't want to send Karen. A suicide call? They thought it would upset her.
Karen got annoyed.
"I just looked at them and said: 'Hey. This is my job. I'm gonna do my job.'"
When they got to the house in east Wichita, Will and Karen, who barely knew each other, said hardly a word to make a plan.
"He trusted me," she said. "He didn't hesitate a single second."
"We pretty much just did what we did many dozens of times afterward when we went out to see kids and parents.
"Will went to talk to the parents upstairs. And I went downstairs to talk to the kid."
Karen opened the bedroom door.
There on the bed curled in a near-fetal position lay a stressed out, rebellious, despondent 13-year-old girl.
Karen sat down on the bed.
She began to talk.
Slowly at first. Hi. How's it going? Small questions. She knew what to say, she said later, almost as though she'd been doing it for years. Start with the small questions, she said. Don't say anything stupid.
The girl replied in monosyllables at first.
Karen kept talking. It's tone of voice more than words at that point, she said later.
The girl uncurled a bit, sat up, glared at Karen and finally spoke a full sentence, more challenge than question:
How would YOU know anything about this? the girl asked.
"Trust me," she told the girl. "I know enough."
When Karen walked out of the girl's bedroom two hours later, the girl had relaxed. She had even smiled a couple of times.
Karen had made the girl promise - no more talk of suicide. Be good. Listen to your parents; try to see their side.
Will and Karen drove back to the Children's Home. When they got there, worried staff members looked at Karen and asked Will how it was, meaning how was Karen. Will said things at the house appeared to be better. And he said Karen had done fine.
When she went home that night, Karen felt like she was floating.
So this was what it feels like to be a guardian angel.
She was just getting started.