Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 14, 2000
In the two years she searched for teen runaways, Karen Countryman had two goals. One was to help lost kids in Wichita. The other was to help herself. She showed a playful face to friends. But she disliked talking about her past. She always resisted counseling. Talking about her mother's suicide stole sleep, made her want to throw up.
No one could help her, she said.
Like she would tell the street kids: Some things you fix yourself.
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Like her mother before her, she'd agonized about whether she'd ever be good enough.
Every time she met a kid on the street, it was like meeting what she had been, or what she could have been.
The question now was what she would become.
-- -- --
It is night, April 1999.Will Ellis drives the Street Outreach van out of the back lot of the Wichita Children's Home.
Tonight, Karen says, she and Will and Risa Rehmert of the children's home will meet with "the little nest of runaways," as Risa calls them.
Six kids crowded into a one-bedroom apartment. Living together on almost nothing, Risa says.
Will and Karen bring three of them to a Pizza Hut to talk.
They will probably lie about their ages and about everything else, Karen warns.
They give their names as Rose, Daniel and Marie.
Rose is tall and dark-haired, says she's 16. She runs away from home when she and her stepdad argue, she says. This time she's been out for two weeks.
She's been locked up in juvenile jails a couple of times, for breaking into a house and stealing cigarette lighters.
"I took a couple of Zippo lighters worth $75 a piece. I didn't know how much they were worth."
Later, she said, she shoplifted a dress from a mall. The authorities sent her to a girls home in Beloit.
"I had these nightmares about going there."
But mostly it wasn't bad, she says. The food was good, and they had their own rooms.
Rose says she wants to go to college, study English literature. "Edgar Allan Poe, he's my favorite writer and always will be." But she doesn't know how she will pay for college. Not yet.
Daniel says he's 20; tall, skinny, beard and mustache. His story includes "butting heads" with his stepmom, time in foster care, drug rehabilitation, the Wichita Children's Home, jail, homelessness.
"At age 14, I was living in the streets," he says.
He says he's working at a gas station, not making enough to support himself and the girls. The Wichita Children's Home helps out some.
"We buy necessities," Daniel says. "Only necessities." The necessities include a carton or two of Camel cigarettes every week.
Daniel says he writes poetry. He loves to read. Poe. Frost. Elliott. Keats. Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson is hard to understand, someone suggests to him.
Not really, Daniel says.
"Not if you work at it."
Marie says she's 17. Maybe just 14, Karen thinks. Marie fights with her stepdad, too. Her mom's third husband. He punched Marie in the stomach when she was 21/2 months pregnant, Marie says.
"I went down and then got back up, and I left." She says she miscarried the baby three days later, the baby she had intended to keep.
"But it wasn't to be," she says.
She bled for a week, didn't go to doctors because "we didn't have money for doctors."
Marie says she's never been in jail but was locked up in a hospital two years ago after she tried to commit suicide. After Mom said she was divorcing the second husband.
Her real dad calls on birthdays, Christmas. "But it's like talking to a complete stranger."
Marie wants to be a veterinarian.
"I nursed a cat back to health that they said would never recover. I've loved animals since."
In the 22 months that Karen and Will rode together, looking for runaways, they passed out thousands of cards, hundreds of sandwiches. And they brought in a few lost kids along the way. Karen got in their faces, chided them, teased, counseled, talked. Risa says Karen is a born social worker. Sometimes, when Will would drive them to a club where kids were dancing, Karen would get out and dance with the kids they handed cards to. She loves to dance, though for now she loves most to dance alone.
"We'd never had anyone like her," Risa said. "She'll take a kid right to the carpet. Kids would never take that stuff off an adult, but they take it from her."
To get kids to talk to her, she used every trick of cunning she'd picked up as a runaway, all those little shades of gray she'd absorbed while manipula ting strangers and cops and kids on the streets. Vulnerability. Anger. Humor.
Karen hates talking publicly about her mother's death and her life on the run. It makes her feel ill.
But she does it anyway. Short talks about her life to school groups or groups of donors to the Wichita Children's Home.
She and other staff members at the Children's Home see in the faces of her small audiences that her story moves people deeply when she tells it.
In October she spoke to a room full of charity donors gathered at the Hyatt Regency hotel. A few minutes before she was to speak, she saw Judge Carol Bacon standing a few feet away.
"I felt so humble," Karen said. "The judge was in the audience, listening to me."
It had been almost three years.
"I hadn't seen her since the day she gave me my freedom," Karen said. The judge had freed her from state custody at age 16.
"I stuck my head around a group of people and asked: 'Hey. Do you remember me?'
"She said 'yes, of course I remember you.'
"But that was all she said. She turned away."
Karen had no way of knowing that the judge was privately thrilled to see her, that the judge knew all about what Karen had become in the three years since she had been freed and that the story brought the judge close to tears. Judges like to keep an emotional distance from their charges. So the judge turned away. But inside, Judge Bacon said later, her heart was singing as she watched Karen get up to speak.
"I wondered if she felt good about how I'd turned things around," Karen said. "That she'd been right to free me.
"She believed in me, and she didn't have to do it. But she believed in me and gave me my freedom. She is the woman who gave me life."
Karen got up and gave her speech.
"And when that was over, I went into the bathroom."
She gagged over the toilet bowl.
Then she felt better.
Audiences like Karen's story because it seems to have a happy ending.
In six years she's reinvented herself repeatedly, to hide from her own grief, to rebel against authority, then to reform and survive, and finally to grow.
The 13-year-old cocooned in her mother's love became a foster child, then a pot-smoking runaway, then a street child with what Judge Bacon called a startling combination of cunning, playfulness and will.
But she did not get addicted to drugs or alcohol or irresponsible rebellio n.
She won her freedom from state custody at the age of 16 and became the Street Outreach kid who went out for the last 21/2 years looking for lost kids.
She's made two trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on children's issues.
She turns 20 on June 5. And she's happier than she's been in a long time. She's opened up to friends. She pokes fun at herself, teases friends relentle ssly. She goes to Wichita State University now and is making A's, paying her own way with her small salary and scholarships. She's taking classes part time, mostly in social work. And it's not just dry academic theory to her.
And through it, she's saved a few kids.
One cold April night last year, in a crowd of shivering teenagers standing outside the Douglas Avenue coffee shop called Javaluiah, she playfully slapped and then hugged a leather-jacketed teenager she'd been pestering and calling and teasing for months.
He wouldn't give his name. But he watched her with sad-eyed affection as she walked away that night.
He said she saved his life. Saved him from drugs and despair. Helped him find a job and an apartment. She saved him by refusing to leave him alone.
But there is no truly happy ending to her own story, Karen said recently.
"There isn't an ending of any kind," she said.
Not long after her mother shot herself, someone close to Karen told her that she might as well be dead, too. That she was so wrapped up in Mom that part of her had died on that dining room floor with her. Karen had slept in the same bed with her mother for her 13 years. In their pictures, they look like twins. Inside, they nearly were.
Less than six months after her mother had killed herself, 14-year-old Karen Irene Countryman, living in foster care then, had written a despairing note in her journal.
Aug. 8, 1994
"I sometimes stand up, gettin' the urge to run down stairs & stab myself a thousand times with a knife. Yet a little corner of me holds me back saying no. Think how much hell you'd cause, think how ugly I would be if I lived. How do I wanna just die. Should I take many pills? But if I do die where will I go?
"I would sure like to know.
Then she wrote two prophetic words:
When Mom was alive, Karen had mimicked her in everything from the need to bake to the need to get perfect grades to the need to keep home tidy.
And like Mom, she pushes herself hard.
In November, she started a new job - working at the Children's Home on a three-year national survey of runaway teenagers organized by Iowa State University. She works at such a pace that she now sleeps through many of her weekends.
On rainy days, at home on a weekend, Karen curls up in bed and finds herself wishing that the sheets smelled like the ones in her old home on North Spruce. Like shampoo and flowers. Like Mom.
One day last summer, she went back to 418 N. Spruce, to the house where she'd come home to the smell of pie. Where Mom died.
Roslyn Marzett, who lives there now, invited her in, listened to her tell the story of her mother's death.
"I told her that her mother's still here," Roslyn said. "We hear her at night. Little sounds, like the sound of someone picking up a glass and putting it down, tidying up. We call out to her -'Hey, we're trying to sleep here.' And we hear this little sound, like someone startled. And then nothing more.
"She's a good spirit," Roslyn Marzett said. "There are bad spirits, but this one is very good."
Karen cried when she told her that story, Roslyn said.
Karen thinks of Mom every day.
"She gave me strength and values and every bit of goodness that was in her," Karen said. "And in her, the goodness went on forever."
On Valentine's Day and Mother's Day, Karen visits her mother's grave at Resthaven. She goes with her brother Jeremiah. Jeremiah doesn't say much, she says. He just goes. But when they get out of the car near the grave, Karen always takes off her shoes.
"I let the grass touch every sensation in my feet. For some reason I feel as though I am closer to her that way. "It makes me feel like a kid again and brings me closer to all the wonderfu l memories that we had together."
But for all the memories, for all she shares with Mom, Karen has been able to say something new in the last year.
"I'm NOT my Mom.
"I love her. But I'm not her.
"She was the shy Karen who stayed at home. I'm the Karen who has fun in crowds. The Karen who wants to save kids from themselves. The Karen who wants to go to college and make a difference."
And there is this:
Karen knows her mother's almost obsessive need for perfection led her to kill herself.
"My mother always tried too hard. She tried to be perfect in everything. So I try not to be perfect."
She pulls a pack of Marlboro Lights from her purse as she says this, takes out a cigarette and lights it.
She doesn't smoke much, she said. Maybe half a pack a week.
Yes, she says. Friends chide her for smoking. She smiles.
But there are two reasons to smoke, she says.
"One is that I like to have a smoke once in a while. I REALLY like that.
"The other is that it's my little way of rebelling against myself and against what everyone else expects of me.
"I keep that pack in there and smoke once in a while to remind myself that I don't need to be perfect.
"My mother died because she tried to be perfect, tried to be everything to everyone.
"Maybe that pack of cigarettes is going to help me stay alive."