Loving the hopeless
by Ron Stueckle, Class of 1985
It's hard to see people you love in pain. It’s also hard to just sit in it with them. Both are important. Each is an honor.
I had a good childhood. I grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, in a supportive, loving family. I knew they had my best interest in mind no matter what. I was never afraid I was going to be kicked out of the house with all of my belongings in a garbage bag.
I never was ejected from anywhere simply because of the color of my skin or the way I dressed. I never had people cross to the other side of the street when they saw me. I never visited either of my parents in jail. I did not lose multiple family members and friends to street violence before I was even old enough to drive. I have very few painful childhood memories. My life was exactly opposite of most of the youth we serve.
WE’VE MADE IT OUR MISSION AT SUNSET YOUTH SERVICES TO TARGET THE MOST VULNERABLE OF THESE TEENS AND YOUNG ADULTS—THOSE LEFT BEHIND BY FAMILIES, SCHOOLS, THE COURTS AND EVEN CHURCHES.My wife Dawn and I, together with Delvin Mack, co-founded Sunset Youth Services in 1993 to address the needs of young people in San Francisco. We are a non-profit that over the past 25 years has served thousands of young people from across the metropolis, most of them coming to terms with a loss, violence and sense of hopelessness that used to be beyond my imagination.
The San Francisco Bay Area is renowned as a bastion of creativity and innovation, the place that gave rise to transformative tech giants like Apple, Google and Facebook. With its cable cars, Victorian homes and sweeping vistas, San Francisco is also one of the world’s premier vacation destinations—not to mention one of the most desirable places to live. But hidden amid the postcard views are the thousands of people living in poverty, coping with abuse in addition to the loss of homes and loved ones and a breakdown of the social safety net that most of us take for granted.
We’ve made it our mission at Sunset Youth Services to target the most vulnerable of these teens and young adults—those left behind by families, schools, the courts and even churches. One example is the story of Mateo.
At about 6:00 a.m. one Friday morning in December a couple years ago, we got an urgent call from Mateo’s girlfriend. “His brother might be dead,” she cried, rousing us from sleep. Dawn and I rushed to pick him up and take him to the house his brother shared with about 10 other people.
As we approached, we could see an unmistakable white van parked in front. Mateo let out an almost inhuman moan. Close to a year earlier, his father had been found dead in a cardboard box in a grocery-store parking lot where he had lived (and where Mateo and his brother had also lived for many of their formative years), so for Mateo a coroner’s vehicle had become an all-too-familiar sight.
We pulled up, and he jumped out of the car with my wife. They raced up the stairs, only to find his brother lying in a body bag. The coroner unzipped the bag, and Mateo slumped to the floor, lying over his brother, pounding his chest. “Wake up, brother,” he cried. “Get up. Come on. Wake up.”
Mateo’s brother had died of an overdose of Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug that can be highly addictive. Usually those who sell it don’t use it too, but that had not been the case with Mateo’s brother. “They bagged my brother up and took him out like a dog,” he later sobbed on the phone to his girlfriend. “I don’t have any more family.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Dawn and I spent a lot of time acting as Mateo’s surrogate family, helping him process what he’d been through, sitting with him in the midst of his pain. We play this role all too often. Circumstances vary greatly, but people’s need to be in positive relationships does not change. People’s need to be heard and felt does not change. People’s need to have their pain understood does not change.
As an agency, we’ve come a long way. Sunset Youth Services provides case management to high-risk young people—everything from crisis counseling to career guidance to justice-system navigation—trying to help youth and young adults stay in school, find jobs, and leave and remain out of the justice system. We’ve developed a digital arts program that enables young people to create their own music and videos, explore healthy self-expression and pick up marketable job skills. Our family support programs provide individual support counseling, parenting classes and a food pantry.
We wouldn’t have reached any of those milestones without building long-term relationships with young people like Mateo, whom we had known for more than half a decade before his brother’s overdose. Before that, Mateo had lived in such a way that his choices and difficulties put his life in danger, both at his own hands and at the hands of other people. His brother’s death helped him recognize the importance of people in his life, like his daughter, and made him want to be a better father. We invested time, much of it unstructured, trying to lead by example and just being with him in his struggles to become a better parent.
During this time of growth, Mateo made the decision to face the legal consequences of his choices by completing a detox program. A big part of my job at Sunset Youth Services is helping people navigate social and service-providing systems they find impossible to understand or which they don’t even believe they have the right to access. This includes anything from courts to health care, housing to job training, family support to systems navigation.
One of the biggest challenges we face is rising income inequality, and its consequences are especially devastating in the area of housing. An influx of wealthy technology industry employees has sent Bay Area home prices soaring, which makes it hard for even middle-class families to afford living in the area and has helped fuel a surge in demand for low-income, government-subsidized housing. We have many more people who are homeless, couch surfing or staying wherever they can find a roof over the heads. Some of these are teens who were abused or kicked out of their homes and end up having nowhere to go.
Some of the obstacles we encounter are ones created within like-faith systems. At its heart, Sunset Youth Services is a faith-based organization, and our model is a man who gave up his life for those who are broken and in the depths of pain, for the people who had no standing in society. Our job is not to convert or proselytize, but to serve people from throughout the city without regard to race, religion, sexual orientation or any other characteristic. We sometimes encounter skepticism from people who are concerned that, because we’re Christians, we will discriminate.
We saw this recently when we were applying to work with a local young adult court. Before we could come to an agreement, the director said to us, “I noticed on your website that you’re faith-based. I need to tell you that that term sends a red flag. Can you please unpack that for me some?” I explained that our faith was our motivating factor. I told her my faith told me how to live. It didn’t tell me to tell her how to live. What it required from me was to love people. Because she and others had seen our work over the years and that sentiment rang true, we were able to forge an alliance.
While much of my work involves investing in the lives of individuals and their families, it also involves trying to change the underlying policies and structures that contribute to injustice and inequality.
For example, I sit on San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council, a body that helps set policy for the city’s Juvenile Hall, helping decide how grants are disbursed to ensure that kids are treated well. I formerly co-chaired a group called the Juvenile Justice Providers Association, which engages in advocacy. Our lobbying resulted in a change to the previous policy whereby probation officers alone decided who could visit an incarcerated youth; now there’s a procedure in place for deciding whether an advocate or family member has the right to a visit.
Another time, I worked with a group that included a police commissioner, the chief of police, other youth workers and a representative of the Police Oversight Committee. We were able to achieve a change in Police Department General Orders so that law enforcement can no longer house youth in the same cells as adults or question a minor without a parent or lawyer present.
Our work also led to the creation of a “Know Your Rights” campaign, helping young people better understand laws. I also served on the San Francisco Police Chief’s Youth Service Provider’s Forum from 2009–12, tasked with educating police and helping define the Police Department’s policy on interacting with juveniles in various settings.
I have wanted to challenge the status quo from early on, and this impulse was nurtured at Northwest Nazarene University. Both inside the classroom and outside, NNU taught me how to think and question and search for the truth. I studied philosophy under professors who thought hard and questioned, giving me the freedom to do the same. But my path from NNU to Sunset Youth was not straightforward. Right out of college, I explored a career as a professional musician, touring with a band called CCQ and doing session work in Southern California. During this time, I met Dawn.
In Southern California, we attended Anaheim First Nazarene Church, where we got our first taste of working with youth.
When the youth pastor left, the church offered us the position, and we decided to accept. It was during our time in that position that our heart for youth at risk awakened. We lived next door to the church, which was located in a neighborhood where many recent Mexican immigrants lived, and we began to volunteer at a school for homeless kids. As our call to disconnected and marginalized young people became clearer, we found ourselves outside of the typical youth pastor context, so when we had a chance to move to San Francisco, we took it.
Soon afterward, Sunset Youth Services was born, tracing its roots to the schoolyard of our local, ill-resourced middle school, where we began volunteering during the lunch hour. “Show up during lunch, and let’s see what you can do,” the dean of students told Dawn, Delvin Mack (the other co-founder) and I.
The following day, we showed up with little more than a willingness to serve and a giant red rubber ball. “No one is going to want to play with us,” we joked, feeling stupid as we waited for the bell to ring, but sure enough once lunch started, students teemed onto the yard and raced over to us, asking, “What are we going to play?” The game of choice was a variant of dodge ball, and before long, students were engrossed in school-wide lunchtime tournaments.
Every day, the kids would ask whether we were coming back the next day—a clear reminder of the importance of consistent commitment to the kids—and the red ball became a symbol of the ability to make a big difference even with meager resources.
Twenty-five years later, the hard work continues—sometimes resulting in triumph, and often resulting in setback and heartbreak. Mateo still wants to be a better father to his daughter, but he has relapsed into drug use and sales again and has spent more time incarcerated. I’m often asked how I keep from becoming discouraged. The truth is, in this line of work, you don’t avoid discouragement, which is where my faith comes in. I love because I have been loved. There’s nothing I can do to out-grace the grace I’ve received.
We have been asked many times over the years if our main focus is the street violence, the poverty, gangs, or broken lives and families. The answer to all of those is no. They all matter deeply and require much attention; however, the heart of the true focus can only be to love, to sit with others in their pain and give it the dignity it deserves. The story is over for some, but it is not over for Mateo. It is not over for too many to count. It is not over for us, either. Being done is not an option.
In 1993, Ron co-founded Sunset Youth Services, a non-profit organization that has successfully transformed the lives of over 6,000 low-income, at-risk San Francisco youth. This organization was named the 2017 California Non-Profit of the Year and received the 2018 San Francisco Peacemaker award. Learn more at SUNSETYOUTHSERVICES.ORG.
Header photo caption: Ron teaches a teenager how to run live sound at a festival.