COEUR d'ALENE - When Richard Peterson and Jeff Jenkins interact, anyone watching can tell that for a couple of 18-year-olds, they go way back.
As Jeff watched Richard play a friendly game of chess Friday at a downtown coffeehouse, the pair engaged in the friendly kind of kidding that only grows from years of shared experiences.
For these teens, much of that time together has been spent at Crosswalk North Idaho, the nonprofit youth outreach program previously known as Project Safe Place.
"I think it's probably made one of the biggest impacts in my life," Jeff said of the program.
Although the name is new, and the familiar yellow Project Safe Place signs are gone, the services remain the same.
Located in the basement of the St. Vincent de Paul H.E.L.P Center, 201 E. Harrison Ave., Crosswalk provides immediate help and supportive resources for Kootenai County youth in crisis, often kids and teens who are at risk of separating from their families or becoming homeless, lacking safe transportation or after-school supervision, being abused at home, struggling in school, or being bullied in school.
The organization helped 120 youth last year. For 70 of those kids, it was their first time reaching out to Crosswalk.
Richard and Jeff have each been involved with Crosswalk since they were in middle school, long before the name change.
One day when he was 12, Richard decided to tag along when his older brother visited the program's after-school drop-in center, and Richard kept going back.
Now the "longest standing youth" in the program, he has been there longer than any of the nonprofit's staff.
"It's a great place to hang out, an easy place to find dinner," Richard said.
It's that, and much more.
Reflective of its new name, Crosswalk is "all about helping kids cross safely from instability to stability," said program director Brandi Smitherman.
This is no baby-sitting program, she said. It's a community outreach that offers a 24-hour telephone help line, crisis intervention, access to counseling, clothing and food.
"These are kids that often fall through the cracks," Smitherman said.
Cory Sturgis, Crosswalk's volunteer coordinator, said the parents of these youth often aren't able to, or won't, help their children with many of the things Crosswalk provides.
At the afternoon drop-in center, open Monday to Friday from 2:30-6:30 p.m., there's a hot meal offered each night. Kids can get homework help, participate in recreational activities and are encouraged to do volunteer work in the community.
"They're really providing me with experiences I doubt I would be able to do, mainly because of finances," Jeff said.
Jeff heard about Crosswalk years ago, from Richard. Both teens have been involved in the agency's youth leadership program and have helped coordinate activities for other kids like themselves.
Many of the "new kids" come to Crosswalk from local homeless shelters after school, while their parents are out working, Jeff said.
"That's why I used to come. No one was around, and I had to watch my little brother," he said. Back in those days, Jeff brought his sibling with him to Crosswalk.
He said he tells young newcomers to the program to "pay attention to what these people (Crosswalk staff) are trying to teach you. This is not mumbo-jumbo."
Both Richard and Jeff have come a long way from their early visits to the center.
With the agency's help, Richard is now attending North Idaho College. He just finished his third week. He's in a technical certificate program, learning how to be a maintenance mechanic/millwright. Crosswalk helped him pay for his books and supplies and take his placement tests.
Jeff is finishing high school at Project CDA, where he also has a paying job in the kitchen. Last summer, he worked at Camp Easton, as a lifeguard and kayak instructor, positions Jeff learned about through his connections at Crosswalk. He received his lifeguard training at the Kroc Center, again, with help from Crosswalk.
Like other teens involved in the program, Jeff has participated in community service projects, often working in the Community Roots garden, a program that provides fresh produce to agencies serving homeless and disadvantaged individuals.
"When we go out to a farm and do a lot of hard work in the garden, it feels like I'm giving back to the community and making myself whole," Jeff said.
Now, Crosswalk is helping Jeff apply for a Horatio Alger scholarship, an award that could potentially pay for four years of higher education.
The scholarship is awarded to young people who are willing to work hard and do things to better their community, he said.
Jeff explained that Horatio Alger's 19th century writing reflected the belief that "just because you're not born with power and money, that doesn't mean you can't be somebody. I can be somebody."
Information: (208) 676-0772
How to help
A fundraiser to benefit Crosswalk North Idaho is scheduled Saturday in Coeur d'Alene.
The Lake City Blues Benefit, featuring music from Cryin' Shame and Laffin' Bones, takes place Sept. 22 from 3-7 p.m. at O'Shay's Irish Pub, 313 Coeur d'Alene Lake Drive. Tickets are $10. Information: 208-676-0772, www.voaspokane.org/events