Street smarts

Social worker Caryn Green sums up 10 years of working with at-risk teens as founding director of Crossroads.

crossroads311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Caryn Green is a veteran when it comes to the tough and often gritty realities faced by the capital’s at-risk English-speaking youth. But after 10 years of tireless work on behalf of that demographic, Green is stepping down as the director of Crossroads, the Jerusalem outreach center she founded in 2001.
The Tyler, Texas, native who made aliya in 1997 with a master’s degree in social work has certainly left her mark. The center she has overseen for almost a decade has assisted more than 10,000 disenfranchised youths since its inception and has taken hundreds of teens off Jerusalem’s streets. Still, after dealing with countless cases of drug abuse and violence, red tape and even terrorism, Green is stepping aside as Crossroads’ director. She will remain on the center’s board but will hand the reins over to a new head of staff.
“With someone else coming in, Crossroads will only benefit,” Green said recently as we spoke in her office in the center, which is located opposite Kikar Zion.
“I’m choosing to leave at a time when Crossroads is at an amazing place,” she says.
Acknowledging that the 10 years she’s invested in the now-thriving center weren’t always smooth, Green is modest in her critiques but renders them nonetheless.
“In many ways, it’s been an uphill battle the whole time,” she says. “Like any nonprofit organization, it’s hard to get funding, and then it’s hard to keep funding. There’s also all the politics of working in Jerusalem. But overall, this program is the best thing that has ever happened in my life – it was a dream come true. But at the same time, when you dream of doing something like this and then you do it, you become so attached to it that the emotional burden can become too much,” she admits.
“Crossroads has a long way to go,” she adds, “and there are things that the founder can’t necessarily do – things that are hard to let go of, for example, but things that need to be done.”
GREEN’S STORY with Crossroads began in 2000, when, like many olim, she struggled at first to find work in her field.
“It took me three months to find a job,” she says. “At first, I worked in a psychiatric hospital in the Jerusalem Hills. I worked in the children’s ward, which was a shocking way to come into the world of social work and familiarize [oneself] with the social welfare [system] of this country. But I got to know how the system works, and I very much see it as my basic training in this country. Some people do the army; I worked at a mental hospital. It really taught me how to deal with advocating for patients, which is a big part of what social work is all about,” she explains.
And she learned a lot. “It was hard, and at times I hated it – it’s really difficult to look into the eyes of a six-year-old who is psychotic.”
Nonetheless, after more than a year at the hospital, Green felt she had earned her stripes and took a job with a social outreach program.
“I worked there for eight months on the streets. That was where I began to visualize what would later become Crossroads,” she says. “Walking the streets and dealing with so many teens, I realized that there was so much more we could do and that, if it were up to me, we would do these things.”
One of those things was the development of a center – a place of refuge for all the people Green was encountering downtown.
“I had this dream,” she says. “If you don’t have a home base to help kids who are homeless, it’s chaos. I never believed that we should try to take them off the streets completely because there’s no way to compete with what the streets offer them. But a center does offer them a time-out, a drink of water, a breath of air, and we can continue to do our outreach work on the streets in addition to that.”
So Green dreamed – but not for long.
“Sure enough, the money came in,” she recalls. A private foundation that wanted to remain anonymous gave them the seed money to get started, and that ended up being enough to keep  the organization going for four years.
“They found us,” Green says. “They decided that they wanted to make this happen, and I didn’t have to vie for the money, which was amazing. Somebody basically said, ‘Here’s the money, make your dream come true.’”
So suddenly Green had a center.
“They gave me everything I wanted, and by having a center we were finally able to offer people a place to go.”
Green found the building where Crossroads is located – the second floor of the complex is rented by Crossroads from the Jewish Agency – and began doing renovations.
It opened in January 2001. “It’s no coincidence that we chose a downtown location. We’re across the street from ‘Crack Square,’ which is also called ‘American Square,’ where the Anglos tend to gather. It made sense to put ourselves in an area that’s not hard for them to get to.”
But once the center began to function, there were early adjustments and decisions that had to be made.
Originally they had wanted to have a doctor come in once a week to do check-ups, but that turned out to be unrealistic, as there weren’t enough kids to warrant it at the time.
They also talked about having a shower or a place to sleep, but the steering committee didn’t agree to that.
“We thought about giving out food, but that started to seem more like a shelter or a soup kitchen and we didn’t want that reputation, either. So we compromised and decided that we would keep food in the freezer for people in an emergency and offer snacks at night in our club room,” she says.
Educationally, there were a lot of gaps as well. “Initially we didn’t understand how much education would be part of the program. A lot of what we do is deal with these kids, who are 14, 15 or 16 years old and are not in school. So finding them the right school and getting them to stay in school is a big component. We also offer testing which, for example, means helping the American kids get their GED so they can get a high-school diploma. That diploma is so important – it allows them to believe in themselves enough to move towards their future.”
BUT JUST as Green and her staff were rolling up their sleeves and beginning to deal with the risks and dangers of street life, the streets themselves became much more dangerous. The second intifada, which had begun a few months before Crossroads’ inception, began to spread to Jerusalem, and suicide bombings ravaged the city, claiming dozens of civilian lives.
“The second intifada was literally happening around us,” Green recalls. “Our center’s location put us at the forefront of many of the attacks, and our staff was part of an emergency response team. As soon as there was a pigua [attack] anywhere in the center of town, we had a protocol at the center. We would go out and round up teenagers – specifically English speakers – and take them to the hospital or help them in any other number of ways. I was personally at the scene of eight attacks,” she says.
“We also tried to safeguard the kids,” Green continues. “We tried to stop them from running out to the bombing scenes and looking at the aftermath of the attack, which they often wanted to do. We also offered open telephone lines because whenever an attack would happen, the cell lines would immediately crash, but we had land lines that worked. So people could come in and use the phones to contact family or friends. I have to admit, it was a pretty crazy time,” she says.
“And the craziest part, at least for me, was that our kids didn’t stop coming downtown, and kids didn’t stop coming to Israel for the year. Their attitude was often that ‘Our lives are crappy as is, so what difference does it make if there are bombs going off around us?’ It didn’t affect them. They stayed inside the pubs more, maybe, but other than that the numbers were the same,” she says.
“When you’re in crisis, it actually doesn’t matter what’s gong on around you,” Green explains. “When you’re suicidal, it doesn’t matter that someone else is actually being suicidal. The kids were dealing with their immediate worries, and because they were so immediate, the bigger picture of what might happen on the streets wasn’t as impactful as you might think.”
As staff members, one of the things they had to worry about during that time was going out to the streets to do outreach work. “I didn’t want my staff to witness an attack, much less be wounded in one, and that affected our abilities as far as reaching the kids,” she says.
Nonetheless, Green had a professional survey done at that time. It revealed that with all the attacks happening, all the fear and confusion, Crossroads treated or had begun treating 1,000 teenagers within its first six months.
Although the period of the second intifada presented numerous challenges for Green and her staff, the most difficult challenges remained with the teenagers themselves.
“Over the last 10 years, I think the most difficult thing that we’ve had to deal with was that one of our kids, who was a regular and whom we knew well, passed away from a drug overdose,” says Green. “That was about four years ago, and as far as I know it was an accidental overdose – he just didn’t wake up in the morning. The funeral was a horrible experience. We were dealing with it emotionally for six months to a year afterwards, and even today some of the kids still bring it up in discussions with me.”
But there have also been success stories, Green is quick to add. “A couple of kids who were some of the biggest drug dealers in town are, after working with us, not only clean but also working full time, married with children and often help others get through their hard times.”
She also cites the examples of kids who had barely graduated high school, and at age 22 finished all their post-high-school testing and are now going to college to study engineering.
AS FOR the external changes Green has seen since she began working to clean up Jerusalem’s streets, a big one has been the age of the youth Crossroads had begun treating.
“We’re getting the kids at a much younger age now,” she says. “Today, if we can get to 14- or 15-year-olds, then by the time they’re 18, they’re doing okay.“When I first started, these kids were already 18,” she explains. “They were hardened and had been using drugs for a long time. The younger you get them, the better chance you have of helping them.”
However, Green says that because they are getting to them at a younger age, the gang-like mentality of downtown is gone, which presents its own challenges. That mentality used to come with certain rules, she elaborates. For example, the rule of the street was that dealers couldn’t sell drugs to a 13- or 14-year-old girl, and if they did, they would get beaten up. The gang mentality is, in a way, a sort of safety net. They had rules that they lived by, which was a way to keep themselves as safe as they could.
But because today there is not the same group – essentially because Crossroads intervened and helped them get back on their feet – kids are no longer living on the streets for three years. But that safety net is also gone, and younger kids are getting involved in drinking and using drugs.
The police have also caught on, says Green. “They have changed the way of arresting this group. They’re much more successful at picking kids up, but the police are also quite rough with the kids and pick up minors – sometimes for possession of small amounts of hashish, personal use – and turn them into snitches. Then that same kid can make drug deals and use as much as he or she wants because they are working for the police. It’s a problem,” she laments.
Green also laments the evolving trends in drug use among minors downtown.
“Pharmaceuticals have become more popular,” she says. “The drugs have changed. Pot is always going to be there, as well as hash or Ecstasy, or acid if they can get it. But the pharmaceuticals are much more dangerous because the kids don’t think they are. They underestimate the drugs, when in fact they are far more addictive and can literally kill you.”
Green stresses, however, that her success in combating such drug abuse, along with a slew of other issues, lies in the approach she uses.
“The thing that’s different about what I do is that I go to them where they are instead of putting on them the things that society does. I see inside of them that spark that maybe their parents or the schools don’t see. Behavior doesn’t define who a person is. People behave badly all the time. For teenagers to put this behavior behind them, someone needs to believe in them. And that’s what Crossroads does. We see people as people, and we give them respect,” she says.
“People ask me, ‘Why do they talk to you?’ And I say, ‘Because I talk to them,’” Green continues. “I try to steer them towards ways of helping them cope and eventually to a healthier path that will lead them to where they want to be. I try to help them believe that they can have a future beyond tomorrow.”
Many of the issues Green has had to deal with involve the kids’ status as new immigrants or children of new immigrants in what can often be a confusing new country.
Sixty percent of the kids at Crossroads are children of new immigrants – i.e., one or both of their parents are originally from an English-speaking country. The other 40% are kids who are on one-year programs here or have come to Israel because they have nothing else. But all of them speak English at home. It’s the language they understand and connect to emotionally.
“Our goal for those who are Israeli citizens is to help them integrate into Israeli society, not take them out of it,” says Green. “Our job is to first help them deal with themselves, stabilize emotionally, and then look at the community and figure out where they fit in.”
Crossroads now assists between 1,000 and 2,000 teens every year, either in conversations on the street or in a more in-depth manner at the center.
It’s all word of mouth, Green says of her outreach efforts. “We have never advertised. Kids bring kids, and there are always new kids coming in, even if it’s just to use the Internet,” she says.
“But here kids also ask to be in therapy,” Green continues, “which is unheard of anywhere else in the world. They tell me all the time that this is like a home to them. But at the end of the day it’s still four walls, and it’s restrictive. When we go to the streets, we visit them on their turf, we connect with them, we know who hit who and who broke up with who – we’re all part of the same story.
“These kids don’t need to be told, ‘It’s okay, you’ll get over it,’” Green adds. “They need to be told that wherever you are, that’s legitimate. Let’s try to figure out how to make the best of it and stop the suffering. As long as you’re an adult who comes into their lives and shows them respect, they’re craving that connection so it really isn’t that hard.”
GREEN’S DEPARTURE from Crossroads is accompanied by the creation of a new fund, Caryn’s Kids, for which all proceeds go to Crossroads. A benefit held at Kibbutz Ramat Rahel recently saw the launch of the fund. Details can be found at
“The fund will enable Crossroads to continue providing the programs and services that have been part of my heart for so long,” she says.
In the meantime, Green plans to take some time off and do some traveling.
“I’d like to write about my experiences at the center,” she says.
She also plans to publish the therapy method she created that has become the basis of the therapeutic work at Crossroads.
“After that, I’d like to take on someprivate clients and do lectures, maybe do clinical supervision. That’sthe most I’ve planned so far,” she says. “I’m looking forward tolooking at the world in a different light and seeing what otheropportunities are out there for me.”