Snohomish County teen, once homeless, now works to find his place in the sky
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Kyle Ricco stands in the courtyard at Cocoon House in Everett. Kyle lived at the organization's teen shelter for more than a year after becoming homeless at age 15.
Kyle Ricco and his wife, Brittany, prepare what Kyle calls “second breakfast.” Kyle often wakes up before Brittany to go to his morning class at Everett Community College, then returns to see her.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Kyle Ricco walks down Casino Road on Tuesday morning on his way to class at Evergreen Community College. Ricco and his wife Brittany have been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment on Casino Road for the past month and don’t have a parking spot at the apartment complex. Instead they park their car along Evergreen Way overnight.
Mark Mulligan / The Herald
Kyle Ricco, 17, looks out Thursday afternoon over Paine Field, where at the age of 14 and under the supervision of a pilot he flew a small twin-engine airplane for the first time. The flight sparked a dream in Kyle to become a pilot.
Kyle and his wife, Brittany, walk along the fence line at the Future of Flight Aviation Center as a plane lands at Paine Field on Thursday. In a week, the couple will load a U-Haul and move to North Dakota, where Kyle will attend college.
He had spent the last month sleeping on a couch at a friend's apartment. He couldn't stay there any longer, and this place, an Everett shelter for homeless teens, was the final stop before the streets.
Kyle climbed out of the sport utility vehicle and slung a backpack over his shoulder. Inside it he had packed everything that meant something to him. An airplane yoke and pedals for a flight simulator. A box with his mother's ashes.
His friend's mother had driven him here. She helped him unload a few trash bags stuffed with his clothes. Then she wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug.
She'd been kind to him, tried to make a place in her apartment for him. Like everything else in his life, it just hadn't worked out.
“If you need any help, give me a call,” she said.
Kyle knew he probably wouldn't.
He was 15 years old and on his own.
A path to homelessness
When Kyle was a little boy, he fantasized about escape.
He wanted to run away, but he couldn't come up with a good plan. All he could think to do was run into the field near his father's house and hide.
He made stories up about how the bruises happened. He told his teachers he had flown over the handlebars on his bike or had fallen off the monkey bars. But these were injuries no childhood accident could explain.
By 7, authorities had placed Kyle in foster care. It took him a year to tell the truth about what happened: that his father whipped him with a belt, pushed his face under water, beat him so badly he couldn't open one eye — and worse.
“The sickest things you could do to a child — he did it all,” Kyle said.
His father went to jail. His mother battled substance abuse and later died. Kyle was physically safe in foster care, but life felt uncertain as he was moved from one home to the next.
A single woman adopted him two years later. For a while, Kyle enjoyed a normal childhood, one filled with camping trips and afternoons spent playing in the woods near his house in Mukilteo. His adopted mom, he said, was awesome.
When Kyle hit middle school, he began to fight with his mother. He wanted more freedom. She wanted him to follow the rules of the house. When he was a high school sophomore, the arguments came to a head. He came home late one night after church. She locked him out. They remain estranged.
She didn't return a call requesting comment.
He ended up living with neighbors for a few months. They, too, eventually decided they couldn't house a teenager.
At night, he found shelter at the homes of friends. By day, he attended classes at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo and tried to pretend everything was fine.
He tried to get a job but quickly found businesses couldn't hire a 15-year-old. Instead, he earned money by painting a house after school. Kyle had earned all A's and B's, but his grades started to slip. He feared he'd end up in foster care again, shuttled from stranger to stranger, school to school.
Then he found a way out.
A place to count on
Kyle thought a homeless shelter would be full of drug addicts and thugs.
When he walked into Cocoon House for the first time in 2008, he found something different: safety and support.
Other kids had their problems. For the most part he found normal kids. Kids just like him.
“I'm not the only one out there,” he remembers thinking. “I'm not the only homeless kid in Mukilteo.”
Cocoon House is a nonprofit based in Everett that provides shelter, meals and support to homeless teenagers.
That first day, Kyle was shown to a temporary room in an upper floor of a house. He spent that first afternoon wandering around downtown Everett, trying to get the lay of the land. He ate an ice cream cone. He visited the transit station to pick up a bus schedule. It felt like a new beginning, he said.
After two weeks in the temporary shelter, Kyle moved to his own permanent room in what used to be a hotel. He had rules and a curfew but he also had independence. He could still go to Kamiak.
“I was going to have a place to live I could count on,” he said.
He would stay at Cocoon House for more than a year, and the Cocoon House counselors report that he thrived. He kept away from drugs, drinking and other trouble that sometimes captures other kids at the shelter.
As soon as he turned 16, he got a job, first at a clothing store and later at a McDonald's. He started attending college classes at Everett Community College along with high school. His grades climbed back to A's and B's.
He dreamed about college. More than anything he wanted to be a commercial airline pilot.
“The competition is pretty stiff,” he said. “My record would have to be perfect.”
Preparation for flight
Kyle didn't know how to begin to get to college.
Then he met Larry Warner, a Cocoon House volunteer.
Warner, now a 64-year-old Fluke Corp. retiree, became Kyle's mentor. He helped Kyle get a driver's license and apply for emancipation, a step that legally made Kyle an adult.
He steered Kyle through a maze of applications and tests for college. He even engineered a trip for Kyle to visit the University of North Dakota, a school with a well-regarded aviation program.
Warner went along just as a parent would have.
“He was the kid in the candy store,” Warner said of their trip. “You couldn't get the grin off his face or the sparkle out of his eyes.”
Warner was one of the first people Kyle called when he got his acceptance letter.
Kyle had gone to pick up his mail at Cocoon House. He found two letters from the university. Kyle tore open the first.
“It said, ‘Thank you for submitting your application. We still need your transcripts,' ” he said. “That kind of ticked me off because I had already sent in my transcripts.”
Kyle opened the second letter from the university. This one began with the word “Congratulations.”
He ran through Cocoon House, the letter gripped in his hand, telling everyone he could: He had made it.
Kyle plans to start classes next month. He won't turn 18 until August.
The impediment that remains for Kyle is paying for pilot training, Warner said.
Federal loans don't come close to covering the entire cost. The program includes hours of flight time with an estimated price tag of $59,000 — that's on top of tuition.
Warner has helped Kyle apply for every scholarship he can find.
“Kyle has nothing,” Warner said. “Everything he owns could fit in the back of my SUV.”
He hopes someone will step forward and help. In the meantime, Warner said he's tried to be something Kyle never had: a father.
Sometimes Kyle is so mature, so levelheaded, it's easy to forget that he is 17. Warner doesn't.
He tries to remind Kyle not to make impulsive decisions, like the time Kyle bought a $400 car sight unseen before he even had a driver's license.
Even Warner can't stop a boy, now a man in the eyes of the law, from making adult decisions — like getting married.
‘I'm coming with you, too'
Kyle and Brittany Peterson were first friends.
Brittany is reserved and shy. When she was 12, she found a dragonfly with a damaged wing. She made a nest of grass in a bowl and kept it inside until it could fly away.
She remembers seeing Kyle for the first time at a party. She watched the way everybody was drawn to him. He saw her standing to the side, away from the action. He broke out of the crowd and asked her to dance.
Kyle and Brittany became fast friends. He told her once they were like two peas in a pod. Their friends joked they were like an old married couple.
They remained friends only until a conversation in her car parked outside a Denny's last November.
He had already told her he planned to go to North Dakota. She couldn't imagine not going. She didn't want to lose him.
“I hope you realize I'm coming with you, too,” she said.
He started to tear up.
“Are you sure? Are you serious?” he said.
He'd already gone through so much stress and planning. He didn't want to be let down again.
“Yes,” she told him. “I'm definitely sure.”
In January, they were standing in a Snohomish County courtroom, exchanging wedding vows.
They'd brought two witnesses and a set of rings. They couldn't afford to buy her one so they used a ring with an opal her aunt had given her.
The judge rambled through the ceremony in a few minutes. They kissed. He is now 17 and she is 19.
“I guess what I love most about him is he's so confident and grown up, but he can be goofy, too,” she said. “I'm always cautious and scared and he just does what he thinks is right.”
They adopted a 16-year-old cat named Molly that nobody else wanted. They moved into a room in an old house in Lowell. In the last few months they've moved twice more. Now they're sleeping on the living room floor of their friend's one-bedroom apartment. Brittany works at an assisted living home in Snohomish. Kyle works at a McDonald's.
Money is tight. Sometimes, they like to get ice cream cones and eat them at Blackmans Lake before she heads to work.
After they're done with college, she wants to have a real wedding, one with a white dress and a cake. He's going to get work as a pilot. She wants to work with animals. Some people only want to have their own children, but they won't be that kind of couple, she said. They'll adopt.
Kyle is getting his diploma from Kamiak, but he won't go to his graduation ceremony. Next Friday, Kyle and Brittany plan to be on their way. They're going to sell their car, pack what they own in a U-Haul truck and drive to North Dakota. They don't even have warm winter coats.
“I do think I can spend the rest of my life with you,” Kyle said, turning to Brittany. “There's not one doubt in my mind that will happen.”
The world in front of him
So much can steer a person off track in life. Sometimes one moment can also keep it on course.
When Kyle was 14, his neighbor arranged for him to take a flight with a pilot from Paine Field.
Kyle had practiced flying for hours on a flight simulator his grandfather had given him, using an airplane yoke and pedals to steer his simulated plane through the sky.
This was his first real flight. Kyle remembers climbing into the co-pilot seat of the twin-engine plane. He remembers the roar of the engine, the crackle of the radio as the pilot received clearance to take off, the rush of speed as the plane roared down the runway and finally the lightness of liftoff.
It was a sunny day, with a few heavy white cumulus clouds hanging in the sky. Below he could see dense clusters of houses and the coast receding under the clear blue waters of the Puget Sound.
After a few minutes, the pilot turned to him. “You have control,” he said to Kyle. “Take it where you want to go.”
Kyle grasped the airplane's yoke in front of him. He pushed the plane down slowly, and then banked.
At that moment, Kyle knew he had found the thing he was supposed to do with his life.
With the plane's yoke grasped in his hands, the world stretched out in front of him, he felt confident, as if he had just proved something to himself.
He had never felt so weightless.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197, email@example.com.
How we reported this story: Representatives from Cocoon House, which operates homeless shelters for teens throughout the county, contacted The Herald about Kyle Ricco. They said the 17-year-old Kamiak High School senior is one of their program's successes. Reporter Debra Smith documented Kyle's story through court records, school transcripts and other official documents, and through hours of interviews with Kyle and others who know him well.
Fund for Kyle
Friends of Kyle Ricco have set up a fund to help pay for his educational costs. To contribute, go to any Wells Fargo branch and ask for the “Kyle Ricco Donation Fund.” To learn more about Cocoon House, go online to www.cocoonhouse.org or call 425-259-5802.
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