Whistling a new tune

Mom refused to let kids stay in the dark

By KATE REARDON

Herald Writer

EVERETT — When police brought Mary Longnickel’s daughter home at 3 a.m. one summer morning with the message that the family car had been wrecked, she didn’t turn away from her 14-year-old daughter. She got closer.

Now, Longnickel spends every Sunday with Ashley and some of the young teen-agers in the neighborhood, who had been given the nickname the "Dixie Whistlers" because they whistled to find each other in the dark.

And the teens are embracing Longnickel in return.

"I’m turning my life around after what happened this summer," Ashley said.

New to the neighborhood, Ashley said she was doing things over the summer she wouldn’t normally do. Her mom helped her get her life back in order.

"I’m just now getting closer to her again because of what she’s doing," Ashley said. "It really hurts me to know I’ve hurt my mom and dad so much."

On Sundays, Longnickel, boyfriend Michael Anderson and the teens get together to play sports, games, eat food or pick up litter in the neighborhood. They’re hoping other parents and more teens will join in.

Anderson is skeptical, however. He has changed the locks on his house twice since May, replaced a broken window and has had items taken from his home including a watch that had sentimental value.

On summer nights, if you listened carefully, you could hear some of the kids — the whistling, the chatter, the commotion. By morning, evidence of their nightly activity included broken gutters or litter scattered around.

"There’s a lot of kids in this neighborhood without a lot to do," said Chris Phillips, whose son, Drew, has joined the Sunday group in a neighborhood near Everett Mall Way. "The kids run all over here. There’s been a problem for years."

Longnickel became so concerned, she knew she had to do something. It’s a second chance, she said, adding that she stewed long and hard over what to do to reach out to the teens.

"It was all-consuming," she said, especially when the family car was taken and later wrecked. "I was losing my own daughter."

And then, one morning, it all clicked, Longnickel said, adding that since she couldn’t beat them she decided to join them.

"I asked people at work if they had any sports equipment," she said. One night not long afterward, Longnickel put her pepper spray in her pocket and caught up with some of the teens at a nearby elementary school, a favorite hangout.

That’s where she launched her idea about getting together on the weekends. Some of the kids went for the idea.

Twelve kids showed up for the first weekend. And the next weekend, there were 20, Longnickel said.

"I’m turning a new leaf," 14-year-old Mellissa Kelly said. "I’m turning into a new and better person."

Drew, 14, said he’s proud of the new group.

"She’s offered me a chance," Drew said of Longnickel. "When you try to be someone you’re not, that’s when you get into trouble."

His dad agreed.

"He’s realizing there’s a lot of different things he could be doing," Phillips said about his son.

Drew has even become one of the teens who meets during the week to help plan events for the upcoming Sunday. They’re even thinking of a new name for the new group.

"These kids have so much power to do good things," Longnickel said. "They’re good kids who are bored, and now they’ve got something more constructive" to do.

Longnickel said she’s in it for the long haul.

And the teens? They said they hope it lasts "forever."

"We get to have fun together instead of doing the bad things like sneaking out," Mellissa said. "And we still all get to be with each other."

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