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AS A BOY, Eugene Goodlow seemed doomed. Fatherless, with an ill mother, the Rochester youth began skipping school and hanging out with thieves. Accused of being an accomplice in a petty theft, he was sent to Gateway Youth and Family Services at just 11 years old.

The force of destiny finally had moved in his favor.

"The Gateway people were patient and genuinely interested in me," recalls Goodlow, now 31. "It was nice. They saw that I was inclined toward sports, that I had talent, and they encouraged me to work out my frustrations in a positive way."

He went on to play football at Kansas State University. Then, in 1983, Goodlow signed a $1.6 million, six-year contract with the National Football League's New Orleans Saints.

"Thank you for all the memories," reads a signed photo, hanging inside Gateway, of the wide receiver catching a pass.

Behind the "Wuthering Heights" stone fence on rural Main Street in Amherst stand Ozzie Osbourne, Metallica and Megadeth. Posters -- near-life-size passports for children entering the world of teen-agers -- are hung inside on the imposing walls of Gateway, a century-old residence for troubled children. They are the victims of violence, poverty, drugs and alcohol.

"Our angriest kids are probably our most scared kids," says Kathleen Romer, director of residential child care services. In her 20 years at Gateway, she has seen more than one rock fan who has turned rock thrower:

"That kind of aggression doesn't come from strength, it comes from weakness: 'I'm a failure.' 'Nobody likes me, I don't like me.' 'I can't do anything right.' 'Life stinks.' 'I'm miserable.' "

Her boys and girls are referred from Family Court, school districts and social service agencies across New York State, which provides most of the funding.

"Our children are probably more like other children than different from them. But they lack the inner emotional controls to cope with stress."

And today, youngsters must cope with more stress. "The Wonder Years" have become "The Horror Years."

"I'm glad I'm not growing up now," admits Ms. Romer, a baby boomer. "In my adolescent years, I never ever got approached -- 'Do you want to buy?' I didn't have to deal with the pressures of alcohol, drugs and sex before I reached the age of puberty.

"There's much greater access to drugs, available to younger and younger children, ages like 10 and 11, children, children!" She recites a litany of poisons: homelessness, crack, AIDS.

"We have children whose families are forever on the threshold of having to deal with the reality of homelessness. There are also illnesses, whether related to alcohol and drugs -- AIDS being the most recent specter. We have had children whose parents and siblings have been affected by and died of AIDS.

"The family unit is under pressure and attack. There's the divorce rate. And, of course, there's physical and sexual abuse."

Before coming to Gateway, children, like little Eugene Goodlow, might be truant. Or they may have had run-ins with the police -- purse snatching or shoplifting. They may be staying out all night, drinking or taking drugs.

"Sometimes adolescence is an opportunity to mess up," Ms. Romer says. "Those mistakes can make a stronger adult."

In Gateway's main hall, there's a huge tropical fish tank. When a child first arrives, Ms. Romer says, he invariably plops down in a nearby chair and stares at the fish, like a disturbed Mickey Rourke divining meaning from the tank in the movie "Rumble Fish."

"It's always scary when they first come here. It certainly doesn't look like home," Ms. Romer concedes.

"It is those crises, those moments of imbalance we see as opportunities to work with the youngster. They're a little more open, a little more accessible at that point.

"When they come here, it's kind of like, 'Oh, man, I'm in big trouble now.' "

A Columbia University study, to be published this fall, notes that 7 million youngsters -- one in four adolescents -- have limited potential for becoming productive adults because they have serious problems at home, at school or in the community.

Gateway has had many successes over the years in working with these lost boys and girls, dismissed as "waste products" by their better-adjusted peers.

To measure its success rate, Gateway will participate in a five-year after-care study with other agencies and the University at Buffalo. It does not have hard numbers on just how effective the program is.

Nevertheless, Gateway is praised by outside child care experts.

"They have a very difficult job, in my opinion, and under the circumstances they do a good job," says Erie County Child Protection team leader Elizabeth Flemming. "Teen-agers are the hardest population to work with.

"We've used Gateway for a lot of difficult cases. They really provide a valuable service to the county, and they've always been there." For some kids, the social worker says, Gateway is a last resort before detention or the streets.

"We have a structured program. There are caring and aware adults 24 hours a day around the children," Ms. Romer says.

"Their options to get over and get by are seriously lessened. Whereas at home, if the parent is dealing with more than one child, if they're having their own problems, it's not always easy for them to get the youngster out of bed, on the bus and into school. Here, it's much easier for us. School happens to be 10 steps across the walk. We have a captive audience."

What's life like there?

"If you need someone to talk to, there's someone always there for you," says 15-year-old Dennis Huber, a resident for two years.

"I like it a lot. Gateway has worked on all my problems. I came in with problems with my parents; (Gateway) changed a lot of my attitude problems. I'm more independent. I can cope more than I ever could before. Before, I could never talk with people; now I can talk open and freely."

A 17-year-old girl named Troi lived on the streets before she came to Gateway.

"You lose hope when you're on the street," she says. "Here, everyone has a positive attitude. When you're down, they have a lot to offer. My life changed. I don't want to fight anymore."

Besides the staff, she also praises volunteers who spend time with kids like her.

"It's a lot like being at home here. But there's more freedom. They take us camping, introduce us to new things like scuba diving. But you learn to be responsible for yourself. They've encouraged me to write, and I may be getting a story published."

School is divided into two parts -- one for residential kids, the other a day school for emotionally disturbed children who live within 45 miles of the campus.

There is a teacher and a teacher's aide for every six children.

"We teach a curriculum very similar to regular school," says Arlene Gullo, director of development for Gateway.

"Much of it is remedial. Most of the kids are behind because of emotional problems, truancy."

When kids have outbursts in class, they go to a "time-out room."

"That's where children can lie down, calm down and get themselves together," Ms. Gullo explains. "It's not punishment."

The school also has an extensive art therapy program, a computer room and a gym.

"In summer, we open an outdoor swimming pool. We have plans for an indoor pool. It's not a country club -- there are valid reasons for this. Swimming is wonderful therapy for these kids."

Almost 60 boys and girls, ages 9 to 17, live here on what was once a 66-acre farm. It started out as a home for foundlings, and evolved into a treatment center for problem children. The average stay is about a year, but some youths are there longer. Eugene Goodlow lived at Gateway for four years.

Each youngster gets intense therapy with lots of individual attention. Gateway Youth and Family Services, a non-profit Methodist organization, also provides counseling for the whole family by social workers. In addition, they supervise foster homes.

It's the gateway to a new attitude. "The kids feel, 'Yes, I'm safe'; 'Yes, I'm cared for'; 'Yes, I can change.' "

Ms. Romer talks about one girl who attempted suicide several times before she came to Gateway.

"The pain of living becomes less desirable than the nothingness of death. These youngsters don't have enough self-esteem. They don't see themselves as valuable."

Treatment included "taking her hand-in-hand to the school door and assuring her, 'I'll be here when you come out,' " Ms. Romer recalls.

"We're generalists. We teach the art of living, what youngsters need to do to cope with the stresses of their day-to-day life."

The girl recovered and went on to nursing school.

"As difficult as the kids can be to work with, they give you back an awful lot," Ms. Romer observes. "They give you real trust."

Her mission is to "re-unify our families and children whenever possible."

And to help the children learn to care for themselves.

Most live in cottages, usually two to a room, with social workers and aides, "working there in shifts so there's supervision all day and night," Ms. Gullo says. "It's actually therapy. Some of the children don't have basic living skills, like how to keep clean, how to clean up after themselves. Sometimes parents aren't around, or they don't have the skills to pass on.

"Kids get allowances and learn how to manage money. Our aim is to get as close to a warm family feeling as we can."

Ms. Romer leads the way to Gateway's "apartment," a pre-independent living program for six adolescent boys, 15 to 17.

The boys are making spaghetti tonight, with salad and garlic bread. "And they're good cooks," Ms. Romer attests.

Heavy-metal paraphernalia is acceptable in the decor. Unlike some evangelical ministers, Gateway does not link behavioral problems to rock music.

"We try to have a reasonable approach," Ms. Romer explains. "The bigger deal you make over some things, the stronger the opposition. Kids have to begin to make choices to lead successful lives."

And their choices often have been right.

At least one member of this year's University at Buffalo graduating class was once a Gateway resident.

"We have a whole spectrum of success," Ms. Romer says. "A youngster who earns a (General Equivalency Diploma) and gets a job and raises a family is as much a success as a youngster who can pull down a couple of hundred thousand a year. We hear from youngsters who tell us they're working as bank tellers and insurance brokers. I'll get in a taxicab and meet a person who was here 25 years ago."

Football star Goodlow, who earned a degree in management and plans to go on for his master's at a Florida college, has given anti-drug lectures in schools and hospitals.

"Because I didn't have a father, I didn't have a good authority influence to guide and direct me," he remembers. "But you can't use that as an excuse.

"Success is not something you walk into. It takes determination and discipline. Now, with all the peer pressure to be hip and cool, with the negative things like drugs and alcohol, an individual has to be strong, and find what out his talents are."

Gateway students also have gone on to UB Law School, and have joined the police force.

"And occasionally," Ms. Romer says sadly, "we read about our youngsters going to jail."

The transition from child to teen can be treacherous, Ms. Romer says. These first unsure steps into adulthood need the guiding hand of a loving parent.

Too often, child experts say, that guidance comes in the form of a rebuff that shreds the tender sense of self these youths are developing.

Now a father of three, Eugene Goodlow says he tries to give his own young children "a lot of love and understanding."

The first unsure steps into adulthood need the guiding hand of a loving parent. Too often, child experts say, guidance comes in the form of a rebuff that shreds the developing sense of self.

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