There was a time when the runaways and homeless youth of America were corralled like wild horses and sent to the ranch the ranch being the local jail. They were weak and tired, hungry and beaten, sick and depressed. The pity card was never played with these kids: they were put in jail with the adult convicts of their town.
In 1974, a group of community volunteers in St. Louis, headed by the Reverend Earl Worley, had seen enough. After looking into the tear-stained eyes of a wayward teenage girl who had been beaten and knowing where the common path for homeless youth would take her, they opened a youth shelter. The martyred girl would become the basis for Youth in Need, a non-profit organization that offers services to strengthen youth and families so they can not only survive in today's world, but thrive in safe and nurturing environments.
The facts and the figures of the homeless and poverty-stricken change with each new year, especially in the case of children. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty's website, 27 million children in the U.S. are growing up in low-income families. More than 85% of them have at least one working parent whose income is not sufficient. A family of four making double the federal poverty level ($36,800) does not have enough to provide a family with the basic necessities; housing, food and health care. But when you hear the statistics and think, "Oh, that doesn't happen here in St. Louis," you're dead wrong. It does happen.
Youth in Need is the reason you might not see as many homeless children in the streets at night. Or the reason that the woman working during the day CAN work during the day, even though she has three young kids and nobody at home to watch them.
Youth in Need serves more than 5,000 children and families every year by providing more than 50 service programs around St. Louis city and surrounding counties. There is talk of the services being expanded to the East St. Louis as well.
Here's how Youth in Need works: they act as a middleman, hearing the needs of the youth or families and figuring out which of the 50 service programs would best suit said needs. A few of the service programs feature residential treatment, community, early-childhood development, educational, counseling or employment as their main focus. But if a case arises that one of the 50 services cannot accommodate, then Youth in Need steers the situation to an assistance program outside of their realm.
Without financial support or partnerships with other organizations, a public service such as Youth in Need could not function at its dedicated par. Greg Wies, senior director of community relations, says that so many people agree with and financially support Youth in Need's purpose that "to just name a few would leave someone out."
They do receive federal, state and local grants, some of which need to be matched with a certain percentage of either money or volunteer time. The United Way, Variety Club and other internal fundraising also provide monies for operation costs.
"We have many partnerships, big and small, ranging from other non-profit agencies (such as the Head Start Alliance), schools, corporations and grass roots organizations," Wies says.
"Youth in Need is always looking to expand services or partner with other agencies to respond to the needs of the community."
The Head Start Alliance gets its name from the Head Start program, which provides a child and family development program for low-income families who have children ranging from ages three to five. Located in St. Louis city, the alliance is comprised of Youth in Need, Grace Hill, the YWCA, ECHO (Emergency Children's Home) and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
The Head Start Alliance is but one facet of Youth in Need's involvement in the urban community. Though their main office is in St. Charles, where the population is booming due to urban sprawl and vast development, they provide their services to many of the city's programs dedicated to helping the troubled and unfortunate.
- Project Youth Connect, a mentoring program that guides and assists middle school youth, works to reach school success and teach kids to say no to drugs.
- Youth Works assists school dropouts entering the work force by providing GED classes, life skills education, counseling and help with securing jobs.
- Various drop-in centers around the city (also in the county) provide after-school and recreational activities to prepare the youth to develop healthy, co-existing behaviors. These activities help the youth deal with problems such as conflict resolution, anger management and safety issues.
The Street Outreach Program (SOP) is also located in the city. The SOP provides emergency food and clothing, referral sources and support to homeless youth on the streets. Angela Garcia, the head outreach specialist for SOP, says that the aim of the team is "to build trusting relationships with the runaway and homeless youth, (to provide) a safe place and to empower themselves to make responsible and healthy decisions."
"The SOP consists of a team of dedicated, trained and diverse individuals whose goal is to both locate and service runaway, homeless and at-risk-for-homelessness youth, ages 13-21," Garcia adds. "(But right now), we are really in need of volunteers."
Though most of the youth SOP assists are from low-income families, they have had many contacts with youth from the middle to upper class, too. Garcia says there is a recurring theme to the problems and issues the youth have, regardless of their economic or environmental backgrounds.
"The reasons that youth most often cite regarding why they left home include physical and/or sexual abuse by their caretakers, drug or alcohol abuse within the home, neglect and abandonment, problems with parents' new partners, sexual identity struggles, lifestyle issues that guardians do not accept, and a strong desire for independence." Garcia explains.
The SOP will be opening a youth drop-in center to serve youth who need a safe place to, for example, eat a hot meal or take a shower. Garcia hopes to have the center open by mid-fall, and to work on involving a diverse group of youth. For more information about the Street Outreach Program or to report a youth in need of their services, call the toll free number, 1-877-YIN-4-HELP.
Most of the other services could not be offered if people were not willing to lend a helping hand. Youth in Need partly relies on youth volunteers to assist in positive youth development, for it is these volunteers to whom the children would mainly listen because they can relate. One of the opportunities for volunteers is the Drama Troupe, which uses their creative skills to write and act out skits that are relevant to today's common youth issues. Many of the youth volunteer through their school's service learning classes. Others volunteer as Reader Leaders, students who read to Head Start/ Early Head Start children.
The volunteers are not limited to the aforementioned tasks. Some assist the staff with children and youth on site, answer phones, prepare meals, help with maintenance and coordinate donations. College students can complete their college practicum in social work, psychology, sociology or early childhood education. Students in the health care field can receive valuable experience by providing health-related services. Interested people can contact Youth in Need at (636) 946-0101, ext. 335.
Mike Jochum is a journalism student at Webster University.