Written by Ann Young, Youth On Their Own Founder
Edited by Reilly Salkowski, YOTO Volunteer
“As a school counselor at Amphitheater High School in 1986, I became aware of the growing number of our students who were living from couch to couch and friend to friend. Without a stable home to live in, they were struggling to stay in school. Many teachers and I were quite concerned about these young people and discussed ways to help them stay in school until graduation, and came up with one idea to have a designated house where all of the homeless female students could live.
A few months after this conversation, our pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church mentioned that a meeting for people interested in serving Tucson’s homeless would be held after the service. I turned to my husband and told him I was going to attend the meeting to share about the homeless kids in our school, two of whom were staying in our home that Sunday morning. As licensed foster parents, we also had two other teenage girls who had been placed in our care. Due to our proximity to the problem, my husband encouraged me to go to the meeting.
After arriving at the meeting, it was obvious that it was focused on helping the homeless men in the parks. However, when I spoke up and shared the story of the numerous homeless high-schoolers, those present were shocked. They were clearly surprised to learn that there were homeless students in our community, but as a stranger to most of them, I am not sure how many truly believed me. Fortunately, a gentleman who revealed himself to be a vice principal at a nearby middle school backed up my story. He shared his own encounter with a fourteen year-old boy whom he had recently confronted about his truancy. He said the young man informed him that he had been kicked out of his trailer home by his father after he suspected that his son was coming on to the fourteen year-old girl who was living there as his girlfriend. The boy then explained that he would sneak into his friend’s closet at night to sleep and then go back home to eat while his father was at work, which accounted for his frequent absences during the school week.
The story moved the group to break into two factions: one focused on the homeless men, the other focused on the homeless teens. I told the group dedicated to helping teens of our dream of having a house for homeless Amphitheater students to live in, and we began making plans to provide what we thought we wanted and needed to help our kids stay in school.
In the meantime, I had called The Amphi Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to helping the Amphitheater Public School District, and asked for a grant in order to pay one of the girls working in the counseling office. We received the grant after the organization learned that she was one of many homeless students in the district. The Amphi Foundation’s publicity director shared the story with Jane Erickson, an Arizona Daily Star reporter, who interviewed me and some of our students. She wrote a fantastic article titled “Against All Odds” that made the front page of the Star on the same day that I was scheduled to speak to all three services of St Andrew’s about the helping our homeless teens. The combination of the article and my speeches compelled the congregation to raise $80,000 that morning to kick off our new community project: the St. Andrew’s Friendly Environment (SAFE) House. One of our concerned teachers volunteered to be the house parent at the SAFE House, and our dream of creating a home for our students came to life.
I continued to inform other groups about the plight of homeless kids and our newly-established SAFE House, but we began to encounter a series of problems with the house. Not only did it limit us to only helping a few kids, but it was extremely expensive and entirely too draining for our single volunteer parent. Luckily, volunteer families started to come forward to take our kids into their homes. In order to remain liability-free, we required the birth parent or legal guardian of each child we placed to sign a notarized statement that declared that their child had permission to live in the SAFE House or with a volunteer family.
One of our SAFE kids, who we will call Lisa, moved into a wonderful home with a single mother named Pat. Lisa had been suicidal, but I was able to talk to her about living with Pat and she accepted; she thrived and we hoped she could stay there permanently. However, Pat called me one day about six months after taking in Lisa and we got together for lunch. There she told me that she could no longer afford take care of Lisa. I asked her if she had reached out to Lisa’s dad for help, but she said that he had told her to send Lisa home. We knew that that would be a disaster for Lisa, because she had been sexually and physically abused at her home by her brothers and their friends, and her father had no clue how to protect his daughter.
Then, out of the blue, I received a $3,000 check from a New York City charitable foundation. I decided that I could use it to provide a $100 stipend to Pat every month to cover some of the costs of having Lisa in her home. Pat told me that it would be perfect and she would be able to continue to take care of Lisa, and our stipend program was born.
Jane’s article also gave rise to many calls from people asking how they could help, and many of these callers became volunteer parents for our kids. The stipend program was successful in supporting more families who were willing to take in our students. We quickly realized that individual families were more sustainable than the SAFE House, so two years later we closed the house. I learned so much from the experience and was determined to build a bigger and better program. To do so, I needed to make our project more known to the community. A friend encouraged Tucson Medical Center to use their marketing money to promote our fledgling program that I had given the ghastly name of “Pima County Homeless Teen Project.”
Before we could accept money for our program, we had to incorporate and become a 501(C)3. I had no clue how to do this. At one of my speaking engagements, I announced this as my goal in order to help teens throughout Pima County rather than just those from Amphitheater High School, but that I needed to find a judge or an attorney who could help me. Everyone in the room turned to look at a gentleman sitting near me, who graciously agreed to help me with the job. We put together all of the articles of corporation and successfully became a 501(C)3 charitable organization.
In 1990, members of the Angel Charity suggested that we write a grant requesting $100,000 for our stipend program. Our grant request was accepted and helped us establish our place in the community. Tucson Medical Center paid for a six-month media blitz advertising our program, and the Taylor Advertising Agency helped us choose a new name: Youth On Their Own (YOTO). The Angel Grant gave us the financial bedrock on which we established our agency, and we have not looked back since. Each year after 1986, we doubled the number of youth served until we helped a total 500 students in 1992. Now, 31 years after YOTO’s creation, we have assisted more than 16,000 students in the greater Tucson community.”