Eva Murzaite understands firsthand that a family is more than kin into which you are born — it is a support system that you build.

She wants homeless and near-homeless teens to know they can find that family at Youth On Their Own.

“When I reflect back, one thing that Youth On Their Own did for me was to help me become open to other people. As a teen on my own, I became a little bit of recluse. In that situation you are not sure you want to tell people about it: You are not sure what the legal boundaries are,” said Murzaite, 35, a former recipient of YOTO services who will speak at the Family Is You luncheon March 28 at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave. “YOTO gave me the care and support of other people behind me. That group support system taught me to integrate and be open to working as a team versus becoming really introverted.”

Murzaite serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit, dedicated to supporting high school graduation and continued success of homeless youth.

The organization will provide dropout-prevention support for more than 1,600 homeless and unaccompanied middle school and high school students in Pima County for the 2017-2018 school year. In the past three decades, it has helped more than 16,000 students through efforts such as monthly stipends based on grades and regular school attendance; assistance with housing, transportation, utilities and basic needs including school supplies and fees; and emotional support and other resources such as an internship program to provide work experience.

Daniel Armenta, YOTO director of philanthropy, said Arizona ranks fifth-worst in the nation for youth homelessness and that these young people often “fly under the radar,” perhaps staying with friends or family members after leaving home due to physical, sexual or substance abuse and violence; others find themselves on the street following parental incarceration, poverty, abandonment or neglect.

Armenta said YOTO provides much-needed support on multiple levels.

“Many of the students don’t have a traditional family — or any family at all like most of us are used to — so when they become part of YOTO they become part of a family that they never had.

“This family is made up of staff, volunteers, donors and also the businesses that help us. It is sort of like a family they don’t know that comes together to help them when they really need it,” Armenta said.

Murzaite, who moved to Tucson from Lithuania at age 13, discovered the YOTO family in 1999 as a junior at Tucson High School. She had started working and moved into an apartment with a roommate during her freshman year after her mother and stepfather divorced and her mother subsequently decided to return to Lithuania.

“I decided I wanted to stay in the U.S. and continue my education and build a career and have the opportunities that this country has to offer. I was going to Tucson High full time and didn’t really tell anyone — except maybe one teacher — that I was on my own. When the program approached me and I got involved, it was just so helpful. It was an amazing resource through a very hard time when I was struggling to make it and to make ends meet while working and going to school,” Murzaite said.

Murzaite said the stipend YOTO provided a “real and tangible” lifeline that allowed her to focus on graduating from high school and to consider long-term goals.

“At that age, when I had a job and was going to school, it was tempting to pick up an extra shift or more hours to have better income. The stipend provided motivation to do well in school, and that was the tipping point that sent me down the right path concerning long-term benefits. It helped to tip the scale in the right direction, since day-to-day it can get so hard, even when you have the best intentions,” she said.

YOTO helped through the home stretch: She got her high school diploma in 2001. She said YOTO’s influence helped establish a work ethic that carried into her postsecondary education in interior design and her career as a business owner of Interiors In Design with partner Brandy Holden. The business also provides an internship position to a YOTO student.

“When you are struggling to live an adult life at such a young age, you need an adult support system that helps you transition to real-time adult life. That support system can’t do it for you, but it helps you catch up and go through the steps that you need to succeed in life, and that is tremendously important,” Murzaite said.

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