By Maureen McPadden
Here in Denver, Colorado, we do street outreach most Tuesdays year round. We go out and connect with youth, catch up, and provide needed gear and supplies, shoulders to lean on, and hearts to listen. We provide healthy, 3-4 course dinners every single Sunday of every week, rain, snow, or shine. We are 100%-street based, so we go wherever youth are, with no inside facility or gathering place and no "Plan B" when it comes to providing our services. Our amazing donors sign up months in advance to provide these meals.
I have been with the Denver program of StandUp For Kids for six years, and executive director for four of those. My daughter, Rheala Melesio, is director of volunteers and has served since she was 15 years old. She is now 21. She has a special bond with our kids because she is the same age as most and has "grown up" with many of them, albeit, in very different ways. We have two other active volunteers, both very dedicated and committed: Adrienne Davis (affectionately known as A1 since she was here first), and Adrian Chavez who we call A2.
Helping and connecting
In addition to supporting youth directly in their efforts to get off the streets, we also give youth specifics on organizations that assist with jobs, housing, and healthcare. We have a relationship with a local construction training center that provides forklift training certification and flagger certification to us. We've had a few kids take and pass that. A young lady also recently landed a barista job at a local coffee shop that we were able to get her interviewed for, and with her criminal background it was no easy task. I think that the combined effort of the changes she's made within herself and dedication to a productive life off the streets -- and the open relationships we build in the community -- these kinds of things are possible.
We wholeheartedly believe that the relationship building we do with the youth (and we do it WELL), is the foundation for any change that occurs in their lives, whether readily recognizable to us or not. We are dedicated to being a consistent, loving and non-judgmental presence in their lives. Our kids know and feel that, and express gratitude to us for that often.
Keeping up with the changes
We have seen many changes here in Denver with regard to youth homelessness. There used to be specific and reliable areas where youth would gather and we would see and connect with most of the city's homeless youth in one location, but no more. The city of Denver has vowed to "clean up" that area (and many other areas of the city) and the majority of our homeless friends have relocated largely due to harassment. When they are forcefully pushed out because those more fortunate than them do not want them in "their backyard," that is not okay.
We have had some of the locals try to run us off or repeatedly call the police because they don't want to see the problems they feel the displaced bring so "close to their homes." We respond by trying to provide info on Denver's homelessness issues and invite them to join us to help. When we can do this, we are cultivating and maintaining good relationships. The police here love what we do and often stop to talk to us and the kids, and do their part in that relationship maintenance.
Remembering who we serve
Those youth who are able to comply with the rules our city's agencies have for participation often DO get help to get off the streets. However, there are so many who, for whatever reason, do not, cannot, or will not participate in formal programs. These are the youth we support and serve the most.
All youth need love and support, nurturing and guidance. We dole it out generously. You never know when you'll make a difference in someone's life. I tell our small team, if we make a difference for ONE, it's enough.