Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity
By David Large
“You are not a human being in search of spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.” — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Generation Y – Everyone wants them when they have money to spend. It’s all about “market share.” But what about the ones who aren’t even in “the market”? They’re the subset that no one wants to talk about – the ones who are homeless, or high school dropouts, or juvenile hall parolees, or “aged out” foster kids, or runaways. They are not going to college. They do not have jobs.
And these young adults are “off the grid” – they are not being counted in the Census or by any single Marin County agency. They don’t have cell phones. They don’t have a mailing address. They don’t have email. They don’t have driver’s licenses or cars. They are sleeping on friends’ couches, camped out in the hill above Boyd Park, sleeping in parked cars and who knows where else, doing everything they can to hide from our view and help Marin keep them a secret.
But you’ve probably seen a few of them – hanging outside of Starbucks on Fourth Street in San Rafael, or napping in the grass across the street; gathered on the Promenade in Fairfax, or on the benches of just about any park in Marin. You’ve probably dismissed them as drug addicts and kept your distance. But few of them are drug addicts, they’re just homeless.
For a lot of different reasons, these young adults don’t have family support or adult guidance. No one is encouraging them to go to college. No one is trying to get them off the streets. No one is trying to keep them out of prison. No one is helping them get a job. No one is helping them learn the life skills they need to survive. No one is listening to them.
Actually, that’s not quite true – the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity Project (AHO) is trying. But we need your help.
— Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity
James Hayes, Molly Kron and Zara Babitzke spread the word at a community event sponsored by software company Autodesk.
A Rex beneficiary this year, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity is an innovative, all-volunteer program that provides support to homeless young adults (ages 18 to 25) in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco.
Since incorporating in January 2005, AHO has produced four groundbreaking community forums that brought together business and political leaders, individuals, parents, youth, and various organizations to focus on the growing issue of homelessness among youth in the county. Through these forums, AHO has recruited 13 “Parent Partners” who are willing to act as host families for homeless youth.
The people AHO seeks to help include young people without families, or whose family ties have been severed, military veterans without family support, and teenagers in the child services system — mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement as well as foster care — who are about to exit the system and face living independently, often with few coping skills and little knowledge of such basics as how to apply for a job. AHO’s founder and Executive Director, Zara Babitzke, Molly Kron, AHO’s Youth Program Advisor, and James Hayes, the Youth Outreach Advisor, all have had personal experience with living as a teenager adrift in the world, and this helps them relate to homeless young people, who are often disillusioned by and distrustful of institutionalized efforts to help them.
AHO is on the forefront of grassroots efforts to deal with homelessness. Currently it receives no local, state or federal funding; instead, AHO has reached out to individuals, business and the larger community to provide the funding for the “hand up” and safety net of stable housing, guidance and community connections it provides to youth in need.
Recently Rex talked with Zara Babitzke about her unique program.
AHO founder Zara Babitzke with Youth Outreach Advisor James Hayes
Rex Foundation: Tell us more about the “Parent Partners.” We understand that the young people live in the sponsoring families’ homes for as long as six months, and that you have placed young people with four families so far. How did you find them, and what has their experience been with the program?
Zara Babitzke, Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity: Through our forums, we have recruited 13 Parent Partners who are willing to act as host families for a homeless youth.
In our first year, we have had 85 referrals and piloted a program with four youth who were previously homeless. Four host families provided stable housing for these young adults.
Host families commit to housing one young adult for up to six months and to providing the crucial first step toward the stability necessary to begin to build a healthy and meaningful life. While matched with a host family, the young person is also matched with a life coach, who helps them begin their journey of envisioning, planning and actualizing a new lifestyle and future of hope.
The life coaches meet one on one with youth for four to six hours weekly, helping them develop their individualized transition plan with guidance in identifying, accessing and navigating the barriers to resources that match their educational, job and life goals.
Youth, host families and life coaches are matched according to lifestyle, interests, personality traits, and other characteristics that are important for the best match.
All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach and peer mentor. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.
James Hayes and Brian Latady
Rex: You seem to have profound faith in the power of every young person’s inner spirit, regardless of how much they have been beaten down by circumstances and “the system.” Where does that come from?
AHO: Growing up, I was essentially one of these youth myself. Although I knew my parents, they did not have the capacity to guide me, provide emotional support, and acknowledge me as a unique and worthwhile person. My father’s alcoholism and abuse, and my mother’s abandonment and neglect, left me confused, afraid, vulnerable and deeply disconnected from my inner essence and spirit. I longed for someone who could really “see” me and believe in me, someone who would inspire me, and a place where I could belong and feel safe.
What I was searching for in those critical adolescent years is, I believe, a basic human need. With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.
Another contributing factor to my belief in the power of the spirit was a family tragedy involving my younger sister. My sister, a single mom with two children, had brain surgery at age 32 that left her without her physical, verbal and other communication functions. I became the conservator, and the sole support of my niece and nephew. After six weeks in intensive care, professional evaluations by a team of doctors and therapists were completed, with the prognosis that there was “no hope” for her and she would “never be a mother.”
The medical professionals decided that there was no further point in providing any therapy and the other supports she needed because she would never speak, walk, write, read or be able to have a meaningful life. I realized at that moment that without an advocate or family support, my sister would have been discarded by the system. None of those professionals knew what I knew about my sister — her strong and powerful spirit. I knew my sister would prevail if she received the necessary services and therapies she needed. It was my job to advocate for the support she needed at this critical time when she was unable to do this for herself. The result is, after years of care she has defied all the odds. Today she has a normal, healthy life and is giving back to the community by supporting others who are facing their own life crises. Her basic communication skills have returned. She exercises, walks daily and is an inspiration to all who meet her.
This tragedy with my sister was my initiation into “the system” of social services. Just as I realized that my sister, without family, or a caring advocate, would have been discarded by “the system,” I see the same thing happening with our young adults today. Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them, are being discounted and discarded by society.
I know from my own experiences, and from what might have happened to my sister, that the human spirit is the strongest force in determining whether someone will beat the odds. It is the human spirit in all of us that can make miracles happen.
Zara Babitzke and Molly Kron
Rex: A unique aspect of your program is that your staff have all had personal experience with life as a teen set adrift. How did you find these people, and what futures do they see for themselves?
AHO: I believe that AHO’s mission and message are universal. They touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. They are looking for a way to give back and make a difference. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, individuals who have had similar or difficult childhoods are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.
Rex: Marin County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, if not the country. How do you reach people who believe that “we don’t have a homeless problem here”?
AHO: It’s truly been our biggest challenge, but we are definitely making inroads into that mindset in Marin.
To illustrate the challenge, the County created a visionary team of nonprofits and individuals to design the County’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. AHO was not included on that committee, and yet, there were no organizations advocating for the largest growing homeless population — young adults ages 14 to 25, who represent 40% of the growing homeless population, according to the 2000 Census. AHO is the only organization I know of whose sole mission is preventing the growing population of homeless among at-risk youth.
I tenaciously lobbied to have AHO included on that committee; we were eventually included, but it was difficult.
So you see, we are educating the entire community about this issue — one day, one speaking engagement, one news article, one committee meeting at a time. AHO youth and myself have met one or more times with the political leaders in the County — Director of Health and Human Services, Marin Community Foundation, all of the Board of Supervisors, the Director of Marin County Office of Education, Chambers of Commerce, Rotaries, and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. In addition to our four community forums, we did a Comcast cable interview, and there have been 10 feature articles in local papers, including Pacific Sun, Marin Independent-Journal, North Bay Business Journal, NewsMarin, Marin Magazine, Mill Valley Herald, and Southern Marin Business Expo.
Zara Babitzke and James Evans with Comcast host Terri Hardesty;
taking the message to community TV.
Rex: You’ve been in operation for just one year, but you have already garnered all that publicity. How have you managed this?
AHO: With commitment, dedication, persistence and tenacity and a true belief in the spirit, wisdom and capacity of today’s youth. I feel I have been led to educate and bring light to this issue.
As the founder of AHO, I believe that all young adults, regardless of their histories, have the compassion, wisdom and soul to become responsible future leaders if they have the hand up and safety net they need through the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood. However, without a safety net at this important juncture in their lives, they will not be able to actualize their potential.
Also, I believe that my entire life experiences (personal, educational and business) have led me to this mission with youth. This includes my own family experiences, my direct experience in marketing, public relations, and building enduring individual and community relationships.
Rex: Your budget is very modest. How do you manage to do so much with so little?
AHO: AHO has been an all-volunteer effort (33 volunteers in all, including myself) since its inception last year. Our successes to date have been driven by the 24/7 intense commitment, dedication, passion, and heart-and-soul belief of those 33 volunteers that the future of our culture depends on harnessing, supporting and nurturing the gifts and strengths of our youth.
In spite of this commitment, however, we are at a critical crossroad, and will need to generate more funding to move to the next level of our Host Family, Life Coach and Peer Mentor programs.
Austin Willacy's Youth A Capella Group Til' Dawn performs at AHO fundraiser.
Rex: What would you like the readers of this piece to learn about the homeless youth problem, not only in Marin County, but also nationally, that they may not have appreciated before?
AHO: This issue is not going away on its own. The problem has been building over the last 10 years, and has not been adequately addressed.
The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports, and still others face even greater demands because their children have physical, mental, or behavioral problems.
More striking, some youth have no families at all to fall back on. These vulnerable youth — those with mental or physical disabilities, those with pasts in the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems, those leaving special education programs, those aging out of foster care, and those young adults who are homeless — are on their own without a safety net.
Some of the challenges youth are facing today are considered in the recent book On Your Own Without a Net by Osgood et al. This is an excellent resource for those interested in learning more about this subject.
Rex Board Perspective
Executive Director Sandy Sohcot says:
“Jonathan Frieman called me regarding AHO. Jonathan has been a longstanding supporter of our events and very active in community issues, so the fact that he himself was so involved with AHO compelled my immediate desire to learn more about the program.
“I felt that AHO’s work was particularly important for Rex to support because AHO was helping address what is otherwise one of the most troublesome concerns in our society right now — youth falling through the cracks and becoming lost in a downward spiral.
“I went to an AHO event and met one of the young men who had been helped by AHO. He told me he was now attending the University of San Diego, an option he might not have had without AHO. Seeing this bright young person doing so well, as opposed to being lost, affirmed that we must do all we can to nurture our youth to be healthy, engaged members of the community. I am glad that the Rex Foundation is not only supporting AHO, but also bringing more attention to this critical issue that affects all of us.”
Youth Program Advisor
Once homeless herself, she now helps others at AHO
“I am a recent graduate of Dominican University, and was born and raised in the urban setting of Denver, Colorado. At the age of 14 I dropped out of school and ran away from home more times than one would care to count. Eventually I found myself living on the streets and hopping from couch to couch, whenever possible, for nearly two years. During the last six months of that experience with homelessness, I become involved with an organization like AHO whose purpose it was to help mobilize homeless youth in order to remove them from their current way of life. Because of this support network, I was eventually able to reconnect with my family and became actively involved in education.
“I heard about AHO and met Zara through my professor at Dominican University in March of 2005, while completing my thesis on government policy regarding youth and child homelessness. Since then, I have both sought out guidance from Zara, and seek to assist her in the development of the Ambassadors of Hope Project, especially with the peer mentor program of AHO.
“Currently, I am facing the reality of life in transition since graduating from Dominican. I am dealing with similar uncertainties that I experienced six years ago when I was homeless. Today however, contrary to my past experiences with homelessness, I have the support, guidance and safety net that I did not have previously, and because of this, I have been able to formulate a plan to attain long-term, stable housing. I hope to help other youth at AHO on their own path to a better life.”
“The transition to adulthood during the past 40 years has become more protracted and difficult for most youth, who continue to depend on their parents for financial help, health insurance, or a place to live between jobs, well into their 20s. Yet, not all parents have the resources to offer these supports.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO
Helped by AHO, he’s now attending college
“Born in the Orwellian 1984, I grew up in Los Altos Hills, California. My parents divorced when I was almost 10. It became completely clear that I was depressed when I was 14, about freshman year of high school. It got to the point that I wasn’t attending classes at all; I would just be at home, in bed, feeling like I was falling deeper and deeper into my despair. I battled two years with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I was sent to school counselors at first, tested, and then the private therapist visits began. We were going to doctors for the CFS, and psychiatrists and psychologists for my now mounting diagnoses (currently it’s: the ADD form of ADHD, Clinical Depression, Social Anxiety Disorder, OCD, and Bipolar Disorder, Type II).
“I went from school to school, and eventually landed in a SED program at Lynbrook High School near Saratoga, California. About a year and a half into my time there, my mother called the police and told them she was worried that I would commit suicide… Imagine my surprise when six police officers file into my house and up into my room. They seemed to think it was necessary to have me hospitalized. So I was taken to the county hospital for some observation. I was there on September 11, 2001, and then I was shipped off to Herrick, the Psych part of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California, for about a month.
“From there, after just turning 17, I was sent to an all-male 'residential treatment center.' When that place closed down a year later, I went off to another 'residential treatment center,' Sunny Hills. At that point, I was 18, and when I graduated high school that was my aging out point, when my funding ended and I had no place to go next. Sunny Hills placed me back with my father (which was not a healthy situation for me, either before or after residential placement). Eventually Sunny Hills started a transitional housing program, where I met Zara, who had been hired to design and manage that program.
“With stable housing and the support and guidance of Zara, I began going to the College of Marin and figuring out how to survive on my own. Within a year in this housing, Sunny Hills closed the program and I was out on the streets again. It was at this point Zara started the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity to provide a safety net of housing and support for youth like myself who would be otherwise homeless.
“Through AHO, the care of Zara, I was given the opportunity to live with one of AHO’s host families, and begin solidifying myself as an adult in this world, with all the entailed responsibilities. With AHO’s continued support, guidance and community connections I am hoping to enter UC Berkeley in the next two years and work in the field of BioInfomatics.”
"Youth who have no voice are vulnerable; they have no political power, and with no caring adult to believe in them are being discounted and discounted and discarded by society.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO
In February 2006, Rex gave AHO a grant of $5,000 — the amount it takes to keep a young adult in the program for a year. Because of AHO’s large volunteer base and community alliances, that money goes a long way. It provides a year of healthcare, stable living, a host family, life coach mentors, money management and savings support, education, clothing, transportation, internships and jobs — and the all-important security deposit on an apartment.
Contrast that with AHO's estimate of the annual costs commonly incurred by homeless youth without a safety net: homeless shelter, $23,400; jail, $60,000 for juveniles and $26,690 for adults; psychiatric facility, $208,050. All are costs that can be avoided, AHO points out, by helping homeless youth now, before their problems reach crisis levels.
“With the Baby Boom generation approaching their 60s and 70s, in less than a decade the current generation of business, government, and organizational leaders will be retired. We need to nurture the strengths and gifts of today’s youth to become the leaders of the future for our children and grandchildren. It is important that we value youth’s voice, and support and inspire them to become the leaders of the future.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO
Statistics on Youth Leaving the Child Services System
Within 2-4 years of leaving the child services system (foster care, community mental health, social services, special education, juvenile services and residential placement):
35% are homeless
40% are on public assistance
50% are unemployed
25% of the males are incarcerated
50% of the girls have given birth
• National Runaway Switchboard
• Bay Area Social Services Consortium Research
• Assemblywoman Karen Bass’s Select Committee on Foster Care
• Honoring Emancipated Youth (HEY)
According to the 2000 Census, young adults ages 14 to 25 represent 40% of the growing homeless population.
“All four youth who were in the AHO pilot program are currently living in apartments with peers, with the support of a life coach. They have jobs, and are working toward their education goals. A unique aspect of our program is that these youth are now themselves peer mentors to others who are currently homeless.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO
By Mary Eisenhart
Marin County philanthropist and community activist Jonathan Frieman, a longtime Rex supporter, first suggested Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity as a possible Rex grantee.
Eight years ago, Frieman was putting his law degree to work at the Homeless Advocacy Project in San Francisco, and decided he needed to experience the reality of homeless life for himself. So, with a few companions, he left his money behind and lived on the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
It was, he said, an eye-opening time. “Even though one’s needs are very simple, it’s still a very stressful experience,” he recalls, "not the least because of the attitude towards homelessness that society has, which is that those people are good for nothing and they should just get a job, and they’re drug addicts.”
In fact, he says, a fair number of homeless people actually do have jobs. “Those are the invisible homeless,” he says. And, as with AHO’s clients, who for various reasons aren’t on the radar of more conventional homeless services, “we don’t see them on the streets. It could be a family has been living paycheck to paycheck, and they got that one bill, a medical bill usually, that they couldn’t handle. So the father goes out on the streets; the mother and maybe one of the kids goes and stays with a friend; maybe the other kid goes with one of the grandparents. The father works until they can save enough to get another place. That’s still stressful, because everybody’s apart, they’re not in the home unit.”
One day a couple of years ago, he got a phone call from Zara Babitzke, who was in the process of launching AHO. She’d read a profile the Marin Independent-Journal had done on Frieman, and decided he was the one to help her get started. “I start nonprofits, and she was starting one. I work with kids, and she works with kids. At that point I was starting to get somewhat known in the County and had some contacts, and I just helped her out in that regard. She’s got a vision. She saw a need and went ahead to fulfill it. It’s something that I just felt needed some strong support.”
Frieman, who went on to join AHO’s advisory board, marvels at the force of Babitzke’s vision and her effectiveness in bringing together a large coalition of business, healthcare and community groups to help out — including such groups as the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors, not usually associated with helping the homeless. “It’s a coup,” Frieman says. “That’s her.”
What makes AHO’s program successful, he says, is that it’s based on formerly homeless kids helping their peers. “It’s these kids helping each other, and it has to be that, necessarily so, because they’re the ones who are going to know who’s out there. It really is an invisible group. That’s one of the things that does set AHO apart: it’s these youth helping these youth. They mentor each other. It’s a group of people trying to help each other.”
"I believe that AHO’s mission and message touch the hearts of many people who have felt invisible, unheard, discounted, abandoned or abused in their own lives, individuals who are just waiting for the opportunity to stop that from happening to anyone else. Through community forums and intensive outreach throughout the County, they are moved to step in and help AHO leave a different legacy for our youth in the future.”
— Zara Babitzke, AHO
TJ, Zara Babitzke, James Hayes, Molly Kron, Brian Latady