Just as important as education in New Hampshire are the programs and people who facilitate access to education. And if you’re a homeless youth, you may find just the paperwork itself to be a major barrier. That’s where Stepping Stones comes in.
Founded just 9 weeks ago, Stepping Stones seeks to support homeless youth as a drop-in center where teens and young adults can do anything from take a nap, shower, or check their mail, to preparing for the HiSET, or completing the FAFSA.
“It’s important for people to realize that these kids have so much potential, and they need so little to get started,” said Kathy Farland, founder and director of Stepping Stones. The organization serves Greater Nashua unaccompanied youth ages 12 through 24, as well as young parents.
“We are very excited to have the new Stepping Stones Youth Drop In Center in our community,” said United Way of Greater Nashua President Mike Apfelberg, “This resource is so important, because it is a safe space for young people who are experiencing homelessness or housing security.”
Apfelberg said these youth are some of the most vulnerable residents in any community,
We know of young people who have aged out of the foster or placement system, or who have run away from home due to difficult circumstances, or who have for any number of other reasons found themselves without a home. Some are couch surfing, and others are out on the street. All of them have in common that they are vulnerable to predators and others who would take advantage of their circumstances. We hope that Stepping Stones can provide a critical bridge to other resources and ultimately to help these young people to get onto stable footing.”
Launching Stepping Stones
A former foster parent, Kathy said one of the last parents she met sparked the idea, “The last mom I helped get into a culinary arts program. There were a lot of things she could do, that she had no idea she could access.” Kathy found the mom just needed help with paperwork. In addition, as a long-time member of the Greater Nashua Continuum of Care, she was keenly aware of the need in the region.
Stepping Stones officially opened in December, and powered by Kathy and a small team of volunteers; it serves visitors 8 AM – 4 PM Monday – Friday and Sunday.
“Because it’s a drop-in center, they can come and go as they please, which works great because a lot of the younger kids have issues with social services and they don’t want to be found,” said Kathy. She emphasized the freedom to leave is a major sticking point, “Many will come for the first time and stay just 15 minutes to make sure they can leave, and then they come back another time for a longer stay.”
Lately, Stepping Stones sees about a half dozen kids every day. “We have laundry and showers, computers, a rec room where they can hang out and watch TV, take a nap or draw. We also have supplies like coats, hats, mittens, sleeping bags, and backpacks. And we have lockers where they can leave personal items locked up and safe,” said Kathy. “We really try to make it a homelike environment.”
Housing, Career, & Education Goals
Once the youth are comfortable, Kathy helps them pursue their goals. “We start working on things they want to do – housing is a big one, and education,” she said. “We’ve only been open 9 weeks, and I have one in an LNA program, and one going to the New Hampshire Technical Institute and another to Nashua Community College in the fall. When they first come in, they think ‘there’s no way I can go to college, I don’t have a place to sleep at night.’ But we show them they can. We help them do their financial aid and get them going. We have another kid going to job corps for culinary arts. It’s amazing – all they need is a little bit of leeway, a little bit of help, and they just fly.”
Stepping Stones helps young people see what is possible – while having Kathy or one of her volunteers there to wade through the paperwork with them.
“We help them get their birth certificates, driver’s license, that type of thing. You can’t get a job without your birth certificate – it’s 15 dollars to get a birth certificate, but when you’re homeless – you don’t have 15 dollars, and you end up in an endless cycle.”
The state recently launched a new voucher program for youth aging out of DCYF. So far, Stepping Stones has had six kids housed with DCYF vouchers, one with Mainstream voucher, and two with Family Promise. “We’re hoping to have them all housed within 60 days,” she said.
Finding Youth to Serve
All visitors so far are over 18, but younger teens are welcome. “It’s hard to find the kids. They don’t want to be involved in services. Almost every kid here came over from word of mouth –saw a flyer, all from Nashua. Only one has a car, everyone else walks. They are using a shelter, sleeping outside, or couch surfing.”
How the Community Can Help
“Cash donations are always helpful. We don’t get any state or federal funding at all, everything is from the community. We get some corporate grants, and I do a lot of grant writing,” said Kathy.
She said volunteers are a major help as Kathy is the only staff member. The volunteers help cover the center while Kathy brings youth on errands like touring colleges.
“I know people are concerned with the health risk, but when people are comfortable being able to volunteer, that would be really helpful. I would love to have someone who is good with art come in to share their skills with the kids. Cooking is another one too – any skill they want to share,” she said.
“We’re starting a program right now for kids who do get their apartments. We’re collecting dishes, towels – anything for an apartment, because once they get an apartment they’d have nothing to put in it. And people that have trucks and are willing to help move – that’d be awesome too.”