They are just another face in a crowd of students. They walk the hallways with their classmates, take notes in class and take part in sports. Unknown to many though is their life outside of school – one that is filled with abuse, neglect and emptiness. Looking to give them hope to rise above those odds is a non-profit organization called Youth on Their Own.
Youth on Their Own (YOTO), located at 1660 N. Alvernon Way, helps support homeless, unaccompanied youth graduate from high school. Students, seventh through twelfth grade (up to the age of 21), can be enrolled in the program.
Ann Young, once a counselor from Amphitheater High School, started the program more than 25 years ago. At the time, Young was concerned for some of the Amphi students who did not have a permanent place to live and were struggling in school because of it. In order to help them, Young took action and began to reach out to organizations and people in the community for help. Within a short amount of time, a homeless students prevention program was created.
The program started with 10 students in 1986 and grew to 300 by 1994. Teresa Baker, the current executive director of YOTO, took over in April 2010. From the time she took over to now, the program has seen a 61-percent increase in its numbers. Last year, YOTO served about 1,100 students. The reason the program grew so dramatically was because of Baker’s marketing efforts. She wanted people to know about YOTO and what it had to offer.
“People in this community think this is a resort community and that there is no poverty here. It’s not that they’re not good people. It’s because they’re not aware of it,” said Baker.
The reason for homelessness varies from student to student. Abandonment, having one parent, drugs, alcohol, abuse, and multiple boyfriends or girlfriends not wanting the children are some of the most common reasons. About 20 percent of the students are abandoned, 13 percent are abused and 12 percent have conflict with a parent or stepparent. With YOTO, students have the financial and moral support from student advocates to help them overcome their dire living situations.
“I think the program is critical because without a high school diploma they have no future. Their ability to earn a living wage is dramatically affected,” said Baker. “Uneducated individuals affect our work forces readiness and development.”
The two primary services that YOTO offers is a stipend and special needs service. If a student achieves a “C” grade in every class and has good school attendance he/she can earn up to $140 per month. Each month, students have to go to their teachers, get their grades and submit them. The student cannot be involved in drugs, gangs or alcohol.
“The amount of money is incentive enough for accountability, but it’s also enough where it just takes the edge off of their poverty,” said Baker.
The special needs service is also very helpful to students. It provides students with needed medical services and a mini mall that is stocked with basic food items, hygiene supplies and some clothes. Though it may seem small, these services help students have an easier time getting by each day. Without the help of the community though, YOTO would not be able to continue to assist these students.
“We raise ever single penny of the money that comes into this organization,” said Baker. “It’s primarily within our community through fundraising and grant writing.”
YOTO puts on a few fundraising events each year. Recently, they held the Talk of the Town, which is their signature event including a silent and live auction, entertainment, student speakers, dinner and more. For the remainder of the year they have scheduled a Fall Wine and Beer Tasting event and the YOTO Student Holiday Appeal. Available throughout the entire year is the opportunity for people to also donate through their Arizona state tax liability.
It is through the fundraisers and donations of people in the community that allows YOTO to help students succeed and positively impact wherever they go – more specifically, the Tucson community.
“Some (students) stay here and they are productive members of society,” said Baker. “That’s something to be proud of as a community.”