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Project helps open host homes to homeless teens

March 4, 2019

NORTH BERWICK, Maine (AP) — When Ginny and Walker Cole heard that the Ryan Home Project for homeless teenagers was seeking host homes, they were intrigued. Their children are long grown and raising families of their own, and “we had a lovely extra bedroom,” said Ginny.

“We talked a lot about it,” she said. “We thought, if we can help just one child, it would be a wonderful feeling.”

Meanwhile, Dante Welch, at 16, was living precariously with his mother. Sometimes there was an apartment, said Ryan Home president Susan Austin, sometimes there wasn’t. At one point, the two were living in a car, she said. “He was coming to school tired. It was a tough situation,” she said. Would he consider moving in with the Coles, she asked him.

“I knew it would help my mother out and be better for me. I’ve gotten used to adjusting to new situations,” said Dante, who reunited with his father and is now living with him in another state. “Honestly, I enjoyed being with them. I had a pretty good time there. And I did have more routine.”

This is music to the ears of Austin, whose day job is assistant superintendent of School Administrative District 60, which includes the towns of North Berwick, Berwick and Lebanon. She also serves as the district’s homeless liaison, working to connect families with services. Over the years, she’s seen a small but consistent number of teenagers in the district who are homeless through no fault of their own, and are couch surfing or finding other means to get by.

“What I found is that there’s no shelter for teenagers who are alone. Shelters will take in families or adults, but these kids don’t have a place to go,” she said. “They need an intact family so they can navigate in the world. But that’s what they don’t have.”

Heidi Early-Hersey, a former Noble High School science teacher who is now district director of teaching and learning, is on the board of the Ryan Home Project. “These are kids who want education, they want to graduate and want to move forward with their lives. When there’s family homelessness and disruption, it affects how they do at school.

“We see kids who are trying, but they’re staying on friend’s sofas. These are kids who when they leave school have no kitchen table to do their homework, no home-cooked meal for dinner.”

From that kernel of understanding came the Ryan Home Project. Last May, after many months of fundraising, the nonprofit purchased the well-known High Street home of the large North Berwick clan, the Ryan family. The adult children agreed to sell the sprawling yellow house on seven acres for $400,000, $40,000 less than the asking price. Another local family, the Bourbons, donated $50,000, and the nonprofit itself raised another $75,000 for a down payment and funds to pay the mortgage for at least a year.

The goal is to open the house to a small group of homeless teenagers in the SAD 60 school system, overseen by a couple who will act as house parents. That dream is on hold for a while, since the board learned last December that they were unsuccessful in securing a $500,000 grant through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston. Austin said their model doesn’t fit the typical homeless model, which can make it difficult for grantors.

In particular, the federal bank was looking to help adults, so the board developed a proposal for the Ryan Home itself to help 17 and 18-year-olds. But what about those younger teenagers? “As we talked it through, we thought maybe we need to be looking at a host home program.”

Although there are virtually only a handful of models like the Ryan Home throughout the country, she said, she found one in Chicago, Illinois, that used this two-tiered approach. “I said while we’re trying to get this house up and running, we should be thinking about those younger kids.”

To date, the Coles join a small group of couples and families who have agreed to provide a host home. Austin said she is always looking for more, and encourages anyone in the school district to get in touch with her.

“There are all kinds of people who can provide support. It doesn’t have to be a typical mom and dad and two kids. It’s all about willingness and flexibility,” she said.

Another goal of the nonprofit is to help these teenagers and their parents access services - “medical, dental, all the things that you need to have but families often don’t.” Noble High has a satellite of Nasson Community Health Center of Springvale, a federally qualified center that helps anyone regardless of ability to pay. The Ryan Home Project also works with various agencies that can provide counseling services, as well. “Part of this goal is to help transitioning teenagers into adulthood,” she said.

The fact that they did not get the $500,000 grant means that the goal of opening Ryan Home is pushed off a while longer, said Austin. That means the board has to dig a little deeper and find other grant opportunities and sponsor more fundraisers to reach that day. But Austin and the board are philosophical.

“One of the things that has so stunned us in the last year and a half since we began thinking about this is the community response,” said Early-Hersey. “The support pours out, and it’s from the whole Seacoast region. It’s not that everyone is writing us big checks, but every week, Susan will get a call from some business who says, ‘We want to donate a portion of our revenue to you.’ It’s so consistent.”

For example, the Fabulous Find in Kittery raised funds one recent month from a portion of its sales for the Ryan Home, sending a check for $7,000. “That’s huge,” said Austin. “And it just came to us. I’m always amazed at the people who have a connection to this story.”

She said she anticipates it will cost $75,000 a year for operating expenses and staffing at the house. She feels the fundraising committee can consistently raise $30,000 a year, and the rest will have to come from grants and other opportunities. For instance, the seven-acre grounds might be used for weddings. “We’re trying to come up with any idea we can think of,” she said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, the host homes become critical links for them. The Coles said they couldn’t be more content that they made the decision to open their home to Dante. “Our friends told us we were crazy. One of our children didn’t understand,” said Ginny Cole.

She said it was “awkward at first, but we got into a routine. I know he loved having a room with a single person in it,” she said. “We treated him exactly how we treated our three children. He spent a lot of time in his room, but we have a grandson the same age so I know it’s what they do. But we told him he needed to come down for family dinner.”

“There was hesitation there on our part. Who are you going to get? Who are the parents? Once you make the commitment, it isn’t a gray area. It’s a yes or no,” said Walker. “But he was truly a wonderful kid.”

Dante, for his part, would visit friends on some of the weekends “to give them some time to themselves.” And he applauds Austin and the program “for trying to help students who don’t have the best living situation.”

Austin said the Coles “made a huge impact on his life. I think he believes he has worth and is capable. I don’t know if he could articulate it that way, but the way he carries himself is different.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2UizR0d

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Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com