Passion, a quiet 19-year-old with a bright but shy smile, had a tumultuous childhood that saw her moving between parents and schools on a regular basis. By her senior year of high school in Waco, she found herself homeless and out of relationship with her family.
“I stayed with friends, wherever it was safe; I was pretty much couch-surfing and sometimes stayed in motels or shelters,” she said. “There was a lot of heartbreak with my family, but I knew I had to keep going and finish high school.”
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, youth may end up homeless or unaccompanied due to family conflict, economic issues, residential instability, the incarceration of a parent, sexual abuse or other trauma, or neglect. The Waco Independent School District (WISD) reports that approximately 9 percent (as many as 1,500) of WISD students deal with some level of homelessness.
A case manager from the nonprofit Communities in Schools referred Passion to The Cove, a new nonprofit in Waco offering students dealing with homelessness a safe place to study, shower, wash clothes, and receive a healthy meal. The Cove also offers professional staff which provide case management, mental healthcare and tutoring. In the 2018-19 academic year, there were nearly 1,500 student visits to The Cove, up from 1,200 visits the previous year.
Passion and her friend, Kelle, who was also dealing with similar issues, decided to visit The Cove together.
“It sounded too good to be true,” Passion said. “Just about every school has support groups and counselors, but to have an afterschool resource was so good.”
At The Cove, they met Executive Director Kelly Atkinson who along with her staff provided a safe place to rest and study. Through tutoring and consistent support, Kelle and Passion graduated high school.
Graduating and aging out of The Cove’s services presented new challenges for the girls, who weren’t ready to be on their own. That is when Atkinson reached out to Jeff Creel, MCH program administrator for school and transition services, to see if MCH could help.
“It’s important to have a safe place to go when you don’t have a safe place to go,” Atkinson said. “As a young nonprofit, we don’t have the resources to address every need. In the case of Kelle and Passion, they were graduating high school but still didn’t have stable housing. After they graduated last May, I called Jeff [Creel] with the thought: ‘Could this even work?’ I am so happy he was open to it.”
Creel and Atkinson had connected through their work in the community, and Creel said his thought from the beginning was that MCH could be a resource for The Cove, in large part because of a common focus of offering hope to youth in need.
“The Cove understands and is positioned well to support the needs of the population of young people they serve,” Creel said. “In many ways, those served by MCH are very similar, so we were well-equipped and ready to collaborate with them whether they needed extra support from our staff, transition housing or residential assistance.”
Kelle and Passion were given accommodations at Clay Commons, an apartment complex in downtown Waco that serves young people in the Transition Services program. Residents who live at the apartments maintain full-time jobs or schooling and meet regularly with an on-site case manager to learn about budgeting and other important life-lessons for independent living.
“The connection with MCH is so valuable because MCH has been investing in the lives of young people for a very long time,” Atkinson said. “Not only has MCH shown generosity through housing for Kelle and Passion, they have been generous with their staff sharing their knowledge and time.”
“MCH has been so helpful,” Kelle said. “The staff has been amazing and has gone above and beyond to help us.”
Kelle and Passion are the first students served by the MCH Transition Services program who did not go through the MCH academic, foster care or residential program. Creel and Atkinson hope their collaboration will replicate and foster other partnerships among the many nonprofit organizations in the Waco area.
“We are currently collaborating with about 12-15 community organizations to share information, referrals and resources,” Atkinson said. “It’s a big sandbox when we consider all the ways to serve youth in our communities, and there’s a lot of room for new resources and partnerships.”
MCH President Trey Oakley agreed, and affirmed that finding collaborations with like-minded organizations “will be key to our future at MCH as we look for better ways to reach an ever-growing population of children, youth and families who need the hope our supporters help us offer throughout Texas and New Mexico.”
“I am excited to share ideas, best practices and resources with an organization like The Cove,” he said. “Although our organizational stories are different and unique, we find a common bond in our desire to do what it takes to serve those who have found themselves in crisis or on the verge of hopelessness. There is no time or place for competition among ministries serving youth. We must come together with a sense of urgency to help make each other better, increase efficiencies and expand effectiveness.”
Atkinson said she was surprised to discover Kelle and Passion had not yet unpacked after three months of living at Clay Commons.
“The girls did not believe they actually had a home,” Atkinson explained. “They had only known instability, so they kept their stuff in boxes. At MCH they could finally face the trauma that they had pushed aside because they lived in constant survival mode. MCH gave them space to breathe and grow and heal. Now, they’re beginning to dream about college and their futures.”
Passion and Kelle volunteer at The Cove and serve as mentors to high school students dealing with homelessness. The girls understand firsthand how so many youth need encouragement and the understanding that there are people and organizations they can trust.
‘Growing up, I learned that people outside my family were not to be trusted,’ Passion said. ‘When that trust was also broken, I didn’t have anything left. Through The Cove and MCH I’m learning to trust again and have a plan for my future.’