Homeless youth in need of warm clothing, food during holiday season
Martha Crook had boxes full of heartache stacked in her garage.
They held clothing that had belonged to her 21-year-old son, David, who died unexpectedly in his sleep while he was visiting Denali National Park in May 2009.
Shortly after his death, she saw news coverage about homeless youth in Salt Lake City who needed warm clothing. She donated some of David's clothing to the Volunteers of America Youth Drop-In Center. About a year later, Crook was still volunteering there, often sorting items in the storage room.
One day, a young homeless man who, from the back, looked strikingly like her David the same 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound frame picked up a pair of David's jeans and exclaimed how cool they were, excited they were long enough to fit him.
She came out from the back and, through sobs, told him her son's story.
"After that moment, I asked, 'What can I do? I have to do more than fold clothes in the back room,' " said Crook, who was a teacher and principal at Park City High School for 35 years.
VOA staff told her about a project to create backpacks filled with necessities and a Christmas surprise for the scores of youth who find hot meals, showers, clothing and educational help at the day center.
Crook took on the entire Fill the Pack project.
She started with calling her friends and having them call friends, and that first year, she had 150 new backpacks filled with toiletries, warm socks, hats and gloves and a small gift card for the kids to buy something for themselves.
Fast forward two years, and Crook is now a member of the VOA board. She still spends her holiday season soliciting donations, organizing fundraisers and finding groups to help stuff the backpacks.
"It's the holiday project that brings David home for a couple of months," she said through tears.
It's also the project that helps homeless youth survive harsh Utah winters and provides a little holiday cheer.
"This is a big deal for our clients," said Mandi Keller, drop-in center coordinator. "We hold a party for them and give them the backpacks. For almost all of them, this is the only Christmas present they're getting this year."
The center serves homeless young people ages 15 to 22, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and providing a safe space from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Fill the Pack project also helps keep the center's doors open. The VOA is setting a $10,000 fundraising goal for the drive, enough to keep the center operational for the next several months.
The center receives money from VOA and grants, but its needs require staff "to raise more private money than anywhere else," said Michelle Templin-Polasek, VOA director of community engagement.
The center helps an average of 55 to 60 youths a day. While they come and go throughout the day during the summer, they mostly stay indoors on winter days. More single parents with young children are spending time there, creating an increased need for food and snack items.
The center also actively seeks those in need. Two full-time workers walk the streets of Salt Lake County carrying large backpacks filled with warm socks and gloves, telling homeless teens about its services.
"We're the outreach arm of the center, building a trusting relationship with healthy boundaries and helping them meet their basic needs," said Alissa Schlecht, street outreach worker.
Center services range from providing food and clothing to helping youth apply for jobs or get into transitional housing. The center also has a teacher from Horizonte help with GED classes twice a week.
The youth come from a variety of backgrounds, Schlecht said, from all socioeconomic classes and different areas of Utah.
According to surveys of the center's clients, about a quarter of the youth have been propositioned for sex in trade for food or shelter, and about a tenth of them have engaged in such a trade. About 80 percent are victims of abuse by a family member or other adult. Some have mental illnesses, ranging from bipolar disorder to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder, and a large number have aged out of foster care and have nowhere else to go.
All youths ages 15 to 17 must either have permission from a guardian or check in with authorities at the Division of Child and Family Services to receive help, though it's rarely difficult to get such permission from the state, Keller said.
Many of the youth won't congregate with older homeless adults, outdoors or at the adult shelter, and instead find their own places to sleep.
"I didn't realize how many homeless are camping in the city," said Bryan Craven, a street outreach worker. "It was most surprising to me how many sleep along the TRAX line in back lots."
Helping youth find their way to a better life helps Crook focus on the positives in her life. She said she's always amazed at how generous people are with their time and money.
"I know there are a lot of caring, giving people out there," Crook said. "If they are asked by me or by someone else, somehow, they find a way to give."
Homeless Youth Resource Center wish list
New backpacks (school size)
Gift cards (grocery, fast food, movies)
Hygiene items (body wash, razors, shampoo, deodorant full size)
Reusable water bottles
Beanies (dark colors)
Gloves (dark colors)
Treat bags (candy, gum, etc.)