Young and At Risk
Teen years are hard for everyone. Transitioning from a child to an adult comes with hard lessons and everyone has seen how a young person can get off track even when they are in a loving, supportive environment. Navigating those years without a supportive home life, or perhaps without a home at all, is a perilous path. A ministry in Springfield is there to offer support, and hope, to the young people who walk it.
Rare Breed is a program of The Kitchen, a non-profit agency in Springfield that serves the homeless community. Rare Breed works with at-risk or homeless youth, ages 13–24. The center provides laundry, showers, clothing, household items, case management, showers, hygiene supplies, a nurse once a week, outdoor/camping gear and referrals to other agencies. It’s a challenging population to serve, and like everything else, the coronavirus has made it more challenging. During normal times Rare Breed also provides a computer lab, art room, weight room, music room and nursery, but these rooms have been closed due to the pandemic.
“We’re open every day, but we’re having to stay focused on critical need services,” said Kathy Westmoreland, youth services coordinator.
Staying open was questioned, but only for a brief moment. When things shut down due to COVID-19 back in March, the Rare Breed staff had an emergency meeting. It was quickly decided that they had to keep providing services and if someone didn’t feel comfortable being there that was their own choice, but they couldn’t stop helping homeless youth.
“We opened 15 minutes late that day and that was it,” Westmoreland said. “Other than that, we’ve been here every day.”
The staff did not see a way they could stop serving the youth regardless of their own risk. The need was too great.
“There was a high level of anxiety about COVID-19 among these kids,” she said. “When the state shelter-in-place order came out, they couldn’t shelter-in-place if they had nowhere to go.”
There was also the problem of misinformation. Without having access to traditional media or schools, they were mostly hearing about COVID-19 from friends on the street or through social media, and most of what they were hearing was wrong.
The biggest hit Rare Breed has taken during the pandemic was to their volunteer base.
“The majority of our volunteers are retirees, the very people we need to be most protective of during this pandemic,” Westmoreland said.
That leaves her and her three staff members trying to do what a team of volunteers used to do. They have to prioritize.
The center serves dinner every night at 4 p.m. Groups would bring in a dinner they prepared off-site and serve it there. But because they couldn’t have people congregating, they shifted to a brown bag, get it and go meal. Some volunteer groups and clubs stop providing meals at that point because they were no longer meeting as a group.
“Most of our churches were able to figure it out and make the transition, though,” Westmoreland said.
King’s Way in Springfield is one of several United Methodist churches in the area that support the Rare Breed ministry. The connection to the ministry came from the youth in the church. When Scott Bons was serving the church as youth director, one of the youth emphatically encourage them to support Rare Breed. They were getting started with that when COVID-19 started shutting things down, but they have supported the ministry by packing brown bag dinners. The staff at King’s Way will be doing that for their annual Christmas party this year. The church is also doing a cold-weather clothes drive for the ministry.
The situation was similar at Ozark UMC. Jamie Addler became aware of the ministry through her work at the hospital and discussed with her husband Gene how it would be a good cause to support. The two got a small group going at Ozark to prepare a meal at the church and bring it to the center. They did this twice, then committed to doing it monthly.
“Serving the meals there was nice because it gave us an opportunity to interact with the kids,” Gene Addler said.
During the pandemic, the Addlers have been preparing the brown bag dinners on their own in their home, rather than putting people at risk by gathering a group at the church. They miss interacting with the youth and getting together with the small group to cook the dinner, but said they feel blessed by being able to help in this way.
“You do what you can,” Gene Addler said.
After an initial scramble last spring, Rare Breed now has its calendar full again, with churches and others committed to providing a meal every night. She even has a list of back-ups.
“I can just call them if one of our groups is a last-minute cancellation and then it’s their time to shine,” Westmoreland said. “Enough people believe in what we’re doing here so that we never have to go without.”
Rare Breed is now set up with 26 dine-in, distanced stations so people can eat there in bad weather, but they are not allowed to move about the room and socialize while there. There are about 40 people a night being served through the brown bag dinner program.
The major need right now is cold-weather gear. Not just coats, but hats, gloves, warm socks, hand warmers and sleeping bags.
“We will be in need of these items all winter long,” she said. “They go out the door as soon as we get them.”
Rare Breed takes care to make sure items aren’t just being sold. They limit sleeping bags to one per year. If one gets damaged they require the person to bring it back before he or she can get another one.
Small, disposal heating pads are sought after.
“You can go through eight hot hands in a night, one for each hand and foot and they only last for a few hours,” she said.
Sometimes rule violations means a youth cannot access services there for a time. Even when someone is being kicked out, Westmoreland always reminds them before they go out the door that they are welcome to come back when their suspension period is over.
“They might say something and then feel like they can never come back, and I let them know that they are not the first kid to ever say that to me,” she says. “They are going to make mistakes. They’re teenagers.”
“Churches need to use their voice to explain the why of homelessness to people,” she said. “These kids aren’t just homeless because they have bad attitudes,” Westmoreland said. “Every story is unique, and these kids wouldn’t be in this situation if they could have done something about it.”