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Why Youth? Part 1

Part one: Volunteer Perspective

It’s a freezing cold morning after an ice storm when Ashton comes into Stepping Stones. His hunger drives him to the kitchen, where he finds breakfast burritos, still warm in the oven. After a little rest in a freshly made bed, he meets with the program coordinator and applies to a few jobs. She takes him to the clothing closet where he gets a new coat and hat to better endure the winter conditions that night. Before leaving to face the world again, he takes a few portable snacks off of the To-Go shelf. At the door on his way out, adults who care about him tell him that they will see him tomorrow. To have a nice night.

It might not seem like a lot, but what Ashton did today was important: he addressed his needs, then got to work. He is making progress, and he has some people he would like to thank for this: volunteers. “Those people are awesome!” he said, his eyes lighting up when I told him what this blog would be about. He was thinking of volunteers he sees all of the time, like Sarah, who cleans the center in the mornings and drives youth to the YMCA in the afternoon, and Mark, who makes an unparalleled lunch each Tuesday. But his jaw dropped a little when I listed off just a few of the other things that volunteers make possible at Stepping Stones.

Volunteers are the reason he had a hot meal that morning and a fresh lunch later that afternoon. Because of them, he took a shower in a clean bathroom and was able to find supplies in the well organized pantry. They made the bed he slept in, washed the dishes he ate off of, and performed countless other acts of kindness that make it possible for Stepping Stones to open its doors every morning. These people make such a seismic impact on Stepping Stones, and it is difficult to imagine what the drop-in center would be like without them. Inspired by this, I asked many of our volunteers: out of all the places they could put in their time, why do they choose to work with an organization that serves homeless youth? Their responses reaffirm why they belong to the Stepping Stones family.

That feeling of family is the big why for 2022 volunteer of the year, Linda, a retired teacher. “When I first came to Stepping Stones, I saw three of my former students here. They were homeless…but they were safe and in a place that was clean with people who looked after them. Kathy and Bevin made me feel so at home, and I thought to myself–if I can feel at home in a place like this, then so can they.” Perhaps for this reason, Linda makes it her mission to start a real conversation with every kid she comes across every time she drops in. When she asks the youth how are you? or do you need anything? before they leave for the day, they know she really cares about their response. Because she asks these questions, she helps the youth process what they need, which helps Stepping Stones learn how we can help them. Also, many of them open up to her. Last summer, she even taught one young woman how to shave her legs after she confided that she didn’t know how. Youth like Violet and Sophia will regularly ask staff when Linda will be in, and she even trades books back and forth with Alex, an avid reader. Linda’s mission to make the kids feel like family: accomplished.

For many volunteers, personal history drives their commitment to helping homeless youth get back on their feet. One of our newest volunteers, Chuck, has lived experience of homelessness, something that allows him to deeply relate to all of our youth. When he first found Stepping Stones he looked around and said, “I wish places like this existed when I was a kid.” Now, Chuck gets to be the reason that the youth eat breakfast almost every morning since he started here this past fall. He also picks-up and delivers goods from the NH Food Bank and has helped restore several broken items around the center. In a short period of time, he has already left an indelible mark on the lives of our youth, helping us make the world a better place than he remembers it being when he was young.

In a similar spirit, Deb volunteers countless hours to ensure that the mission of Stepping Stones is heard where most people get their information these days: online. Deb runs our website and social media accounts; she helps plan fundraisers, and most of what gets published by Stepping Stones has the thumbprint of her eye for design. Last year, she was honored as volunteer of the year for these efforts, but Deb does not do it for the recognition; she does it for her family. “When my nephew killed himself, he was right around the same age as the kids here.” Making sure places like Stepping Stones help young adults get everything they need is so important to her that she even joined the board of directors last year.

Like Deb, many of our volunteers work behind the scenes, but their commitment to homeless youth is just as fierce. After hearing Kathy speak at an event, Caroline decided to volunteer. “I knew there were homeless kids, but I never knew there were so many.” Caroline and her counterparts Susan and Judy are the reason that every youth who comes in cold in the winter or hot in the summer has ease of access to the clothing closet. These three friends organize all of the clothing donations that Stepping Stones gives out. “Working behind the scenes is still important,” Caroline said. “Even if we don’t work directly with the kids, the work we do–the sorting and the organizing, makes it easier for staff to do the work that changes the lives of these kids.” Because of community generosity, they have many bags of donated garments to sort through each week, a task they do with expert precision and a keen eye on what will be most helpful to the youth. “The kids here deserve the best,” Susan said while moving all of the warmest coats out of a storage bin and onto an easily accessible rack. “It’s nice to know here that I am making a difference… Kids have my heart,” Judy said. Acknowledging that there are plenty of other agencies where she could volunteer her time, Judy feels good knowing that her work directly benefits young people. “I like how at Stepping Stones, you’re not just giving them food, but you’re actually helping them get everything they need.”

Clothing donations are only one piece of the pie; many supporters want to directly help the youth be successful in their first apartments. Thanks to volunteers Carol and Sheryl’s careful labeling of shelves and a “move-in day checklist,” the youth are able to move smoothly through the apartment storage space and emerge with their arms full of necessary furniture, appliances, bedding, and toiletries. Moving to Nashua after many years of service for teen organizations in the south, Carol quickly forged new connections in the Stepping Stones community. “Kathy empowered me to make decisions about what to keep and what to donate to other organizations. It was so satisfying to bring order to chaos and along the way I got to know many of the kids who were using the drop-in center.” Carol also connected Stepping Stones to Amherst's Home Starter program bringing much needed furniture to kids who now have apartments. Because of her efforts, every youth who reaches this major milestone does not have to worry about shopping for furniture as they leave a life of homelessness behind them.

Of course, the most important reason why adults put in their time at Stepping Stones is to help make safe haven possible for these young people who are in some of the most challenging circumstances any person can face. One freezing cold morning, Chuck told me, “I was making breakfast the other day and three kids were hanging out in the kitchen. What really struck me is that the kids were laughing. I know their situation isn’t always the best…but they were laughing, and I thought to myself, isn’t it wonderful that they have this place, where they feel comfortable enough to laugh.” Because Chuck once was homeless, it is not difficult to imagine how much that meant to him, but I think it is important to remember why those young people were gathered in that kitchen– to eat the breakfast he was making. What a wonderful thing.

Volunteers are a huge part of what makes places like Stepping Stones such a wonderful resource for homeless youth. Though there are many answers to the question of why people open up their hearts to youth-based organizations like Stepping Stones, I think Caroline’s response sums it up most succinctly:

“I’m of the belief that if everyone did their fair share, no one would need to be in the situation that these young people find themselves in.”

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