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Friday, 09 December 2016 11:32

Community support grows to help homeless teens

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Case manager Drewshik Watkins, left, and Tammy DeGarmo, executive director for Project 16:49, in the group’s Robin House in Beloit, a home for unaccompanied female teens. Case manager Drewshik Watkins, left, and Tammy DeGarmo, executive director for Project 16:49, in the group’s Robin House in Beloit, a home for unaccompanied female teens. Terry Mayer/staff

BELOIT -- While many local teens will be looking forward to getting an Xbox or iPhone for Christmas this year, others will be happy to receive just the basic needs.

Project 16:49 has become an important lifeline for unaccompanied teenagers in Rock County.

The name comes from the amount of time between the end of school one day and the beginning of the next, where unaccompanied youth often find themselves without anyone to turn to.

Since the program began, community support has grown to help provide support to solve a problem few knew existed.

"The community has been very supportive, as they always are," said Tammy DeGarmo, executive director for Project 16:49. "I’m amazed, over the years, at how the community supports our students."

The organization currently is putting together holiday baskets for unaccompanied youths. The baskets include blankets, socks, hygiene gift sets, gift cards to local restaurants, gift cards to retail businesses and snack items and will be distributed to schools in Beloit and Janesville and given to homeless students.

Residents who are interested in donating items can drop them off at the Project 16:49 office, 612 N. Randall Ave. in Janesville, or the Robin House, 622 Broad St. in Beloit.

The program is closely connected to the high schools in Janesville and Beloit.

"The kids really rely on the school as a support network and resource for them," DeGarmo said. "When the schools are closed, we want to let them know that they can reach out to us and we will help them however we can."

The Janesville School District offers several programs and services to assist homeless students and students in need during the holiday season.

The school district conducts the "adopt a family" program, in which staff members purchase gifts for students and their families.

Janesville School District homeless liaison Carrie Kulinski said each school conducts its own program to assist needy students.

"For example, Wilson Elementary School has a Christmas shopping program where staff will donate gifts and kids can shop for their families," Kulinski said. "Each school does something different."

Kulinski said several local businesses and organizations donate items to the school district.

"Farm & Fleet recently donated coats for kids. St. John’s Lutheran Church recently donated snowpants," Kulinski said. "So, there’s a lot of things that happen behind the scenes. As the weather gets colder, there’s more of a need."

The district has about 300 students who have been identified as homeless so far this school year.

The district had about 500 homeless students last year.

"The numbers keep increasing," Kulinski said. "I recently attended a statewide meeting with homeless liaisons from other school districts, and they all said the same thing, that their (homeless) numbers are growing, too."

"There’s different kinds of poverty," Kulinski said. "Some teenagers become unaccompanied because they either ran away from home or were kicked out. Some leave their home because of abuse in the family or because of drug or alcohol use in the home. They become unaccompanied and move around from home to home."

Several local businesses and organizations host fundraisers for Project 16:49 during the holidays.

Mercyhealth hosts a gift card drive, and a pub crawl recently was held in downtown Janesville to raise money for the organization.

The "Road to Bethlehem" concert will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 17, at First Lutheran Church, 612 N. Randall Ave. in Janesville. The concert will feature Aaron Thompson, Kellie Pearson, Suzy Baldwin, George Wollinger and Megan Vingers-Bauer. Tickets are $10 and only available at the door. Proceeds will benefit Project 16:49. DeGarmo said Project 16:49 receives most of its referrals during times when school is out.

DeGarmo said the organization works with about 300 students throughout the year. Project 16:49 helps the students obtain clothing, emergency food, gift cards and access to other community services. The organization helps the students apply for FoodShare, Badger Medical Care and other assistance programs.

"My No. 1 rule is that we don’t re-create the wheel. If there’s an organization that specializes in being a food pantry, clothing distribution or job training, we’re going to connect our kids with existing services first and try to fill in those gaps," DeGarmo said. "We provide life skills and other services to help them overcome barriers, but we don’t try to take the place of other services. We partner with Community Action. We partner with the UW-Extension to come in and do our nutritional food shopping and budget training program."

Project 16:49 does not receive state or federal funding, so most of its resources come from community donations. The staff currently includes DeGarmo, Drewshik Watkins, who recently came on as case manager, and two full-time AmeriCorps members.

DeGarmo said Project 16:49 also is in need of volunteers to assist during community events and with collecting donations.

Project 16:49 helps students obtain safe housing and offers the Robin House program to unaccompanied female youths. The Robin House can accommodate seven people at a time, and clients can stay up to 18 months. Residents of the Robin House are expected to attend school, seek employment or volunteer opportunities and perform chores around the house.

DeGarmo said they are looking to establish a similar housing program for male students. She said they also offer support to families who host a homeless student.

"A lot of times, our kids are good kids and it’s not a matter of that they did something wrong and they can’t stay at someone’s house anymore but the family isn’t financially ready to support another person in the household," DeGarmo said. "We want to make sure the support is there for the family that is helping that kid."

Project 16:49 also offers case management services to help the students obtain permanent housing and employment and to help them develop life skills.

"The life skills and independent skills are key. Our mission is to help youth take action to achieve their goals," DeGarmo said. "It’s not about what we want for the kids. It’s about what they want for their lives. We want to make sure they complete their high school education. We want to make sure they have what they need to graduate high school."

DeGarmo said most of the students who go through the program find employment and permanent housing.

"There’s a very high percentage that are moving into stable housing as far as their next step," DeGarmo said. "Most of them gain or improve employment while they are with us. They get additional employment training and skills while they’re with us, as well. About 96 percent of the students that we work with graduate from high school."

Project 16:49: For more information call 608-314-5501 or go to project1649.org.

Janesville School District: Contact Kulinski at 608-751-7779.

School District of Beloit: Contact Robin Stuht at 608-361-4355

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