JFSA women teaming up with Youth On Their Own

Bethany Neumann
Hope Echeverria
Nancy Mellan

The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Women’s Philanthropy board has partnered with Youth On Their Own, a local non-profit that has been helping homeless or unaccompanied students become high school graduates since 1986. Each year, the WP board chooses a social action focus to foster community engagement.

“We’re creating opportunities for people to connect in a philanthropic way, and hopefully creating the opportunity for Youth On Their Own to have more volunteers, more resources at their disposal,” says WP Director Susannah Castro.

At the WP fall kickoff Oct. 16 in the Tucson J Sculpture Garden, Bethany Neumann, YOTO’s development director, will talk about the organization’s mission, and Hope Echeverria, a YOTO ambassador and 2018 graduate, will tell her story.

“We are looking forward to working alongside YOTO leadership to learn about the needs of the young people they serve and then getting our community on board,” says WP Vice Chair Marcia Abelson. “We take our mission of tikkun olam (repairing the world) very seriously. We are so excited about this opportunity to expand our giving in meaningful ways.”

Nancy Mellan, the social action chair of WP and wife of JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan, hopes the partnership will blossom into a “long-range relationship that may grow and develop in ways that we don’t even see right now.”

As community support grows, so does YOTO’s ability to help homeless or unaccompanied students, and to fight stereotypes. As community partnership sheds light on what Mellan calls an “intense social issue for Tucson,” more people learn about the daily lives and realities of youth who are on their own. Mellan’s perceptions of homelessness have shifted, she says.

“What I’ve come to learn is that it looks a lot different than my stereotype,” says Mellan. “We hear the word ‘homelessness’ and we think of people pushing their shopping carts on the street and pitching tent camps around town. But with youth, it’s a lot more subtle and a lot more hidden,” says Mellan.

A YOTO kid, as they’re called, is a student of Pima County living at the poverty level, who is experiencing homelessness or is unaccompanied. An unaccompanied youth is “not with the support of the biological parents,” says Neumann. They must be in grades six to 12, under the age of 22, and homeless for reasons out of their control.

“They’re couch surfing, they’re staying with a relative this month, a different relative next month. They’re experiencing a lot of housing insecurity,” says Neumann, explaining that  YOTO kids may also be living in foster care, group homes, or shelters. YOTO helps provide these students with access to basic needs, like food, clothing, and shelter, as well as additional financial assistance, tutoring, and guidance.

YOTO grants a monthly stipend of $140 to help with daily living expenses to students who have passing grades and meet school attendance requirements. Bus passes and bicycles are available so students can get to school, work, and appointments. The YOTO Mini-Mall provides free items such as food, clothing, hygiene items, household goods, and school supplies.

Last year, YOTO served 1,741 high school students. This year, it was 2,054, an increase of 17 percent. A similar trajectory is expected for the 2019-20 school year.

“Ultimately, the goal of the program is to see homeless and unaccompanied kids graduate from high school,” says Neumann. YOTO’s graduation rate is 84 percent, 4 percent higher than the state’s average.

YOTO relies on the kindness of volunteers and community members. Volunteers manage the front desk, stock the Mini Mall, write letters of encouragement, sort school supplies, and help organize stipends, all of which help students alleviate “the instability of their lives,” says Neumann.

Neumann is grateful for the “strong relationships” between YOTO and the Jewish community, as grants from the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona have helped in the past, and the new partnership with JFSA will build for the future.

“I’m really hoping that we can both connect with the Women’s Philanthropy group as well as the members individually,” says Neumann. “Youth on Their Own has wide support in the community but we can always use more folks to help us build the message and the word [about] youth that experience homelessness or who are unaccompanied. We hope that [the partnership grows] over the next few months and few years.”

“I’m just really excited about it,” says Mellan. “I think the whole board is.”

The WP kickoff event, “Salsa in the Sukkah,” will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16. $36 includes margaritas, mojitos, and tapas. Significant others welcome. Attendees are asked to bring donations of high school appropriate supplies or backpacks for YOTO. RSVP at www.jfsa.org/salsainthesukkah or contact Anel Pro at apro@jfsa.org or 647-8455.