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December 9, 2013
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Close to Home: Homeless students hold tight to youthful dreams

She hopes to become a veterinarian and help animals. The dream seems far away, though. Her immediate needs include better grades, food and a permanent home.

Mikayla Alexander, 13, stays at Casa de Belen, a Roseburg shelter for homeless teens. An eighth-grader, she will need to raise her grades to get into Roseburg High School; otherwise she’ll have to attend an alternative high school.

“If I work really hard, I think I can do it,” she says.

Mikayla is among Douglas County’s homeless students, who numbered about 300 last year, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Some students may have a roof over their heads, but their housing is transitory or inadequate or both.

Mikayla has been at Casa de Belen for a couple of months and recently began volunteering at Saving Grace Pet Adoption Center, a step toward making her dream come true. Other shelter residents help her with schoolwork and with buying groceries.

Youth like Mikayla find a refuge at Casa de Belen, but still face an uphill climb, the shelter’s executive director, Penny McCue, said.

They commonly end up at the shelter because of setbacks sometimes beyond their control, putting them behind in classes and at a disadvantage in catching up.

Many have no hope of taking part in extracurricular activities, even though that might help them excel in school, McCue said. Without a stable residence, transportation and money to participate, students are left out.

“They are fighting the system and have all these forces against them,” McCue said.

SHELTER A RELIEF, FRESH START

Casa de Belen provides transitional housing for homeless teens and their families. The 22,000-square-foot shelter, a former nursing home, opened in 2005 and serves about 60 residents.

It has an exercise room, beauty salon, living room, library, dining hall, nursery, playground and courtyard.

McCue said the shelter makes education its top priority. Students who stay there must maintain an 80 percent attendance rate at school and attend mandatory evening study halls at the shelter.

If students don’t have homework, McCue gives them something to work on.

She and Aaron Towne, the shelter’s resident supervisor, work with teachers and school counselors to keep tabs on each student.

“We have a traditional belief of the power of education. We place a high value on it,” McCue said. “It’s the key to becoming successfully self-sufficient. You’re not going to reach your potential if you’re not succeeding in school.

“If you don’t have a stable living environment, you won’t succeed in school. They go hand-in-hand,” she said. “It’s 100 percent a struggle because (the residents) don’t have that consistency. A lot of people take for granted their living situation and how it helps them succeed.”

Before coming to Casa de Belen, Dawn Buchanan was camping in a van with her four children, ages 13 to 3. A combination of family and financial problems led to her and her children being homeless, she said.

“I was emotionally drained and doubting myself as a mother,” said Buchanan, 39. “When we got here, it was a relief, a place to get my bearings.

“I was afraid we weren’t going to get in because my son wasn’t 13 yet,” she said. “They took us in that night. We were happy to have a room. I was at my wits’ end and was going to put my kids in foster care so they wouldn’t have to be on the street.”

Casa de Belen staff members helped Buchanan enroll at Umpqua Community College, where she is studying human services.

“If I was living in a van, there’s no way I could go to school,” she said. “Even if I wasn’t homeless, I didn’t have the support system I needed or the resources before.”

The shelter staff “instilled confidence in me that I had lost. My parenting skills were down the toilet at the time,” she said. “You have to forget about what stopped you in the past and be willing to put in the work to start anew.”

Emily and Aaron Gier, a married couple and both 18, are working a new start.

A high school dropout, Aaron Gier earned a GED diploma within a month of coming to Casa de Belen. He now takes computer classes at UCC and has ambitions to attend a four-year college.

Emily Gier, who is expecting, graduated from South Umpqua High School and came to the shelter about six months ago, where she and her husband help oversee the shelter’s study hall. She is also taking classes at UCC.

Between her pregnancy, school and daily responsibilities at the shelter, Emily Gier said it can all be a bit overwhelming.

“It’s very tiring. You have to be oriented with time management,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to make it known you are struggling. Take people up where help is offered.”

• Reporter Jessica Prokop can be reached at 541-957-4209 and jprokop@nrtoday.com.

If you don’t have a stable living environment, you won’t succeed in school. They go hand-in-hand.

Penny McCue, Casa de Belen executive director


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The News-Review Updated Dec 10, 2013 04:23PM Published Feb 19, 2014 05:01PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.