Mary’s Shelter - Building STRONG Youth Campaign
School Districts who competed in the Bedroom Design contest
Business and Community Partners who painted and decorated the bedrooms based on the winning designs:
Penske Women’s Network painted and decorated the shared areas including the Kitchen / Dining room, Living room & Multipurpose room. 1-800-GOT-JUNK helped furnish the Dining room
Burkey Corporation employees painted the staff offices
Room Sponsors gave monetary donation to help purchase furnishings and decorations for bedrooms:
In-Kind Contributions and Special Collections:
Open House Donations:
Two years ago, the executive director of Mary's Shelter, a place for homeless pregnant women in Berks County, didn't know what to expect.
Christine Folk knew there was an unmet need. There were teenagers without homes, sleeping on friends' couches or park benches or in abandoned houses.
That's why she spent a $483,000 federal grant to convert part of the Kenhorst Boulevard facility into 20 rooms for unaccompanied teens. It would be a place for girls ages 14 to 17 to find their footing, providing them emergency shelter for up to 21 days.
But when the teen shelter opened in early 2019, Folk didn't know if anyone would come. Homeless teens are often good at hiding and reluctant to seek help.
"When we first started doing it we were thinking maybe we'd have 25 kids the first year," she said.
The shelter ending up serving 41 in 2019. And to date has had 98 total admissions.
Now, in 2021, Folk is hoping to address another need: Homelessness among teens and young adults.
Mary's Shelter is embarking on a $1.5 million project to renovate the facility's bottom floor, adding 20 new rooms for those who need a longer stay. The transitional housing program — which has been named the Strong Program — will give them a place of their own for up to 18 months.
Folk said that creating a long-term shelter for teens, the first of its kind in Berks County, was the plan from the start. It was part of a five-year plan, set to take place in 2024.
"It turns out that the need for the kids to have a longer stay than 21 days came through loud and clear in just the first two years," she said.
The rooms will be open to anyone age 16 to 22. They will serve as a safe place for teens and young adults to get their lives in order, finishing high school and preparing for college or the workforce.
The homelessness problem
Homelessness is a very real problem for teens in Berks.
According to Tabitha Kramer, program specialist for the state's Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness at the Berks County Intermediate Unit, just over 2,000 youths experienced homelessness during the 2018-19 school year.
And that number is probably low.
"The biggest challenge is identifying these kids," she said.
Kramer said homeless teens often hide their situation, afraid of the stigma it may cause or what might happen to them if adults find out. They worry about foster care, about being forced to return to family members who might be abusive.
Instead, they struggle silently.
And, unlike many might believe, the problem isn't just an urban one.
"I think the biggest misconception is that homelessness is only in Reading, only in the city," she said. "We have homeless students identified in every single school district across Berks County."
In fact, she said, more than half of the homeless teens in the county during the 2018-19 school year were outside of Reading.
Identifying homeless teens is incredibly important, Kramer said, because once they're identified they can start getting help. And that assistance can allow them to finally focus on the things kids should be focused on, like school.
"We work with getting students set up with basic needs so they can be successful in school," Kramer said. "Before they can even sit in a classroom they need to have their basic needs met. They need to have a place to go home to, they need to know they're going to have food on the table."
That's where Mary's Shelter comes in.
A place of their own
Mary's Shelter's emergency shelter is designed to protect youths in the short term, to give them a place to stay as they figure out their next step.
That could be reuniting with their family or maybe getting an apartment of their own.
But in many cases, Folk said, 21 days isn't nearly long enough. Each situation is unique and requires different options.
"No two kids are the same," she said. "You could have an 18-year-old who is very independent and just needs some support with an adult checking in on them. But then you could have a 20-year-old who has no idea how to budget, who can't hold down a job.
"They all want to get from point A to point B, but all of their paths are going to be different."
That's why creating a long-term shelter is so important, Folk said.
Mary's Shelter has received a $750,000 grant from FHL Bank Pittsburgh's Affordable Housing Program for the project and is hoping to secure a second grant.
Other funding for the renovation is being provided by local individuals who wish to remain anonymous, Folk said.
Folk said opening the new sections of the shelter will add about $360,000 to Mary's Shelter's annual operating budget. That means any additional financial support it can get is much welcomed.
"Every little bit adds up," she said.
Plans for the project are being reviewed by city officials. Folk said the hope is for the new section of the shelter to open by the end of the year.
Once construction is completed, local high school students will get a chance to add their own special touch to the new rooms.
When the shelter opened its emergency teen shelter, Folk reached out to the local business community to help furnish them. Companies signed up to give each room its own look, footing the bill for beds and desks and rugs and other items.
Employees from the companies were able to tap into their inner interior designers and set up the rooms.
The effort proved popular, Folk said.
This time around, Mary's Shelter is expanding the design effort, looking to tap into the minds of some of the peers of the teens who will be staying there.
Through the BCIU, they are running a contest that will allow high school students to submit designs. The winners will work with local businesses to bring them to reality.
Kramer said her hope is to have entries from every school in the county. So far, she said, nine schools have signed up.
Folk said the hands-on nature of having local businesses and teens help design the new rooms is really something special.
"Financial support is awesome, all of the nonprofits need that financial support to do simple things like keep the water running and the lights on," she said. "But this project is very hands-on, and I think that's what is very appealing to a lot of the groups. They get to see the finished project."
It also serves as a way to highlight the plight of homeless teens in Berks.
"It really brings the whole community together, not just from an awareness standpoint but also as a call to action," Folk said. "We care what's going on, we care enough to create a space for them."
Folk said she hopes the teens who enter the contest become advocates for homeless teens in their schools, learning how to recognize in their peers the warning signs and knowing what to do when they see them.
Kramer said she thinks the project will provide a great sense of relief for homeless teens in Berks, many of whom have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Just try to imagine being in a hotel room with five kids in one room all trying to do virtual learning," she said. "Being able to have their own room at Mary's Shelter is going to be an amazing treat for them."
The Berks County Intermediate Unit hosted an event Thursday focused on those affected and what can be done to help kids who don't have a stable living situation.
Read the complete story here.
Bollman Hat Company handed out free hats at Mary's Shelter in Reading.
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Within the next couple weeks, the shelter will be opening a new wing housing 10 homeless or runaway teens, ages 14 to 17.
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The newsletter features an Agency Spotlight article about Mary's Shelter.
“If we are going to err – we will err on the side of compassion”…of all the things that we discussed when I interviewed the executive staff at Mary’s Shelter – this is what stood out the most.