Opinion |

I had just finished setting out the food at a homeless youth drop-in center when Jake, 18, grabbed a plate and filled it with food. He went across the room and sat on the floor. The entire evening I watched him as he sat alone, hoodie on, casually looking up and watching everyone else. I made my way across the room attempting to strike up a conversation, only to be shut down. 

The following week and right on time for dinner, Jake walked in as the food buffet was set. This time I handed him a plate and said, “Hello, Jake.” He paused for a brief moment and grinned slightly. Again, he walked across the room and sat alone on the floor to eat. After all the youth had been fed, I casually made my way to him and simply sat down. We sat there for about 15 minutes without a word spoken. Finally he asked, “What do you want?” I just looked at him and grinned.

This was the beginning of a journey that forever changed the trajectory of my life. Every week, Jake and I met where he shared a little more of his story. The middle child of a single mom who worked nights, Jake was finished with his older brother’s side-hustle of using the house to funnel drugs while mom was away. Plus, his older brother had convinced their younger sister that she could get a little cash by providing sex to those late nighters coming to the house. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This is happening in my hometown? My mind was racing, full of many questions and thoughts.

Our trust was building as Jake shared more of his story and questioned if what he did next was right. He was totally done with his brother’s treachery and finally gained enough courage to make a stand to tell his mom. Before he went to school, Jake shared with his mom all that’s happening through the night. Jake’s brother and sister ganged up against him since this was their cash flow and said he was lying. Arguments got to an all-time high and frustrated with the chaos, mom sided with her two other children and kicked Jake out of the house.

Jake was 15 years old when he went to school knowing at the end of the day he would be homeless. For the next three years, Jake couch-hopped and stayed at random places, including a teacher’s house. Jake finished his story as his plate of food emptied and I sat speechless as he started sharing about other homeless youth.

It was during one of our weekly chats that the idea came to me. What if I life-coached Jake until he could become self-sufficient? I knew this would be a big commitment, but formalizing our casual meetings would open the doors to more in-depth conversations, like setting goals and stretching him when needed. I shared the idea with him and to my excitement, he too was ecstatic and onboard!

After a year of meeting, he made significant improvements in his life by renting an apartment, a better job, and getting a library card. He’s an avid reader, too! In our next meeting, Jake turned the tables and became my coach by insisting I take the coaching model we had piloted and turn it into a program for other youth like him in Springfield. From his encouragement and enthusiasm, I did.

Jake’s story, and the stories of hundreds of older foster youth, are what fueled my journey of 12 years as the CEO of I Pour Life, a nonprofit that focuses on the advancement and development of marginalized and older foster youth. During my tenure, I and two other colleagues created a positive youth development program called “LifeStrengths,” which now is recognized as the only one of its kind in the U.S. LifeStrengths continues to impact youth in some of the hardest-hit areas of Southwest and Northeast Missouri. 

It was through my conversations and interactions with youth across the state that I realized intervention and systemic change were long overdue. For the past three years, I’ve been meeting with local, state, and national legislators to advocate for foster care and policy overhaul.

From my years of leadership in the nonprofit sector, I have discovered many great organizations, legislators, agency workers, and individuals. I also discovered many gaps in our system that still need to be addressed. In this column, my hope is to provide ways you can fill in gaps. I want to introduce you to new people and groups, and share about agencies and churches who are impacting our community. 

Springfield’s heartbeat is to step in and generously help where needed. I am honored and grateful to share perspectives, inspire people to action, and reach the pulse of the citizens of Springfield.

Oh and 10 years later, Jake and I are still connected and I am very proud of the young man he has become. He too has conveyed how proud he is of me. Touché!

Julie Higgins

Julie G. Higgins is a Springfield entrepreneur and a partner in Higgins Business Consulting. Her mantra is: “Teach with your life.” Follow her on Twitter: @julieGhiggins or email her at: juliehigg@yahoo.com More by Julie Higgins