Michelle Cooper understands the challenges that homeless teens face, and she has also experienced how the local nonprofit Youth on Their Own can help.
“It was not just the clothing and food that the monthly stipend helped us to buy that was so important, but it was the guidance and support — knowing that someone cared about us and would ask if we needed anything,” she said.
“That simple thing helped me in high school and beyond, along with the fact that I knew someone was willing to fight for my education. That made me want to fight for it, too.”
Cooper, 32, received assistance from Youth on Their Own — or YOTO — for three years before graduating in 2002 from Rincon High School and PASS Alternative High School.
She went on to earn an associate’s degree, followed by a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Northern Colorado and an MBA from American Intercontinental University. She is now the post-secondary education transition supervisor for Youth on Their Own.
The job is another milepost in the journey that began after Cooper’s father left when she was 6 and her mother died from cancer three years later. Cooper lived with her grandmother and various relatives, and was constantly moving.
“I went to multiple high schools, due to the type of situation I was in. Like many kids served by YOTO, I tended to move around a lot,” she said. “But I knew I had to find a place to go to focus on school and not have to worry about where I was going to live the next day.”
Cooper was able to get an apartment and, with the help of YOTO, enroll in school. YOTO also provided a monthly stipend — it was $125 at the time and has since increased to $140 — based on grades and school attendance.
The nonprofit also offers students emergency financial assistance with rent, utilities, transportation and other items, and provides referrals to resources for jobs and social services including counseling and health care.
Last year YOTO supported almost 1,100 students in Pima County, many of whom were ordered to leave home or were abandoned by their parents. Others ran away to escape physical, sexual or substance abuse or violence.
The population of homeless teens continues to grow in Pima County; it increased from 2,000 youths in 2010 to almost 4,000 last year, YOTO Executive Director Teresa Baker said.
“We are attempting to be diligent in staying as focused as we can in helping as many kids as possible. But we have to constantly fundraise since we don’t receive any federal or state grants in support of kids graduating from high school, and Arizona vacillates between No. 1 and No. 3 in the nation for the most high school dropouts,” Baker said.
She emphasized that since most programs focus on early intervention in elementary school, the gap in funding for grades six through 12 can force teens to leave school.
“A recent national survey found that one out of every three kids in the United States doesn’t graduate from high school and one of two Hispanic kids who attend high school doesn’t graduate,” Baker said.
“Workforce development in every community, especially Tucson, relies on us having a community that can supply its own workforce, if you will, instead of having to bring in people from other places who have high school diplomas or post-secondary education degrees.”
To raise money to help reverse that trend among homeless teens, YOTO relies heavily on grants; donations from individuals and businesses; fundraising through third-party events; contributions to the Arizona Tax Credit for the Working Poor; and proceeds from the nonprofit’s signature Talk of the Town fundraiser, which will be held at 5 p.m. April 12 at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, 7000 N. Resort Drive (see If You Go box).
Cooper hopes Tucsonans understand the long-term impact their support can have not only on homeless youths, but their families and friends and the entire community.
“I didn’t want my past to define who I am, and I didn’t let it,” she said. “Education changes your family history pretty much; it puts something out there for you to push for. By being that person who says, ‘I am going to finish high school and go to college,’ it pushes the rest of your family and gives them something positive to work toward.”