Rafael Eledge appraises a sword at the Assistance League of Tucson's 2012 Whatz It Worth? fundraiser. The event was inspired by programs such as "Antiques Roadshow."


Jessica Galow's experience with Youth On Their Own, also known as YOTO, has come full circle, from graduate to volunteer.

She's bringing the support given her 13 years ago back around as chairwoman of the committee for the local nonprofit's 25th Birthday Bash and fundraiser, Talk of the Town, on April 16.

"The outside influence of people who cared truly about me graduating may have been as valuable as the actual financial contribution," Galow said. "It was that added support of someone telling me, 'You can do it. We believe in you,' that meant so much."

Galow, now 30, received assistance from YOTO for about six months before graduating from high school.

Since 1986, YOTO has been providing financial help, basic needs and guidance to enable young people ages 13 to 21 who lack stable homes to graduate from high school and lead productive lives. The nonprofit group aids students in public, alternative and charter schools.

Free services include a monthly stipend program based on school attendance and grades; a Basic Needs Bank that provides food, clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and household goods; bus passes for transportation; emergency financial assistance with rent, utilities and other needs; and referrals to community agencies to help with things such as counseling, health care and housing.

Since its inception, YOTO has assisted more than 10,000 youth in the Tucson metro area; it currently provides support to more than 500 students in 70 schools here.

"These are young people who, through no fault of their own in most cases, are having to overcome so many difficulties just to go to school and have a place to sleep at night and food to eat," said Patti Yenerich, a veteran board member and past chairwoman of the annual fundraiser. "They are determined to have a better life and know education is key to that."

Yenerich is serving as a "voice of experience" for Galow and a dozen committee members.

YOTO clients lack stable home lives for reasons ranging from domestic violence and parental alcohol or drug abuse to difficult step-parent situations and abandonment, sometimes due to parental deportation or incarceration. Displacement of families in the current economy also has contributed to demand for YOTO services.

Galow said the $125 stipend she received each month while living on her own and working eliminated enough financial pressure to allow her to focus on graduation. She credits a YOTO liaison at an alternative high school for making her aware of the services the nonprofit offered.

"Through the liaison I learned there is a place where they understood what I was going through," she said.

YOTO's acceptance and support is key to the success of good kids who are in bad circumstances and just need a break, according to Galow, who went on to graduate from the University of Arizona and is now a real estate agent for Tierra Antigua Realty.

"They don't use circumstances to judge who you are," she said. "Whatever was going on in my family, they didn't want me to let that keep me down. They said, 'It's not perfect, but no one's family really is, so let's focus on you and graduation and your future.' "

Galow and her committee are particularly excited about YOTO's newest offering in honor of its 25th birthday: 25 two-year scholarships to Pima Community College made possible by personal donations.

"This is a big deal. YOTO focuses on homeless teens, not necessarily those leaving high school and going into college, but to be able to take that to the next step and offer scholarships to Pima is huge for these kids who are so deserving," Galow said. "They have overcome so many things most people would never be able to handle."

If you go

Youth On Their Own's 25th Birthday Bash and Talk of the Town

When: 5:30 p.m. April 16

Where: University Marriott, 880 E. Second St.

Cost: $95 each or $850 for a table of 10

Etc: Festivities at the Talk of the Town include a cocktail party with live entertainment and a raffle and silent auction from 5:30 to 7 p.m., followed by a sit-down dinner. Master of ceremonies is Arizona Daily Star cartoonist Dave Fitzsimmons; hosts and hostesses are Bob and Danita McMahon and Ray and Alta Depa; honoree is YOTO founder Ann Young.

To buy tickets or donate an item for the raffle or silent auction, go to www.yoto.org or call 293-1136.

If you can't attend the event, you may want to consider making a monetary contribution to YOTO, which will receive matching funds up to $25,000 from an anonymous donor. Call 293-1136 for more information.

Contact freelance writer Loni Nannini at ninch2@comcast.net