Leaders in Georgetown, Texas, a suburb of Austin in central Texas, launched The Georgetown Project to address the needs of young people and their families in 1997. The partnership includes the business, government, education, health, and religious communities. The Georgetown Project leads a collaborative of dozens of community agencies and organizations serving local children, youth and families. The partnership has helped leaders adopt common goals, share data and increase communication and resource sharing.
Over the past eight years, The Georgetown Project sought to address an immediate community need, the growing homeless and transitioning teen population. The coalition created the
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Georgetown and learn about the progress made since then. As a native of Austin, I was excited for the opportunity to learn about the great work underway to serve this population.
The NEST is not a run-of-the-mill shelter. It is an initiative to help the broad community better understand the homelessness issue and become inspired to make an impact. It is, in the words of The Georgetown Project, “a comprehensive and coordinated way to address adolescent homelessness.” There are two facilities available for Georgetown youth who are homeless or living in transition. The host home facility provides safe and supportive overnight care for up to 45 days at a time. There is also an afterschool center, called the NEST Empowerment Center, for all Georgetown School District teens qualified as at-risk, homeless or living in transition.
The Empowerment Center, opened in 2013 in a former high school building, offers free evening meals, homework and test preparation help, counseling, job and career training
and guidance, computer access, gym and exercise classes, painting and other enrichment courses, music lessons, and a clothing bank. It is truly a one-stop center for youth to have a place of their own to enjoy their
During my visit one weekday evening, the center was abuzz with the energy and vibrancy of youth. A group of five youths learned about and tried melted crayon art, two boys cooperated in a game of Minecraft at the computer stations, and a few learned about job skills and career options for life after graduation. Through all these activities, there was an amazing sense of personally caring for each other on the part of both the staff and the students, and a feeling of ownership and belonging.
Making an Impact
300 high school teens have received services at the NEST Empowerment Center, around 25-30 youth on any given day. Of those, 99% have advanced a grade without being held back, and 98% of all seniors have graduated high school. 50 children and youth have been provided 1,313 nights of shelter in The NEST Host Home shelter.
The city council of Georgetown has created a youth advisory board, which is run by the NEST. Young people at the center noted that as a result of the center:
· “We feel safe,”
· “We feel like this is family,” and
· “If I’m having a bad day, this makes it all better.”
The NEST initiative has also created stronger bonds within the community. At first thought of as part of the school district, The Georgetown Project has helped students and leaders understand that this is a community asset. Members of The Georgetown Project board have rolled up their sleeves and volunteered, along with Sun City retirement community, the local university, the Chamber of Commerce, YMCA, churches and many other civic and government groups.
Some Key Lessons from the Work
The NEST started small and has grown to be a shining light of collaboration and impact in central Texas. Some key lessons learned you can apply in your community include:
· Always treat youth as key stakeholders and agents of change and ask them what they want and need. Don’t assume you know the answers.
· Being thoughtful and collaborative about long-term youth outcomes should be balanced with immediate needs and concerns. Balancing long-term strategies with short-term work strengthens both approaches.
· Look at basic needs and barriers. In Georgetown, clothing and warm jacket programs went unused due to the lack of public transportation. The school district now offers buses to the NEST facilities, and the clothing was moved to the NEST.
· Foster the idea of shared community ownership of solutions. The relationships you create will often have unforeseen positive impacts.
· Focus on fun, but also focus on structure. At meal times, all youths sit at a community table and are encouraged to use basic table manners. NEST staff then read a random conversation card and all youth are required to share their opinions and insights on the topic.
· Find organizations doing similar work to what you want to accomplish, and speak to them about aligning. Don’t reinvent the wheel, or create duplicative programs, if you don’t need to.