11025671_10153050499485813_3787823175221397363_oEarlier in March with several inches of snow and slush on the ground – 54 young professionals slept outside in cardboard boxes wrapped in trash bags to raise support for homeless youth. These men and women participated in the Covenant House Sleep Out to End Youth Homelessness, and have raised $67,000 to date. It was a simple, yet incredibly powerful statement to let runaway, abandoned, and trafficked youth in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and Camden know that someone cares about them.

When you think of a homeless person, what comes to mind? Do you picture a crusty, dirty old man, strung out on drugs and holding a cardboard sign? Do you imagine a woman huddled under a filthy blanket on a park bench, with all of her worldly possessions packed into a few plastic bags? Or maybe you think about the guy begging for change at the intersection during rush hour?

I bet you don’t think of Shawn – a bright, gifted young man that plays saxophone, trumpet and drums and has a penchant for three piece suits – who is currently homeless. Shawn, like 30% of the residents at The Covenant House, ran away from an abusive foster home and found himself sleeping upright in casino bathroom stalls and kicking in the doors of abandoned apartments after the $300 he had in his pocket ran out. His dream is to be a professional musician.

You probably don’t think of Mary – who was illiterate at age 18 and suffered horrendous sexual and emotional abuse throughout her childhood. Mary is now a Princeton graduate – who is only a few credit hours away from earning her PhD – and an instructor at the Covenant House Atlantic City. Her life is consumed with teaching, inspiring, loving, and instilling hope in kids who have experienced the same hurt, rejection, and loss that she did.

Imagine what it must of having a childhood like Shawn and Mary. Can you imagine a father showing his 10-year-old son how to shoot heroin or a mother telling her 12-year-old daughter that she’ll never be worth anything? Picture your parent telling you that you have to have sex every day just to have money to pay the rent.

These stories aren’t made up – they’re real. These are the heartbreaking and traumatic stories of kids that have been hurt, abused, and abandoned by the very people that were supposed to protect them from pain. They survive by “house-hopping” and “couch-surfing,” many still managing to make it to school on a regular basis. They lie, cheat, and steal to feed themselves because it is – in a very literal sense – life or death.

Those that find their way to Covenant House – an organization founded in 1972 with the simple, profound mission to help homeless kids escape the streets – are greeted with a smile, a hot meal, a warm bed, structure, and an unlimited supply of unconditional love and support.  The organization is the largest privately funded charity in the Americas providing loving care and vital services to homeless, abandoned, abused, trafficked, and exploited youth. The heart of its mission is to provide the one thing that these kids crave — family. For too many of these kids, Covenant House is the first real family they ever know.

In order to break the cycle of chronic adult homelessness and bridge the gap of support in the lives of homeless youth, Covenant House has developed three core services known as their Continuum of Care – Street Outreach, Crisis Care, and Rights of PassageThese core services are comprised of a wide array of in-house training programs, including: healthcare, educational support, GED preparation, job readiness and skills training, drug abuse treatment and prevention, legal services, mental health services, the Mother/Child program, life skills training, and aftercare. These programs are designed to provide youth with a holistic approach to leaving the streets and achieving independence.

If you want to help support this cause, here are simple tips:

  • Make a micro-donation. You may have missed the Covenant House Sleep Out to End Youth Homelessness, but it’s not too late to make a difference. Click here to make a donation to the campaign through May 1, 2015. Every $1 or $5 donation makes a huge difference.
  •  Become a volunteer. To learn more about how you can get involved, click here.
  •  Share this story with your circle of friends, family and co-workers. Just talking about what organizations like this are doing to make a difference in the community goes a long way in increasing awareness and getting more people involved.

*Please note that the names in this article have been changed to ensure the protection and privacy of our most vulnerable youth.

Katie Everett is Founder of Philly Gives – an organization aimed at maximizing positive community impact in Philadelphia by fostering collaboration and generating increased awareness, support and involvement in local charitable efforts. You can connect with Philly Gives by liking them on Facebook, following them on Twitter or e-mailing them at hello@phillygivesmore.com

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