She thought she and her husband were retiring to enjoy the good life. The life she found is better than she imagined.
My husband, Peter, and I retired to sunny Southern California for two reasons. One was to be near our daughter Lauren, who was at USC and is now a lawyer in Los Angeles. The other was that word sunny. Peter had grown up in Sydney, Australia. He and I raised our kids (our other daughter, Kelly, is a country singer in Nashville) in the Washington, D.C., area, where Peter worked for the International Monetary Fund and I managed national sales for software companies. God blessed us with an abundant life, more than I dreamed possible.
The city of Huntington Beach (nickname: Surf City) in Orange County, California, reminded Peter of sun-kissed Sydney. We said goodbye to East Coast winters and bought a house a stone’s throw from the beach. I looked forward to sleeping in and playing lots of tennis.
It didn’t work out that way.
We’d barely settled into our new home when Peter returned from a Kiwanis Club meeting one day. “A guy from the community college spoke,” he said. “They need volunteers to help disadvantaged kids stay in school.”
Volunteering was something I wanted to do more of in retirement. I called the speaker from the college. His name was Chip. He headed the college’s Extended Opportunity Program, which helped struggling students stay enrolled.
“What’s your biggest need?” I asked.
“Kids dropping out because they’re homeless,” he said.
I thought I misheard. “College students are homeless?”
“It’s more common than people realize,” Chip said. Indeed, as I later learned, a survey at some four-year colleges in California found that faculty and staff estimated nearly one in ten students had experienced homelessness. Even more couldn’t afford to eat.
For a moment I didn’t know what to say—and not just because I couldn’t reconcile the idea of college with images of all the homeless people I’d seen in D.C.
My mind filled with memories of my own early years. Dark memories. My dad’s rage-filled voice. Fights between him and Mom that left her shaken, scared.
Mom finally got out of that relationship, but we grew up hard. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Some of my siblings struggled.
I’d always been haunted by a question: How had I escaped that world? Even worse: What would my life have been like if I hadn’t?
I was the oldest and took responsibility at an early age. But I think one reason I ended up going to college and living a stable life was Barbara, a friend from school. Her family was totally unlike mine. Her dad worked, her mom stayed home, everyone was happy and there was always enough. I spent as much time at Barbara’s house as I could. I loved having dinner there. They ate together every day at six o’clock. I wanted a life like that.
“I’ll help,” I heard myself telling Chip. “Whatever you need.”
Chip asked me to meet with a college counselor, who would put me in touch with two homeless students. The counselor told me about Brad and Cynthia, who’d recently dropped out because they had no place to live.
I wondered what I had to offer two homeless college dropouts in California. I didn’t even know my way around yet! What was I getting myself into?
When they called, Brad and Cynthia sounded just as uncertain as I felt. We agreed to meet at the college. It was a typical sunny California day. Perfect tennis weather. I met Brad first, then Cynthia; they didn’t know each other. I didn’t realize who they were at first. Sitting on a bench, neither looked homeless. Like most homeless kids, they do everything they can to fit in.
As we introduced ourselves, I recognized the tired, wary look in their eyes. My heart went out to these kids; they were the same age as my girls.
They told me their stories. Cynthia’s parents were drug users, and she had no contact with them. A boyfriend had overdosed. She herself had gotten clean and wanted to become a substance abuse counselor. Brad’s parents and brother were mentally ill. Brad and Cynthia had managed to graduate high school, but they didn’t know the first thing about being a competent adult. Cynthia was couch surfing at friends’ houses. Brad had a friend who let him crash in a small boat in a boatyard.
“The first thing we need to do is find a place for you to stay,” I said. I assumed that would require just a phone call to organizations providing housing to homeless youth. A more resourceful pair of kids might have thought of that themselves. I tried to remind myself Brad and Cynthia were struggling.
I did an online search for organizations that provide housing to homeless young adults. There was not a single year-round emergency shelter for men and women in all of Orange County (a year-round shelter has since opened). There were shelters for families, veterans, victims of domestic violence and people with severe mental health problems. But no long-term housing for young adults unless they had been in the foster care system.
It wasn’t lack of resourcefulness that stymied Brad and Cynthia.
Eventually I found a room in a house for Cynthia and put up the first month’s rent—an outlay that’s a huge barrier for homeless people seeking housing. Through a senior center, I learned of an elderly person who would exchange in-home care for housing for Brad.
Neither Brad nor Cynthia had a car. They used buses, which, in sprawling Orange County, take forever to get places and are expensive. Nor did they have a state ID card or Social Security card, a requirement for getting a job. That’s common among homeless youth.
So was Brad’s and Cynthia’s need for help with such basic life skills as budgeting and keeping a schedule. Both had grown up in families without steady jobs, weekly grocery shopping, conversations around the dinner table—everyday things that gradually teach kids how to manage their own lives.
Brad and Cynthia needed more than money. More than a place to live. They needed someone like my friend Barbara’s family to show them how to be functional adults. Who would fill that role?
I knew where this was headed. But I didn’t mind. I’d always viewed the life Peter and I had built as a sanctuary from the dysfunction I experienced as a child. Now I saw the two parts of my life formed a larger whole. All along God had been preparing me for a retirement I never imagined. And I was ready.
The average apartment rent in Orange County is $1,848 per month. Wealth stratification here is stark. Once word got out I was helping homeless youth, I began getting referrals from police, nonprofits, social service agencies and faith-based organizations.
And kids themselves called: “Hi, my friend said you helped her find a place to live. I lost my apartment this week and I’m pretty much broke and my boyfriend’s a junkie but I dumped him....”
I replicated what had worked for Brad and Cynthia. I made phone calls and developed a network of for-profit shared houses that charged by the week for a bed. I got bus passes and walked young people through applying for state IDs and temporary financial assistance. I found job programs that showed how to write a résumé, search for a job and talk to a potential employer in an interview.
You might think a person old enough to vote would know to cover their tattoos and remove piercings during a job interview. You would be wrong.
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. My girls went to college and landed good jobs, but they’d made mistakes. Homeless young adults are uniquely disadvantaged—too old for family-oriented homeless services, too young to teach themselves how to live independently.
The number of kids calling and texting me grew. To make it easier to solicit donations and field volunteers, I filed nonprofit paperwork and sought support from the community.
I developed a long list of resources. Whenever possible, I wanted to help kids get the assistance they needed instead of duplicating what other organizations were doing. The big-hearted owner of a local café heard about my work and donated a vacant two-room office. I got some donated computers, and soon I was spending every day either at the office or on my phone, talking with and texting dozens of homeless kids.
Businesswoman that I am, I developed a flowchart of the steps that kids need to take to become self-sufficient. Last year alone, Build Futures—what I named the nonprofit—helped more than 200 kids. Of the young people in our program, about three quarters end up with jobs, places to live and a future that their upbringing never allowed them to hope for.
I rarely play tennis. Most days I work more hours than I ever did as a businesswoman. Yet I can’t imagine a more fulfilling retirement. I know what it’s like to wake up afraid, wondering if things will ever get better. And I know what it’s like to build a bright future. How could I not share God’s gifts with these kids and let them know someone cares about them?
I’m still in touch with Brad and Cynthia. Both work and live independently. Brad wants to start his own business. They’re building futures. I feel privileged to build alongside them.
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