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Nonprofits strive for teens
When it comes to helping at-risk teenagers graduate high school, one phrase comes to mind for Jill Mitchell: whatever it takes.

As director of the local Communities in Schools, she and her staff are the opportunity that knocks at the door of at-risk teens.

Communities in Schools is one of three United Way agencies that help youth with no or rickety support systems at home.

"Whatever it is to get them there, knocking on their door at home, phone calls - whatever they need to get them in school," Mitchell said.

Communities in Schools is a national organization, but the local branch uses a model to address students struggling in school without a support system at home to help them.

When kids aren't interested in school or doing well in class, it usually points to problems at home.

"Really, we have to develop this relationship with them," Mitchell said. "Usually (the students we see) have a lack of support at home, a lack of values."

In Glynn County, Communities in Schools currently works with 50 students. Based on factors such as slipping grades, low attendance and other "risk factors," students are referred to the program and meet at least once a week.

"It really serves a niche here. Graduation is a huge priority," said Missy Neu, chief executive officer of the United Way of Coastal Georgia. "Communities in Schools gets it. They get the fact they can't do the work alone and they collaborate with other agencies."

With funding from the United Way's annual campaign, Communities in Schools hopes to be in a position to increase the number of students it can help.

"The full model would be 200 kids," Mitchell said. "Every time we increase funding, that's more students we can support."

There's no shortage of need in the community. For 12 children, Safe Harbor offers a safe home, a family atmosphere and a new start, said Leslie Hartman, executive director of the program. What many don't see, Hartman says, are the pillows and blankets under overpasses or in the woods - the other children and teenagers who run away from home, go unnoticed by their parents and are homeless.

The Safe Harbor Street Outreach Program is a place where homeless or runaway teens can stop in for a few days, have a bed to sleep in and shower.

"It's about building that trust with adults again, so that maybe they'll come in off the streets," Hartman said. "We want them to stay here."

United Way funding allows the program to go one step further. Safe Harbor focuses on education, making sure children try to stay focused on their education during homeless periods.

"Our Street Outreach program does not qualify for state funding for tutoring, so United Way supplies the funds for that," Hartman said, adding that one student last year not only succeeded in passing her Criterion-Referenced Tests, but also earned a perfect score on the Language Arts portion.

"If you knew (the child), you would understand that success," Hartman said. "For everything else going on she still succeeded."

Hartman said knowing there are more children who need a safe place or are homeless keeps her working hard.

"I think if people just open their eyes, they'll see it," Hartman said. "We have so many great things here, but there are homeless kids."

If people recognize the issues like homeless children in the community, it'll draw attention to the organizations and resources available to help, those close to the problem say.

Southeast Georgia Health System President and CEO Gary Colberg, chair of the United Way campaign, said that's what it's all about.

"It's not a shortage of leadership or passion in these agencies. It's the funding," Colberg said. "If people know about these resources that are available, they will help."

That's especially true for Cary Greenfield, director of the Glynn County Court Appointed Special Advocates or CASA, in which non-lawyer adults are appointed by a judge to look out for the interests of children involved in abuse and custody cases.

The program relies on its 68 volunteer advocates to meet with the families every month.

"You can't truly help someone unless you meet them," Greenfield said. "You have to maintain an open level of communication. All aspects have to commit to it."

Greenfield says volunteer advocates are affecting the lives of the children and being affected by the work they do.

"We want them to have meaningful contact with their families and try to maintain that bond," Greenfield said. "The more we can get families together, the quicker we can work through their cases."

United Way funding is split between training of the advocates and the Visitation Center, where families meet.

"We really see the impact that CASA has on the community," Neu said. "It's so volunteer driven and a strong and meaningful program."

Currently, CASA is working with 128 children in foster care.

"We're plugged into all of these areas here," Greenfield added. "We have to figure out ways to partner up with each other and support and serve so many children."

That means doing what's best for the child, even if it means removal from the home and a change in custody.

"We want to be there for the child, if that's all we can do," Greenfield said. "We will be there and say what's best for them. We can do that, and that's what we're going to do."

DONATE:

The unified fund drive for 29 charities and social service agencies is counting on businesses, organizations and individuals to help it raise $1.2 million, or $45,000 more than it did in the previous campaign. Those interested in donating to the United Way's campaign can visit www.uwcga.org.



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