When the process is the product of our endeavors

User .John Cochrane
Posted Date : April 17, 2014

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The Community Foundation of Western Nevada embarked upon a resident engagement initiative in 2013 centering on improving the lives of runaway, homeless and aging-out foster youth, ages 12-24.

Expectations for the estimated 1,300 unsupported young people who experience homelessness in Reno, Nevada are not high. The vast majority do not graduate high school or find legal work that pays a living wage. Despite their youthful optimism that these days of struggle are temporary, that they will grow up to be happy healthy self-sustaining adults, their future is grim.

We don’t expect to find all the answers to these young people’s long list of challenges, but we do feel that bringing them together as THE key stakeholders in this issue will make things better. To be successful in finding those answers, the youth are meeting with other stakeholders including service providers, organizations and foundations with resources, and caring adults. To facilitate the process, we began a community conversation to engage all stakeholders, which has never before been done on this topic in our region. The first organizing meetings, which included several youth who have direct experience with homelessness, were held at the Gold ‘n Silver coffee shop on the Fourth Street bus line. The initial meeting addressed the question: Who is a stakeholder? Two answers emerged: 1. youth who have or are experiencing homelessness, and 2. everybody who cares.

The meetings began with a meal and introductions and ended with plans in place to host community-wide convenings to discuss the challenges faced by the young and homeless. A $20 stipend was given to the youth after each meeting to motivate their continued participation in the planning. Over the first four months of working together, youth engagement is evolving into leadership, and they are driving the initiative process. We think of the Community Foundation as the facilitator, not the leader, of the initiative steering committee, which is the engine powering the movement.

The first You’N-I (Youth Network Initiative) convening was held at the Boys and Girls Club of Truckee Meadows’ gym on January 14, 2014. 160 people, including 60 struggling youth under 25, gathered at tables for a simple dinner. Then a panel of homeless or formerly homeless youth talked about their experiences; this panel was facilitated by the former Washoe County Manager. Each table was assigned a topic, such as “health and dental care” or “transitional housing,” to discuss and report back to the entire room. After 30 intense minutes of discussion, everybody was invited to get up and visit other conversations that appealed to them. The energy was electric as the meeting concluded with another report back. During this reporting time, dominant themes were noted and positive things began to happen. In one case, young man reported that it is daunting to find food because food pantries demand ID; he noted that this presents an immediate barrier for those who don’t have a school ID, a driver’s license, or a birth certificate. The CEO of the Food Bank of Northern Nevada spoke up and said, “I understand why you are asked for ID, but we are going to change that tomorrow morning.” And she did.


This post is part of the #CF100 Series of blog posts. The Council on Foundations is marking the 100th anniversary of the nation’s first community foundation, The Cleveland Foundation, by highlighting the roles of community foundations with this series.

As the meeting ended and youth exited the room (pocketing extra cookies to eat later), they were given hygiene swag bags and $20 to thank them for their participation. We collected their email addresses or cell phone numbers so we could include them in all communication about future meetings.

Two months and several organizing and steering committee meetings later, we hosted a second community-wide convening on March 12 with a greatly expanded list of stakeholders and many more youth engaged. Learning to reach and communicate with unattached youth has been a steep curve, but the youth are telling other youth, talking about their experience at the convening, and distributing flyers they designed. 

Through the collaboration of several service agencies, a resource guide for unattached youth is being developed. Subgroups of youth are working to identify the best ways and locations to get information about services for youth to youth—as well as a way to keep information updated in the future.

At the second convening, we explored what services are available to youth and what barriers exist to accessing those services. Local politicians and potential funders were given “situation cards” outlining a role they are to play at that convening; an example is: “You are 15 and have come home to your weekly motel room after school to find out your parent is gone. Arrested? Split with her boyfriend? Hurt? There is no food or money in the room. What do you do?”

The politicians and funders were instructed to role-play as a youth and meet with representatives of services agencies flanking the room to try to find the appropriate help for each situation. We hope to learn what is missing in our community and what doesn’t work and why. The information is being collected, organized, and distributed in the coming weeks.

What do we see happening as a result of this convening? Connections will be made that will lead to action.

  1. The Community Foundation of Western Nevada will continue to promote, invite, gather information, report, and fundraise. We are a neutral entity with enough community recognition and respect to gain the interest and ears of the change-makers in our region. We are bringing people together under a common goal to improve the situation for unattached youth in northern Nevada.
  2. Armed with new knowledge, nonprofit executives will collaborate, adjust their programs to meet the identified gaps, work on ideas for new projects, and look for funding.
  3. The youth, impatient and demanding tangible outcomes, will organize another convening and in doing so help themselves in a variety of ways. While the young people are engaged, they are supporting each other and connecting with adults in a position to help. They are brushing up their social skills and, maybe for the first time in their lives, earning respect. They are beginning to form attachments to this community we soon hope they will call home.

Margaret Stewart is Communications Director for the Community Foundation of Western Nevada.

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