Editor's note: This year the Source is donating every penny we earn in our annual charity auction to LOFT. We believe in the potential of youth to turn their lives around. Find over 100 items donated by great local businesses in our Give Guide in next week's issue. Bid on EBay to take them home and know that your support is going to a great cause.
Cynthia Irving's high school experience was not pleasant. Growing up in Davis, Calif., shuffling between parents in a custody battle, Irving's childhood led to a mountain of emotional issues. By the time she was 16, she was headed down a dark path.
"There was a big court battle and my dad ended up with custody, which triggered a lot of depression issues, and those were accompanied by anxiety," said Irving. "I had started cutting myself and was bulimic."
After being sent to boarding school, Irving felt unsafe returning to her father's home and came to Bend to live with another family member. Her behavioral issues continued, and when she returned from a stint as a runaway, she found that her family was uninterested in having her back at home. They had kicked her out.
And so go the stories of many young people in Bend who, through a variety of family struggles, find themselves homeless. In Cynthia's case, she was 16 with nowhere to go and on the verge of dropping out of school. That's when she found the LOFT.
"No one in my family was able to help me see my potential. It was substance abuse and self-hatred that lead me to the LOFT," said Irving.
LOFT (Living Options For Teens) is a federally funded program run by J Bar J Youth Services. The Loft is located in a slate blue building on Century Drive across the street from Century Center.
The goal of the transitional living program is to help homeless youth develop strong life skills with a focus on education completion and vocational training in order to achieve healthy, self-sufficient and independent living, according to the organization. LOFT's target population is homeless youth ages 16-21. They cater to male, female and transgendered youth. They have capacity for 10-14 youth to live full time at the shelter on Century Drive.
Potential candidates go through an application process and, once accepted, create a personalized plan to move toward independent living.
Each teen works to accomplish their own set of goals, the first of those being to complete their education.
"A parent can't just drop their kid off here, it doesn't work like that," explained Mel Parker, communications and development director for LOFT. "The services are for the young individual. It's voluntary, it's free, it's confidential and it's youth driven."
Youth can stay up to 21 months if they follow house rules. These include being home by a curfew, participating in community chores and having a job or volunteering in the community.
Residents can also participate in art therapy sessions, OSU extension programs, physical activities and nutrition classes.
All this was exactly what Irving needed.
"I was doing pretty well in school, but without LOFT, I wouldn't have been able to graduate high school," said Irving. "They gave me so many chances to improve."
Last year 228 students dropped out of the three major high schools in Bend. Pat Gundy, operations manager of LOFT, is trying to combat that number by helping at-risk kids complete their education and get on the right track for their future.
He said that Irving, like many of their residents, came from a rough place but, through hard work and help from the program, she was able to succeed.
"Her family was splintered and she had taken a rough road," said Gundy. "She had some ups and downs, but worked really hard to stay clean and sober and to finish school. She is a brilliant kid."
For Irving, the program was a complete turnaround. After her 10-month stay at the shelter, she graduated high school and enrolled in cosmetology school. Two years later, she now lives in San Francisco, has her cosmetology license and is working as a freelance hair and makeup artist.
"They're taking kids in this society who aren't going to be productive and giving them an opportunity to do something," said Irving. "It shows that they [the kids] are willing to work and change. The people at the LOFT never doubted me."
At-risk youth in Bend rely heavily on LOFT to build a healthy future. LOFT is the only organization in Central Oregon that has built the programs and partnerships necessary to keep these young people on the right track.
But even though the services are there, the money may not be. This year, because of an issue with a grant application, the shelter will not receive the majority of its grant funding for 2013.
"Because of a problem in Washington, we are losing our funding for transitional living," said Pat Gundy, operations manager for LOFT. "We are knocking on doors, making calls, writing smaller grants, and looking under couch cushions to help get us some more funds."
Without financial support from the community the future of the LOFT is in jeopardy.
You can help just by shopping the Source Weekly's Give Guide. You'll find it in next week's edition of the paper.
Generous local businesses have donated over 100 gifts for you to purchase through our annual charity auction. You'll see plenty of items you'll want to take home.
The best part—100 percent of the proceeds go straight to LOFT so they can keep the doors open for at risk youth in our community.
According to the Homeless Education Network, there are an estimated 20,000 homeless students in Oregon. Of these, 4,310 are in high school. In Central Oregon, LOFT is currently the only aide service for assisting these young people.
"Can you imagine trying to get through school if you didn't have a reasonable adult at home or a safe place to study?" asked Amanda Gow, head of development and media relations at J Bar J. "When you come home and you don't know what your living situation is going to be like, and you don't know about food or safety, can you imagine how hard geometry is?"
LOFT's goal is to provide a safe place to call home. For many teens, it is their first stable living environment.
"For a lot of families, especially in the last 10 years, there has been a lack of stable housing. There are families that are homeless so there are youth that are homeless," explained Pat Gundy, operations manager at LOFT. "Then there are coexisting things that go with that, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues. The rates for drug and alcohol abuse in Central Oregon are higher than they are for the rest of the state. But Gundy said he has seen young people turn their lives around time and time again once they are able to go from that "homeless teen" stigma to stability. It's the first step away from drug and alcohol abuse and toward being a productive adult.