Utah teens raise $1 million, inspire others to aid homeless

Published January 6, 2011

Real life encounters with homeless teenagers, many of whom aged out of the foster care system, inspired the teens. Photo: Steve Nagy

When teenagers Ashton Palmer and Andrew Hagedorn decided to raise money to help Salt Lake City area homeless, they set an ambitious goal of $200,000.

That was about four years ago and so far the teens, along with help and support from members of their St. James Episcopal Church youth group and the local community, have raised at least five times that much — more than $1 million — in both cash and in-kind donations for local organizations that offer assistance to area homeless.

The idea to get involved in local homeless outreach gelled after the St. James youth group clamored for "real-life" discussions, recalled Ashton, 17, a Cottonwood High School senior, during a Jan. 3 telephone call from Salt Lake City.

"We were in ninth grade and we’d bring in stuff from the newspaper. Someone brought in an article that said a homeless man froze to death in his car. We said we should probably do something about it," she recalled.

The group volunteered at the Road Home, a local homeless shelter, serving dinner one night a week. Encounters there inspired Ashton to expand her efforts, she said.

"Seeing it firsthand, it motivates you the most," she said. "One girl recognized someone who went to her school and was absolutely shocked. She had no idea they were homeless.

"And a man came up to me one time while we were doing dinner. He was crying. He kept saying, thank you so much for everything you do," she recalled. "It makes me feel like I have so much, and it makes me want to do more for them."

And more they did — including bake sales, carwashes, fun runs, pancake breakfasts, and as telephone volunteers during the shelter’s radio-thon fundraising drive. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

They invited and involved youth from other congregations, other denominations, as well as family, friends and classmates.

"They knew if they challenged other parishes and denominations, they could double their efforts. They had informational meetings and invited other faith-based youth groups and talked about homelessness," said Terry Palmer, Ashton’s mother and a St. James youth leader.

Real-life encounters with homeless teenagers, many of whom had aged out of the foster care system, also inspired them, Terry added.

"The concept of how many homeless kids there were was shocking," recalled Terry during a Jan. 3 telephone call. "At the time we started this several years ago, there were 300 kids who turned 18 and aged out of foster care each year in Salt Lake County. About one-third or 100 of them were completely homeless on their 18th birthday. They literally had nowhere to go."

That’s when Ashton and Andrew began to focus on finding housing for youth. They got involved with the Utah Youth Mentor Project (UYMP), a nonprofit agency that offers life skills and other training as well as housing to teenagers.

By then they’d also joined the Salt Lake County Youth Government Commission. Andrew is its current president and Ashton is vice president.

They invited community leaders, real estate developers and housing authority members to an informational forum to raise awareness about youth homelessness. The result? "We got a house donated," said Andrew, 17, an East High School senior, during a Jan. 3 telephone call from Salt Lake City.

Eventually, another house was donated to UYMP’s Milestone Project, which has opened separate homes, for young at-risk men and women who have aged out of the foster care system.

The Volunteers of America, Utah stepped forward to offer case management and other assistance, said Zach Bale, vice president of external relations during a Jan. 4 telephone interview.

He said that Ashton and Andrew’s efforts ignited the community action.

"I’ve been impressed with how they engaged the community. They substantially raised the level of community concern and various projects seemed to pick up more steam," he said.

Another project, involving the VOA and the youth, is in the preliminary stages but would include building a one-stop location for GED, caseworker and other services, a vocational school and emergency housing, he added.

Other groups got involved, including the Utah Symphony which holds a yearly benefit concert. Earlier this month, Ashton and others raised $4,000 through a fundraising concert by the Sally Bytheway Chorale.

All told, Terry Palmer said that youth efforts, in addition to creating awareness, have raised about $300,000 in cash and that "in-kind" donations, such as the two homes, amount to about one million dollars.

The Rev. John Williams, St. James’ rector, said Ashton’s and Andrew’s outreach is part of the congregation’s culture of "people who want to live out their faith."

"They came up with a bold, daring goal for themselves and a set a large amount so they could feel they’re making a difference," he said. "They inspired the parish through making a commitment like this first, then following through. Now there’s much more involvement in the parish with the Road Home and the homeless community than there was before."

Terry Palmer said that Ashton and Andrew met at the church and at Camp Tuttle, a youth camp run by the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. She and other youth group leaders helped "show them there’s a need out there and that they need to be relied on to help take care of it."

Friends since third grade, both teenagers plan to continue fundraising and service work, after they graduate from high school later this year.

"I absolutely will continue to do this work," said Ashton, who spent two weeks in Peru last year through Youthlinc, a nonprofit agency that offers local and international service experiences to youth.

"It’s awesome. Also, my little sister is in the organizations that we’re in and she’s in the ninth grade and is recruiting her friends and so I know what we’re doing now will continue to go on."

Andrew, who has made humanitarian trips to Mexico through Youthlinc, said he knows service "is the right thing to do … and this is what I want my lifestyle to be."

"I know this is an important thing because I’ve seen homeless people and worked with them. There’s a lot of biases and prejudices and preconceived notions about them but they’re just like you and I. They’re in a bad place in their lives and they need help."

Meanwhile, he is busily promoting yet another upcoming fundraiser, the Souper Bowl of Caring, a national fundraising effort by young people to alleviate hunger focused around Super Bowl Sunday which, this year, is Feb. 6.

"We asked our church members and others to go out to their businesses, and to work, school, whatever it may be, and to ask for a dollar or two or a can of food for the homeless around the Super Bowl.

"When we approached our church members we said, if you have all these parties planned, just take a dollar or two out of the chips and salsa to change someone’s life. Even the littlest amount will do it. If a group of teenagers can raise one million dollars in in-kind donations — if we can do it, anyone can."

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.


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