Showing them we care

Becky Vargo • Nov 27, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Your parents pass you along to your grandparents. You are living a fine life. Then both grandparents pass away within six months. You have no place to go so you stay in their home until the bank takes it away. Utilities have been long turned off. What do you do?

This is a real-life story of one of the many teens dealing with some degree of homelessness in the Grand Haven area.

And it’s one of the reasons friends Steven VanderWerp and Wendy Deaton joined forces with Grand Haven Area Public Schools Homeless Liaison Cindy Benson to create a project called Community Care for Teens this holiday season.

The project’s Facebook page went live last Monday morning, and by early Wednesday, more than 20 teens that had shared their stories will get a little extra love this season.

Because of the overwhelming response, VanderWerp said they were expanding the perimeters to locate more teens who need help.

Another story, as noted on the project page, is this:

You are a teen, living in “the happiest seaside town in America,” yet your life is far from happy. You have come home from school to find your mother and her friend unconscious on the bathroom floor, the victims of an overdose. This is not the first time you have dialed 9-1-1 to seek help for your mom, but it will be the last. Now, it is the holiday season, and you have aged out of the opportunity to get help from some of the agencies in town. You are alone and feel like nobody cares.

On the project’s discussion page, each teen was assigned a number. Under the number it notes their age and gender, along with a short list of that person’s wants and needs.

Participants pick a youth to sponsor and commit to spending $100-150 to acquire some of those needs.

Once a person signs up for the student, they receive an email with the teen’s story and more specific information about their wish list.

All of the gifts, along with cards of encouragement, will be dropped off at the Grand Haven Area Public Schools Education Service Center by Dec. 18 for delivery.

VanderWerp said he and his wife, Erin, were greatly touched when they participated in a pay-it-forward project through @Home Realty last year. They were able to take a $20 donation from owner Jake Hogeboom and turn it into a $1,000 act of goodwill.

VanderWerp wanted to double last year’s amount, but when he and Deaton put their heads together, they realized there was a segment of the population that needed and was getting missed.

Often, these teens are not included in the family gifts during the holidays. Many of them, at age 18, even if they are not done with high school, are pushed out the door to make it on their own, Benson said.

They don’t want to be seen shopping with a sheriff or participating in a free meal if they think someone from school will see them, she said. 

“Their biggest goal and biggest hurdle is to graduate high school,” Benson said. “If you have to provide for yourself at 16, 17 years old, school becomes less important.”

Benson said this project is a way to help alleviate some of their worries so they can achieve that graduation goal.

“Our goal for this — since their parents might not be showing it — our hope is the community will show some love, now and in the future,” VanderWerp said.

“This shows that somebody cares,” he said. “Otherwise, they go day to day thinking nobody cares.”

VanderWerp hopes the project makes a big impact on everyone who participates.

“If it is something they tackle as a family, it’s an awareness they are bringing to their kids,” Deaton said.

VanderWerp also hopes that the teens being helped feel strongly enough about it that they, in turn, help someone else down the road.

He said he was grateful to everyone who stepped up to help, but noted “there’s still a lot more need.” 

“They are teens, but they are still kids,” Deaton said. “Christmas should be magical and these children need to be thought of and remembered.”

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