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Photo by Sarah Conroy

Part of a larger, New York-based agency with locations in 32 cities throughout six countries, Covenant House Missouri launched in St. Louis in 1998. Since then, it has grown from a small outreach program to a multi-service operation that offers crisis beds, transitional housing, counseling, job training and other supportive services to youth from the ages of 16 to 21. Last year alone, Covenant House Missouri served more than 6,000 youth.

“We work with youth that aren’t in the foster system or the juvenile justice system,” says executive director Suzanne King. “We work with youth that really fall through the cracks because there’s not another safety net for them. One in five youth that we serve is a victim of human trafficking.”

“Covenant House Missouri changes all that,” says board chair Jon Nienas. “They have the skills and tools to help discouraged youth [achieve] a life of independence.” Each and every day, staff and volunteers strive to be a haven for young people in crisis, somewhere they can warm up or cool down, take a shower, eat a meal or receive medical care.

Recognizing the diverse circumstances of youth in need, the nonprofit operates two residential service programs at its North Kingshighway headquarters. The short-term crisis program gives young people a place to stay for up to 45 days. Those looking for longer-term housing options can take advantage of the Transitional Living Program, which supports stays of up to two years.

“Word of mouth is our biggest referral source,” explains King. “Young people that we’ve worked with before refer other youth or families.”

Through its Safe and Street Outreach Program, Covenant House Missouri also actively goes out into the community. Staff members drive around, combing the streets for youth that are homeless or need assistance. “Right now, they’re passing out winter outerwear, and they always have food, drink and small toiletries in the car,” explains King. “They try to convince [youth] to come into our crisis program.”

King acknowledges that some young people are reluctant to accept the outreach team’s relief, at least initially. “If they don’t trust us quite yet, [we] can bring them back to our facility to get something to eat, get a shower and then maybe [they’ll] leave,” says King. “Sometimes it takes a couple of visits before youth trust us enough to give it a shot.”

Once that trust is established, however, Covenant House Missouri is ready to work with them to build better lives. As part of this effort, the organization runs a two-phase employment program. The first phase is a week-long crash course in which youth learn the steps required to gain employment – from performing job searches to writing résumés.

Participants are tasked with identifying a job to apply for by the end of the week. With that job in mind, they take part in videotaped mock-interviews and are given feedback that will, ideally, help them land the position. To develop this curriculum, Covenant House Missouri joined forces with the management consulting firm Accenture, which is now designing a course specific to the retail industry.

In the past, though, “youth wouldn’t really sustain a job past 90 days,” observes King. To counteract this drop, Covenant House Missouri developed the second phase of its employment strategy: an in-house job training program. Dubbed the “Garden Rangers,” youth taking part in this program earn paychecks by cleaning up around the Historic Shaw neighborhood.

For King, this program is about much more than picking up trash. “What we’re trying to build is internal discipline,” she stresses. Through their work, “Garden Rangers” cultivate a sense of responsibility and purpose that sets them up for future job success. Indeed, graduates of the program become eligible to apply for unpaid internships and, eventually, paid positions at some of Covenant House Missouri’s partnering companies, which include Panera Bread and SweetArt Bakeshop.

The staff and volunteers at Covenant House Missouri realize that at-risk youth need both practical skills and emotional support to thrive. For the past two years, the agency has been undergoing a transition to trauma-informed care, a process that will take a total of five years to complete.

“Usually agencies will react to youth’s behavior, but trauma-informed care looks beyond behavior and examines why it happens,” explains King. “It’s helping youth develop healthier coping skills and additional tools that they can use to navigate through life.” For King, this transition represents a “deep cultural change within the agency,” one that will usher the organization into its next chapter.

Covenant House Missouri will mark yet another special occasion in April, with the celebration of its tenth annual Stan Musial Hall of Fame Gala. The fundraiser is a chance for supporters and alumni to honor the organization’s achievements and to champion its future.

Longtime patrons Tom and Doreen Gilliam find it especially “heartwarming to know that, after 20 years, Covenant House Missouri still adheres to the principles upon which it was founded: No one can take away the value that God places on every person at conception.”

“The homeless youth we serve are resilient, bright and wonderful people,” underscores Nienas. “Covenant House Missouri gives them the chance to show the world what they can do. We take hopelessness and change it into thriving teens and young adults that make a positive impact in our community.”

Covenant House Missouri, 2727 N. Kingshighway Blvd., St. Louis, 314-450-7670, covenanthousemo.org

Emma Dent is the Special Projects Manager for the Ladue News. A St. Louis native, Emma is a trained art historian with interests in American visual culture, especially illustration and advertising. She enjoys reading, writing, and looking.

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