You’re now involved. A card with that simple sentence brought more than just awareness of youth homelessness to John Sitarz ’88; it inspired him to co-found a nonprofit, HOPE 4 Youth.

In late 2012, his daughter Sam participated in a sleep-out at Andover High School to raise money for and awareness of youth homelessness. John stopped by to bring his daughter a hot chocolate. While there, he met Karrie Schaaf, Anoka-Hennepin School District McKinney-Vento liaison. (The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that provides help for students experiencing homelessness.) The two talked briefly about a vision of creating a shelter for homeless youth.

The next morning, Sam gave her dad the card with Schaaf’s phone number. Both father and daughter were reflecting on the sleep-out, shocked at how many youths didn’t have a place to call home in the area: nearly 600 Anoka-Hennepin School District students, including six at her own high school.

Knowing that those six were sleeping in their cars, going into the school to wash up at 5:30 a.m. when the doors open, returning to their cars to wait and then walking back in with the other arriving students, haunted John, a senior financial representative at Principal Financial Group.

He reached out to Schaaf, leaving her an urgent message.

When Schaaf called back, she said, “You sound really upset.”

“There are six homeless kids at Andover High School sleeping in cars,” John replied. “Can I write a check to get them off the streets? It’s 16 degrees out!”

Schaaf suggested a meeting with Brian Swanson, who had a vision of what a solution could be. Bridget Barr and Paul Ekstrom joined the trio, and in March 2013 the HOPE 4 Youth drop-in center opened in Anoka, Minnesota.

“John took off and ran with the idea, to say the least,” Sam said. “He got the ball rolling and started fundraising. We all started volunteering.”

The drop-in center and HOPE Place

It required a lot of work … quickly. As a nonprofit, HOPE 4 Youth only had $50 in the bank when the drop-in center opened. John took the lead on fundraising, successfully connecting with potential donors.

The drop-in center, open to youths up to age 24, is open 2-7 p.m. every weekday or by appointment. Youths are provided with basic needs, such as food, showers and laundry facilities, as well as resources for accessing jobs, education or health care through the on-site clinic. Since its opening, there have been nearly 4,000 visits to the drop-in center, with close to 900 youth served.

The first teen who showed up at the drop-in center stayed for a week and had been sleeping in a tent for two years.

It didn’t take long for John to see that more was needed than the drop-in center. “At 7 p.m. we had to tell them, ‘You gotta go,’” he explained. “That’s the hardest – to close those doors and watch them walk back into the woods and disappear … still, today, it’s heartbreaking.”

The nonprofit launched a capital campaign to develop a more permanent option. Their successful fundraising resulted in HOPE Place, transitional housing, that opened in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, in December 2016. HOPE Place includes 12 studio apartments, a community room, offices, a laundry room, a study and a fitness center.

Young people ages 18-25 can stay at HOPE Place for up to two years. Each of them is assigned a case manager to help them assess their daily needs and walk out the door as an independent, self-sufficient adult.

Making an impact

John recalled the stories of young people HOPE 4 Youth has helped – from the girl who was late for school because her hair froze to the ground while sleeping outside, to the boy who, when given a choice of having one item, chose a jar of peanut butter instead of a jacket or other winter gear.

“It’s totally changed my life. I was a businessman living the dream of a focus on working,” he said. “I didn’t really understand the world as a whole. When I got involved, it impacted me tremendously. I’m not the same guy I was. … It makes me think about life a lot differently than I did.”

In the north metro suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, HOPE 4 Youth is needed more than ever. In 2018, the Anoka-Hennepin School District had close to 1,200 homeless students. According to Wilder Research, children and unaccompanied youth (age 24 and younger) make up nearly half of those experiencing homelessness in Minnesota. A report from the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that there are more than 17,750 homeless students in Minnesota school districts.

People and organizations are stepping up to help. “We have so many companies that want our children [from HOPE Place] to come work for them and build their confidence,” John said.

The next HOPE 4 Youth initiative involves even younger children. Best Buy founder Richard M. Schulze is helping to fund research to look for at-risk signs among 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds, so youth homelessness can be headed off earlier.

John’s involvement in HOPE 4 Youth has changed him as a person and, he hopes, has made a difference in some young lives.

Read more from St. Thomas magazine.

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