Safe Haven Provides Shelter from the Storm

St. Thomas alumnus offers troubled youth a new beginning.

Give him a minute and Dan Saad '85, '91 M.B.A., will sell you a dream: the dream of a better life for troubled Minnesota youth. He'll tell you about a kid who lived in a tent behind a church. He'll mention suburban youth who couch-hop, the invisible homeless who move from one friend's house to another. He'll talk about kids whose stepparents throw them out of the house as soon as they turn 18. He'll ask you, "Is it right for them to be homeless? I don't think so, if they're willing to change."

The result of Saad's dream is Safe Haven Shelter for Youth - commonly known as Safe Haven - which operates two residential group homes for youth in Prior Lake, Minn., and two transitional homes in Burnsville.

From Song to Group Home: Safe Haven's Beginnings Saad tracks Safe Haven's beginnings to a song: "Thank You," by Ray Boltz. In 1993, Saad was at a crossroads in his life. He had followed a corporate path after graduation, but his priorities - family and a flexible schedule - led him to leave his job in 1989. Since then, he had pieced together jobs, such as selling water filters and ad space, while he searched for something satisfying. The words of the song spoke to him:

Thank you for giving to the Lord.I am a life that was changed.Thank you for giving to the Lord.I am so glad you gave.

"As you live your life, how many people do you touch?" Saad asked. "My motivation isn't money. It's helping people, especially youth." As a coach for youth athletics since 1974, it wasn't difficult for Saad to expand his concern for youth to include young people who needed housing and support.

At the same time Saad's conscience was being prodded to do something for youth, he was beginning to see how he could use his business expertise to help others. In 1992, he had pulled together a big event for his employer. The newspaper he worked for gave away tickets for 2,000 kids to go to a Twins game. Soliciting donations from a variety of businesses, Saad managed to offer trips to California for a "best banner" contest at the game and free food at a park for 3,000 people as part of the event. He had similar success putting together haunted hayrides over the next few years. As he worked on these events, he thought about how, with all the generosity he was experiencing from corporations, he was sure he could get even more for a nonprofit organization.

Saad's father was concerned about his son's future. He believed that he needed a real career, not just a series of jobs, especially since he had gotten married in 1992. "My dad told me to get a job, and I told him, 'I'm going to start a nonprofit.'" Saad's dad jumped behind him. In March 1995, he struck up a conversation with a customer about his son's need for property to build a youth shelter. One thing led to another, and Saad had a lead on a rectory that needed renovation but could be turned into a shelter. He came close to closing the deal before area neighbors blocked it; they were concerned that a youth shelter would mean screaming kids and frequent police visits to the property. With his efforts nearly thwarted, Saad discovered that small group homes didn't need neighborhood approval. Safe Haven was one step closer to reality.

In need of money to purchase property for a group home, Saad gathered invoices from individuals who had donated to the baseball event a few years before. Most people were not interested, but one couple - Safe Haven's biggest donors to date, who prefer to remain anonymous - showed some curiosity. "I pulled a script together and went to talk to them. They connected with the Christian principles behind my idea and said 'yes.' They gave a $5,000 gift immediately and later gave $45,000 more." And that was just the beginning.

Saad continued to pull pieces together over the next several months: a house to rent, a program director and the first two overnight staff. In February 1997, the first kid came to the new group home for boys, and within two weeks they had four kids on site: two brothers, ages 8 and 10, another 8-year-old and a 12-year-old.

From there, the dream grew. In 1998, Safe Haven opened a new group home for boys and turned the original home into a group home for girls. More donors began to contribute. By 2000, Safe Haven had added two more homes, providing transitional housing for 12 young men and women.

"Dan has done a wonderful job over the past 10 years filling a need in Scott, Dakota and Carver Counties," said Jack Haugen, mayor of Prior Lake. "His commitment to youth through his work with Safe Haven and as a cross country coach is outstanding. Safe Haven continues to grow and serve youth under his leadership."

Cassendra Anderson: Safe Haven "Graduate"Former resident Cassendra Anderson came to Safe Haven through a county social worker during her junior year in high school. She had grown up in an abusive home, from which she was first removed at the age of 9. From age 15 until she arrived at Safe Haven, she lived in foster homes, shelters and other group homes. She engaged in self-mutilation. What she needed most of all was a sense of security and support.

"Safe Haven was a great place to go," Andersen said. "They give you so much support. They're always there for you to help you achieve your goals. They helped me overcome my past." Having spent years in an unstable situation, moving from city to city, she was touched that the staff made sure she could attend the high school of her choice.

In 2005 Andersen left Safe Haven. She is now a student at St. Cloud State University, where she is majoring in criminal justice and sociology.

Business Sense Keeps Safe Haven StrongSaad attributes much of Safe Haven's success to his understanding of business. Using his educational and corporate background, Saad always projects out, looking for trends that affect youth and how Safe Haven can respond to these trends. "In 2003 Dakota County decided not to place kids (in group homes like Safe Haven). We survived because we looked ahead. We were working with Ramsey County and Hennepin County. Organizations that didn't are now gone. You need to create a balanced portfolio. If one area is down, another is up."

During the time Dakota County stopped placing kids at Safe Haven and similar organizations, Saad was exploring a new idea: permanent supportive housing, providing assistance to young people who need affordable housing where they can develop independent living skills. The Corporation for Supportive Housing sent Saad and four others to London to examine a model program there. After returning from London, Saad hired a grant writer to find money for Safe Haven to open up a similar program. New money came in from Target and the McKnight Foundation - money that was an important part of Safe Haven's continued service to young people and growth at a time when Dakota County money had dried up.

Safe Haven is now getting ready to break ground on a welcome center in Prior Lake that will include five permanent supportive housing units, offices for Safe Haven staff (including an office for Saad, who has been working from his home since Safe Haven's beginning), a kitchen where residents can learn to cook, space for family mediation and psychological assessments, and more. In addition, plans are in place to secure between 24 and 28 efficiency apartments in Dakota County for more permanent supportive housing.

A.J.: A Safe Haven ResidentA.J. arrived in Minnesota from Arkansas planning to enroll at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He was the oldest child from a single-parent family. "My mother depended on me for a lot of things: like paying the rent for her when she didn't want to deal with the people that work there, taking care of my sister when she wasn't around and many other things," he said.

Graduating and moving to Minnesota for college seem like a promising start for a young man, but from the time he moved to Minnesota, things seemed to go wrong for A.J. The place he was to stay fell through. He moved in with his girlfriend's family, where his girlfriend's mother insulted him daily: "I had to put up with 'If I was Philippino I would be smarter.' ... Then she kicks me out on the first night the temperature was below zero. I spent that night at a nearby park and the rest of the day at the YMCA."

In addition to housing trouble, A.J. discovered that he had never received credit for 11th grade English and was not eligible to attend college after all. He enrolled in Burnsville High School to get the credit he needed. "I had to ride the bus system for three hours every morning to get to school until I got accepted into Safe Haven. After that, everything seemed to be turning around for me. ... Before the end of last year I was accepted to Brown College. I graduate from Burnsville High School in January and got hired by Advanced Cellular, an authorized dealer of Cingular.

"Safe Haven provided me resources and the know-how to bounce back from my terrible situation and keep going," A.J. said. "When I was living with my girlfriend's family, I felt like I was worthless every day I woke up because of her mother. When I moved into Safe Haven, it felt like I was given a second chance at life. The staff have been wonderful in helping my transition back to full self-confidence. These past months have played a major part in my transition from a teenager to a man. If it wasn't for this organization, I would've given up on my life and my future."

Building on a Strong FoundationEven as Safe Haven breaks ground on the welcome center, Saad is looking ahead. As the organization moves into providing permanent supportive housing, he sees the potential for maternity homes for young mothers with children. He also wants to secure an endowment for Safe Haven: "Our current annual operating budget is $1.2 million. A $10 million endowment could go a long way. Then 20 years from now, I can retire and the organization will be secure."

For Saad, like other nonprofit leaders who work in organizations like his, helping young people is of utmost importance. But as a businessman, he understands that in order to help these kids, he needs to have a strong foundation in place. Diversifying his outreach and putting a foundation in place that can operate when he is gone, Saad will assure Safe Haven a long future of helping kids like Cassendra and A.J.

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