The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 15, 2013

No Direction Home, Day 2: The Reach is growing up, heading for expansion

By Robb Murray rmurray@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Read a Day 2 stories in pdf form.

MANKATO — When it first opened, The Reach was serving about 15 kids a month and its staff was asking area service clubs and nonprofits if they could come in as guest speakers.

These days? The Reach — a homeless youth drop-in center — sees more like 80 kids a month. They’ve added a handful of other programs. Expanded to Rochester. And those speaking gigs?

“Those days are over,” said Rachel Johnston, executive director of The Reach. “We don’t call around and ask to speak anymore. They ask us.”

To say The Reach has grown would be a bit of an understatement. Opened in 2011, The Reach remains the only agency in southern Minnesota serving homeless youth. And in case you’re skeptical of just how much work there can be for such an agency, consider the numbers:

■ Since opening its doors in 2011, the Reach has served roughly 700 youth.

■ Of those, 73 have been sheltered in hotels with average stays of five nights.

■ The Reach has about 40 graduates from its On My Own program, which teaches life skills such as cooking to youth.

■ Statistics from Mankato Area Public Schools backs up those numbers. The district counted 61 kids who at some point reported having no place to stay. This year that number is 95.

Johnston said The Reach operates as an independent business but falls under the umbrella of Lutheran Social Service. A similar program had been operating in Owatonna, but their grant ran out and the program was ending. LSS staff in Mankato picked up that grant and opened shop in Mankato.

“At the beginning, we were hitting the streets endlessly,” Johnston said. “We’d eat lunch at the Salvation Army, immerse ourselves in the culture we’re trying to serve.”

A few months after opening, The Reach began contracting with Second Harvest Heartland in the Twin Cities to function as a food shelf for the young clients. To date The Reach has given out more than 7,600 food items, and more than 10,700 health and hygiene items.

One of the first programs The Reach launched was something called On My Own. Already a success through LSS, Johnston said they felt it was a good fit for The Reach. The program teaches kids how to cook, how to apply for a job, how to apply to a college or get financial aid, and coaches them in personal finance skills, such as balancing a checkbook, nutrition and the importance of volunteer work.

Johnston said The Reach is big on partnering. They’ve taken kids on kayaking trips that have resulted in Bent River Outfitters offering jobs to some of the kids.

In 2012 The Reach’s name was getting out there and more and more kids were coming for help.

“Now, some months it’s so busy we’ll have up to 80 kids a month. We’ve had as many as 15-20 kids per day,” she said. “The phone is ringing off the hook.”

The Reach continues to add new programs to meet the needs of its clientele.

Last year it got a five-year $500,000 federal grant to launch a program for transitional living. It’s called Sheltered Ground Mankato Area Transitional living program, and it started a year ago in October.

The program gets youth on an 18-month plan of rental and life assistance. For the first month, the program covers rent in an affordable apartment. By month 18, they’re supposed to be weaned off assistance entirely, and they’ll ideally have been monitored in school and work enough by The Reach staff so that they can make it on their own.

They’ve also added a crisis nursery for youth who have kids of their own and a program called BOOST (Building On Opps to Strengthen Teens).

With all these programs and outreach efforts, it would make sense that The Reach would be top of mind, and that southern Minnesotans would have a better handle on how pressing the issue of youth homelessness is.

Right?

“No,” Johnston said. “They don’t really know. It does surprise me a little. But on the other hand, we look at it as an opportunity to educate people.

“We’ve had kids as young as 8 years old. We have kids in this community sleeping in stairwells, sleeping in Port-O-Potties, in their cars,” she said. “We’ve outgrown our space because we’re serving so many kids. Which is sad, but at least we know we’re helping them.”