May 4, 2015 | By: Katie Pratt
Lexington, Ky.

Imagine a person with no family, no schooling, no transportation and no home. Then, think about that person being only 15. This is a reality for some Kentucky young people who find themselves homeless or unstably housed.

A team of researchers led by experts with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment are reaching out to homeless or unstably housed young people in Louisville with the opportunity to develop essential life skills. Janet Kurzynske, Kerri Ashurst and Ken Jones received a five-year grant from the Children, Youth, and Families at Risk program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

According to the 2013 Kids Count statistics, Kentucky teenagers have high rates in several categories that increase their chances of being homeless or unstably housed. These include a later-than-expected or no high school graduation, unemployment, teen births and incarceration.

Due to a lack of consistent life skill programs available to this group, the Louisville YMCA’s Safe Place Services contacted the Jefferson County Extension office for help. They were able to connect them with UKAg researchers, and a partnership developed. Kentucky State University also joined the partnership to help these young people take a positive step forward.

“We have always wanted to work with the homeless, but in order to work with them you need infrastructure that Cooperative Extension doesn’t have,” said Janet Kurzynske, UK extension professor in dietetics and human nutrition and the project’s lead investigator. “When you are working with homeless youth, you have to provide shelter. That’s what the YMCA has. So it made for a really good collaboration.”

UK will collaborate with two YMCA centers in Louisville for the project. One is a shelter that offers housing, food, transportation to school, homework assistance and counseling to homeless or unstably housed young people under the age of 18. The other is a youth development center that offers young people between 18 and 22 bagged food, showers, washing machines, dryers, basic skills training and computer access.

“They are different groups and different ages, but when you look at the life skills they are missing, they very much are lacking the same things,” Kurzynske said.

For the program, UK hired Nick Brown as an extension associate housed at the YMCA centers in Louisville. Brown has extensive experience with homeless youth and the YMCA programs offered to them.

Brown will work with young teens at the shelter to identify their most critical life-skill needs and then help them strengthen those skills, as they are only allowed to stay at the shelter for 30 days. At the youth development center, he’ll offer educational programs and work with those youth on both a group and a one-on-one basis, as they are allowed to use those services for a longer period of time. Areas he will cover include communication, boundaries, healthy lifestyles, workforce preparation, personal safety, stress management, goal setting and financial management.

“The YMCA’s No. 1 goal is to reunite the youth with their family, but that’s not always as easy as it sounds,” Kurzynske said. “That’s why life skill education is so important, because they can’t always be reunited or sometimes they need some additional life skills to be reunited.”

UK and KSU extension personnel will also work with the group to build a community garden at the YMCA shelter that will be used as a food source and provide them with a hands-on opportunity to build a skill and learn about teamwork. Extension personnel are also providing a valuable link to other potential partners the youth may be able to access in the area.

Throughout the process, the researchers will collect pre- and post-test data from participants to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. Part of this data will go into CYFAR’s Common Measures for workforce preparation, a national program that measures the young people’s ability to effectively solve problems and make decisions and provides a perception of their competence.

“We are really looking at it from a positive standpoint. These youth have had enough negative in their lives; we’ve got to help them focus on the positive,” said Kerri Ashurst, senior extension specialist with Family and Consumer Sciences Extension.

Contact: 

Janet Kurzynske, 859-257-9047; Kerri Ashurst, 859-257-3032; Ken Jones, 859-257-7193