In Their Corner

Y.E.S
Kerri Ashurst and Jennifer Wells-Marshall
In Their Corner
Sitting at The Muhammad Ali Center in view of the Ohio River, Jesse Hobson, 22 of Louisville, talks of idolizing Ali and how he enjoys playing the video game Fight Night so he can pretend he is the champion boxer. Like Ali, Hobson has been bouncing back from punches his entire life. Although he will readily admit that most of them have been self-inflicted. Hobson is just one of 555 adults between 18 and 24 who have stayed in a Louisville homeless shelter during the past year, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition Supporting Young Adults reported in 2012 that many of those young people list finding a job as their most important short-term goal and a job that will turn into a career as their top long-term goal. “It’s bearing down on me,” Hobson said. “I don’t always want to be in this place or in this situation. The only way out is to get myself up and get out of there.” Unlike the vast majority of Louisville homeless youth who list “no one” as the person they turn to for help, Hobson has had support. It’s taken him seven years and countless conversations with professionals who work with homeless youth in Louisville to get to this point… one of whom is Nick Brown. A Hand Up Brown is a no-nonsense, straight talking extension associate with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. He was hired in 2014 to work with at-risk, urban youth by UK researchers Janet Kurzynske, Ken Jones, and Kerri Ashurst as part of a unique grant from the Children, Youth and Families at Risk program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In partnership with the YMCA of Greater Louisville, the grant allows them to reach some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. “Partnering with the ‘Y’ has allowed us to reach people we would never have been able to reach, as they have provided the audience, space, and location to conduct our programming,” Jones said. Brown teaches life skills to young people ages 12 to 17 at the YMCA Safe Place Shelter House and to 18- to 24-year-olds at the YMCA Youth Development Center. When young people come to the center, 92 percent are homeless or transient, 87 percent have little or no income, and 5 percent report a previous or current drug problem. All live below the federal poverty level. On the Ropes Adopted at a young age, Hobson grew up in Middletown, a middle class neighborhood in Louisville. But he stole from his parents, quit school, and started heavily using drugs. At 15, Hobson first stepped into the YMCA Safe Place Shelter. He’s been in shelters and sleeping on friends’ couches for the past seven years. “Back then I was just young and dumb,” he said. “I just thought I was here to have fun. Then I realized the fun comes after you take care of your main issues and stuff.”Brown teaches at the YMCA and also in other venues like a barbershop or The Muhammad Ali Center, where thanks to various partnerships, he is able to take young people to get things they need, like haircuts or a cultural or educational experience. In 2015, he taught more than 1,000 life skill lessons to youth. Many of the 12- to 17-year-olds have returned home. In addition, 10 youth got jobs, three secured housing, and two were working toward their GED certificate after the first six months of programming. “The goals are different when you’re working with this population. We hope to give the younger youth improved communications skills, so they can be reintegrated into their families, if possible,” said Kurzynske, the project’s principal investigator. “For the older youth, we hope to also teach them life skills that would allow them to be successful employees and become self-sufficient.” Reality Check Brown tells youth what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. It’s a lesson he knows all too well, because he has walked in their shoes and slept in their streets. A self-described “punk kid,” Brown decided at 15 that he was going to leave his parents and make it on his own. That landed him sleeping in a dumpster outside a Louisville Shoney’s before he sought help from the YMCA Safe Place. He stayed in the shelter for eight days before being reunited with his family. “There was a guy at the Y named Richard Elon who taught me life skills when I was in this situation,” Brown said. “No matter what we were talking about, he somehow brought it back to a lesson. I always thought that was a beautiful art form. I’ve tried to take that approach with my career.” It has worked. Straight From the Shoulder “Nick has helped me go the farthest,” said David Reinford, 19. “All I’ve seen is nothing but success. I’ve come a long way here.” Reinford has a past he doesn’t like to talk about. Born the fourth of 12 kids on Chicago’s South Side, he had little schooling and spent most of his youth in and out of incarceration. He came to Kentucky to work in construction with his brother in Breckinridge County but found small town life wasn’t for him. When business slowed in the winter, he asked his brother to bring him to Louisville. He’s been coming to the Youth Development Center for two months. In that time, Brown has helped Reinford get his Social Security card and an identification card so he can find employment. Brown has also connected him with the Kentucky Youth Career Center, so Reinford can start on the path toward earning a GED certificate. “Out of all the programs I’ve been in that work with men, Nick’s one of the best I’ve ever worked with,” Reinford said It’s a sentiment that KiAndra Hilliard echoes. “When I have a problem Nick goes through it and gives me each person’s perspective,” she said. “It’s good because I can learn what I need to make better and how to choose to cut people out. A lot of it is my choice of letting people in and then letting them stay while they do me wrong.” Hilliard, 19, has been on her own since September 2015, when she left an abusive home environment after her mother and she fought over finances. When she left, Hilliard could no longer attend Jefferson Community and Technical College. Brown has worked with Hilliard on resumes, goal setting, and interview preparation in addition to communication skills and conflict resolution. He has taken her to get a haircut through a partnership with a local barber and secured her interview attire through another partnership. In early May, Hilliard was working for a temporary employment agency and preparing for a job interview. She had just signed an apartment lease with two other homeless young women. Hilliard sees her future in the medical field and wants to become a certified nursing assistant. Brown asked her to paint that on a rock outside of the building, as he does many of the young people to remind them of their goals. “I can tell them, ‘Look you painted this,’” he said. “This is what you wanted. This is not what I wanted you to want.” Some young people are ready and willing to improve, and some need to fail before they listen. Hobson was a prime example. For a month, Brown worked with five young people on resumes and life skills like introductions, communication, proper interview attire, and public speaking to prepare them for a job interview with the Crowne Plaza. Of the five, one was offered a job, three others, including Hilliard, were asked to take a pre-employment drug screening, and the other, Hobson, didn’t get anything because he was inappropriately dressed. “It was a good learning lesson for Jesse,” Brown said. “I had been teaching him these things, but he wasn’t listening. It made him realize I’m not talking just to talk.” With a daughter on the way, Hobson has started to listen. In April, he secured a job as a cook at a local restaurant. In early May, he got a second job with a temporary employment agency. With the money he earns, he hopes to get an apartment. He’s also working with the Kentucky Youth Career Center on obtaining a GED certificate. Ringside Brown has not only formed meaningful connections with the young adults and potential employers like Amazon and UPS but with other community agencies. He is closely connected to personnel at the Jefferson County office of the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and extension personnel with land-grant partner Kentucky State University. Brown uses their expertise to offer youth-development opportunities and food through an on-site hydroponic garden at the YMCA. In turn, Brown has helped Cooperative Extension form a number of community-based partnerships. He is a member of a Jefferson County coalition that supports young adults. Through a partnership with the Salvation Army, youth can stay there as long as they are being case managed at the YMCA. He has a partnership with the Louisville Public Library that gives the young people computer access. He obtains professional attire through partnerships with Dress for Success and the Schuhmann Center. UPS personnel teach a computer class at the YMCA, and Simmons College has been to the center to talk to them about future careers. It is the goal of the researchers to sustain the program beyond the five-year grant through partnerships and collaborations. Learning to Roll with the Punches Brown believes most of the youth want to improve their situation, are willing to listen, and can be successful adults if given the same opportunities and securities of average people. “You do find you have your limits,” he said. “I’m not going to get through to every kid. Some of them are going to see success quicker. Some of them will see success in a different way.” Reinford wants a job that will give him the ability to pay bills and have a place to live. Hilliard hopes to eventually return to college. Hobson hopes to attend UK and become a psychologist. This will not only help him provide a good life for himself and his daughter but give back to his parents, who have remained constant supporters and recently have fallen on hard financial times. “It’s time I start doing right by them and show them that I really can change,” Hobson said. “Nick’s helped me see a few things along the way that maybe it’s time for a change and maybe you need to get it together. If you’re willing to get it together, they are willing to help you.”