Unaccompanied student initiative offers home and counseling for adolescents
Casper’s Unaccompanied Student Initiative (ICU) held an open house last month to show the community what it does, and the services it offers.
And the services they provide are vital, especially in Natrona County.
According to their website, “USI exists to provide safe and stable housing and to develop support systems for high school students aged 14 to 20 who are experiencing homelessness. “
For Greta Hinderliter, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison for the Natrona County School District, working with the ICU and providing these services to children in Natrona County is a dream come true.
“I identify with and work with all homeless children, ages 4-21, in the [Natrona County] school district, ”Hinderliter said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I started noticing a long time ago that there were a lot of homeless teenagers who had no place to go. So it has always been a dream to establish a home for the children to have a safe place to go at the end of the school day. “
This dream took a long time to materialize, but almost 16 months ago, the Cheyenne ICU proposed an expansion plan to Casper and chose the Lifesteps campus as the location to do so.
But it took work.
From October 2019 to February 2020, the building was renovated, with assistance from the Highland Park Community Church.
“It was dark and dismal,” Hinderliter said. “I wouldn’t want to live here and I certainly didn’t want my students to. So we cleaned and painted and decorated, all during volunteer hours. A lot of people wanted to see this come to fruition and here we are, finished a year later. “
It was not, however, an easy path. USI opened in February 2020 and two and a half weeks later had to close due to COVID-19.
“Because of COVID, we had to shut down,” Hinderliter said. “It made me lose my contacts at school, the ones who helped me meet homeless children. It was very difficult to identify, but we had already identified a student and she moved in here from day one we opened. senior last year, so we saw her until the end of her studies. We locked ourselves in and everyone stayed safe and healthy and she was able to graduate and now finishing her first year of college. “
These are the successes (albeit with a number of complications) that the ICU strives to achieve. Currently, the ICU accommodates 5 girls and no boys, but it is also equipped to accommodate up to 5 boys.
One of the girls staying at the ICU is Madison, a young woman struggling with depression and anxiety who just needed a place to help her get back on track.
“I think it’s a pretty healthy environment to live in,” Madison said of the ICU. “I’m bad enough at knowing how to motivate myself to stuff and get out of my room because I’m usually a pretty closed person. So Kori helped me with that and the parents in the house helped me with that and with that. my homework. I feel like it’s a pretty healthy environment; it’s definitely better than my old environment. “
Madison, who said she wanted to grow up to be an accountant or medical examiner, said she hoped the ICU would work with her to figure out how to live independently once she graduates.
“I hope to learn more about how to take better care of myself,” she said. “Like, before I moved in here, I didn’t know how to clean the bathrooms or dust, or cook and stuff like that. I feel like living here taught me to fend for myself and to be independent.”
ICU professionals don’t just focus on home care. They are also very involved in their students’ schoolwork, checking in with teachers like a parent would.
“We are following their grades,” said Kory Squires, the ICU Casper program coordinator. “We’re on the phone almost every day with teachers, talking about what they’re missing, making sure they’re in class and doing their jobs and getting the help and resources they need, because when you missing school for three or five weeks at a time, you’re falling behind. So we want to make sure that they are doing what they need and that they have the resources.
What USI does goes beyond high school. As the name suggests, they also teach students to take initiative in their life after high school.
“I think a lot of these kids don’t see after high school,” Squires said. “So we connect them with training centers, the military, Casper College, UW or whatever college. We just open doors for them and kind of light a path and say, ‘Here you can take this. path and that’s what you have to do, or you can go that route. We just help them with things that happen after high school. “
USI helps its students find employment outside and sometimes during high school.
“Three of our daughters in our house are currently employed,” Squires said. “They don’t have anyone at home who has shown them how to log in and apply for jobs, let alone the importance of having a job and showing up on time. So we’re working on that here. “
Squires said various professionals from the community have volunteered to come and teach health and lifestyle classes at home as well.
“We do all kinds of training,” she said. “The Natrona County Health Department is responding and providing training on STDs and HIV, as well as harm reduction, mental health, first aid and more. We do these trainings a few times a month. “
Squires said one of the most important things they offer, however, is just an ear to listen to or a shoulder to cry on.
“At the end of the day, they can come here and sit on the couch and tell us about their day,” she said. “And I think just being able to understand how their day went, whether it was great or awful or in between; having that person there is so beneficial.”
And that’s why the Unaccompanied Student Initiative exists – to give young people a place to learn, grow and discover who they are before showing what they have found to the rest of the world. It is a place to flourish. It is a place to find acceptance.
It is, in short, a house.