by Paul Mowry
Before Covenant missionary Terry Cole left a high-tech career to found Street Youth Ministry (SYM) in 2008, he was known as an innovator. Working at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), he led teams that made key contributions during the early development of wireless networking technology (what we blithely take for granted today as “WiFi”).
Terry’s high-tech work is history, but his knack for innovation lives on. As SYM serves street-dependent youth living just west of the University of Texas campus, its clients benefit from a steady stream of new ideas. Terry lists “fresh” – meaning eclectic, entrepreneurial and innovative – among four adjectives that describe the ministry, along with “trusted, inspiring and empowering.”
Two programs placed into service recently illustrate the characteristic innovation that makes SYM unique among U.S. ministries serving homeless clients. Covenant members can play a role in one of them.
A common goal for SYM clients is to get housed again. Thanks to a recent grant from the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP), some 50 SYM clients have temporary access to rent-free apartments. To keep the apartments, the clients will need to find incomes and develop productive living habits – including healthy eating and meal preparation.
“Quite a few clients are receiving free housing and are not making many other changes,” Terry said. “They face eviction and other problems due to violating their leases. They do need to get a job and decide how they want to spend their money.”
SYM counseling will help these clients identify their responsibilities and learn to fulfill them. To help with the food, SYM has developed a program to assemble ingredients for healthy meals into boxes and make them available to clients each Tuesday. At first, there will be no charge; later a cost will be added as part of a “pay it forward” scenario.
“We’ll take the money and get better food for the boxes,” Terry said. The program is popular and we’ve exhausted the food on-hand so we’re asking for donations. This is where Covenant members can pitch in.
“Put together one bag of non-perishable staples that represents one meal,” Terry said. Examples are cereal, peanut butter, meal kits, dessert items. “If you want to have fun with it, write out a recipe you have in mind or the ingredient list, and what inspired you to do this. Kids can draw colorful pictures or you can write a note of encouragement.
“We invite you to be involved. You can be part of the encouraging crowd it takes to help get these folks’ lives back on track.”
Another SYM innovation leverages existing WiFi technology to help clients take their medication. Once they become SYM clients, the organization helps many street youths receive the medical attention they’ve been missing or never received at all. As a result, some discover they need to take prescription drugs. As they face the many challenges of living on the street though, they often lose track of their meds and eventually quit taking them altogether. Their health deteriorates gradually, and they don’t realize it until it’s too late.
“To address this, we’ve developed a simple, incentive-based pilot program called “Health Stability” to help clients keep track,” Terry explained. “To join, they must have regular prescriptions and obtain the medicine themselves.” SYM staff designed a custom on-line form for each of them that asks three questions: “How are you feeling?”; “How are you interacting with others?” and “Are you taking your medication?” They access the form daily – from any device, anywhere the Internet is available – and answer the questions.
“Then once a week, they come see us,” Terry said. “We call up their results and review them together. If they are trending downward, we counsel them to improve. If they’ve checked in at least five of the past seven days, we award them a small incentive.”
The incentives are “Amazon points,” and clients redeem them by sending Terry links to the products they want. One Amazon point covers $1 of the cost. “They must order something we accept at SYM as an in-kind donation, which eliminates wine, weapons and some other things,” he said.
“We found a sponsor willing to underwrite this program and we believe we’ve already seen results. Sometimes they are dramatic! One day recently, we found a client – Julie – sitting on a sofa in the Drop-in Center, sobbing. Someone had taken her medicines and she faced hours of work getting them back.
“About a month ago, Julie wouldn’t have cared if she had them or not. Now, although she had been on the program just a few weeks and had not even redeemed all her incentives, she realized what was at stake. Because Street Youth Ministry cared, she cared!”
Terry Cole was commissioned as a missionary at Covenant and founded SYM in 2008. Street Youth Ministry has received financial support from the Covenant Mission Committee and individual church members since its inception. It was incorporated as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2013. Paul Mowry, the author, is a member of Covenant’s Mission Committee who volunteers regularly with SYM.