Throughout Johnson County, children and teenagers sometimes find themselves in crisis.
Maybe a teen has been kicked out by their parents, or is couch surfing after running away from home. Perhaps their family is going through an emergency and they temporarily need a place to stay.
In situations such as these, Youth Connections, a local nonprofit organization serving youth and families, relies on community volunteers to open their homes to help.
“These are people who are opening their homes up for free, and they are there to mentor and help a kid in need,” said Dawn LaPlante, the host home program coordinator for Youth Connections. “There’s just not a lot of options for kids, unless they go into the (child protective services) system.”
Youth Connections is facing a critical shortage of people volunteering to serve as host homes for children in need. The short-term housing options provide youth with a place to stay for up to three weeks during a family emergency or who have become homeless.
The number of host homes available in the county has dropped, and officials want to ensure this valuable lifeline is available for the kids who need it, said Judy Duncan-Olds, executive director at Youth Connections.
“This isn’t to be confused with foster parenting. The host home program evolves to be anything from overnight to up to 21 days, where we’ve found them a permanent place to go or they go home,” she said.
Youth Connections provides services aimed at helping children and families in Johnson and Morgan counties through difficult times. They provide a place where parents without custody can visit their children with supervision.
The organization conducts custody evaluations for the courts, and offers a program to help families with children between the ages of 8 and 16 to navigate divorce.
One of the most important programs is its host homes. Youth Connections recruits people to volunteer to open their home for a time period ranging from one night to 21 days.
When the department of child services or other social agency reaches out to Youth Connections, the first thing the organization does is try to find a kinship or family connection, a situation that will be less intimidating and traumatic to the child, LaPlante said.
If that doesn’t work, then they turn to their host homes.
Deb Stubbeman signed up for the host home program four years ago, after coming across an email from Youth Connections explaining what it is.
Her children are grown, and she lives alone. With two extra bedrooms, she thought it might be nice to open her house to help children in need.
As a teacher at Union Elementary School, Stubbeman knows how important it is for kids to have stability in their lives.
Connecting with a child coming from a crisis situation can be difficult. Stubbeman tries to be delicate with youths placed in her home, avoiding asking about their families or other personal questions.
She lets them start the conversation. When they do start talking, she makes it a point to just listen rather than barrage them with questions.
“I figure they get enough people trained to talk about those things, so I just try to be that safe place for them,” she said. “Sometimes that’s weird, because you have to find something to talk about. Since I’m a teacher, usually we talk about school.”
Once a youth has been placed in a host home, the goal is to keep their routine as normal as possible. They will go to school, do their homework afterwards, take part in extracurricular activities and join their host family for activities.
Stubbeman likes to take the youths placed in her home to the movies on occasion, and takes them to church.
“We read books, play games. I miss doing that stuff myself with my kids, so it’s nice to do this again,” she said.
In order to be a host home, they need to have a stable income. Volunteers can be single, married or divorced, though they can’t be in the process of a divorce, Duncan-Olds said.
Host families are not paid to take in a child, though stipends may be available to help with necessary supplies such as bedding, toiletries and snacks.
Participants in the program will go through rigorous background checks. No one in the home can have a felony conviction. Their fingerprints are taken, they are checked against the sexual offender registry and have their driving record examined.
A home inspection is also required, to ensure the space is safe for a youth. While kids don’t need a private room, it is required that each one has their own bed.
“It can be a shared bedroom, and a pull-out couch or a futon isn’t considered a bed,” Duncan-Olds said.
Host families receive training on CPR and first aid, as well as how to work with young people who are dealing with homelessness or other crises.
“It wasn’t that lengthy of a process. I did a few trainings, and they interviewed me and came to my house. They continue to have trainings to help you out too,” Stubbeman said.
Stubbeman has hosted six youths since she started in the program, though some of them have returned on multiple occasions.
Opening up her house to them has been rewarding. But it’s been particularly significant when she sees them out in the community. She still texts one of the youths who she hosted, and visits others at school when she’s in their building.
“I go to other schools for meetings and things like that, so I try to make sure I’m there for the kids’ lunchtime to see them,” she said. “It’s fun that way, because I still get to see them and talk to them. It makes me feel good that they’re happy to see me.”
Currently, Youth Connections has seven host homes in which to place youths, though several of those are taking breaks or will be unavailable, LaPlante said. Those volunteers have been vital, and the organization would ideally like to get to 20 homes in Johnson and Morgan counties.
“The more we can get, the better. It would be nice to have at least 10 in each county, because you can rotate,” LaPlante said.
Youth Connections is looking for volunteers to be host homes in Johnson and Morgan counties. Host homes are asked to open up their home to a youth in need for up to 21 days, until they can be reunited with their family or moved to a permanent location.
To become a host home, participants must pass a background check which includes fingerprints, sexual offender registry and driving record. A home inspection is also required.
For more information or to apply, contact Dawn LaPlante at 317-738-3273 ext. 104 or email@example.com.
Donations can be made to the program at youthconnections.org.