Beating the odds

A Catholic Charities of Broome County program helped Machella Raymond move from homelessness to college — with a stop at the White House along the way

Machella Raymond became homeless in October 2013, but her journey can be traced back to 8th grade. After a year and a half in a group home, she tried living with a family friend, but it didn’t work out. Machella hoped that the next stop — with another family she’d known since she was young — would be her last before moving back with her dad. In her first weeks as a high school senior, she realized it wasn’t to be.  

   That’s when she found out about the Teen Transitional Living Program (TTLP) through Catholic Charities of Broome County. Machella applied, was accepted and had her own place to live within a couple of weeks. TTLP staff helped maintain her independence and encouraged her to complete her education at Binghamton High School.

   What a difference a year makes. By August of 2014, Machella was moving into a dormitory at the State University of New York at Potsdam.  Along the way, the once-homeless young woman made a stop as an invited guest at the country’s most famous home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

   Machella had applied for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) LeTendre Scholarship.  NAEHCY and Advocates for Children in New York covered her expenses to visit the White House. She was one of ten graduating high school seniors who took part in a “Beating the Odds” conversation with First Lady Michelle Obama on July 8.

   “Mrs. Obama was one of the most personable people I have ever met. I thought it would be hard to share my story with her, but she was a very kind and warm person. I will never forget my trip to Washington DC. It gave me a new perspective on many things,” Machella said.

   Calling her trip “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Machella spoke highly of the nine others who shared the visit to the White House.

   “They showed me how their strength helped them succeed academically even when they could have easily given up due to their unfair circumstances,” she said. “This trip showed me that I was strong just like these other young adults, and that I don’t give myself enough credit for my accomplishments. I was also blessed by meeting some great adults during the trip. I was able to see how hard people in the Department of Education work for youth like us.”

   Machella is now pursuing a degree in psychology, determined to get her doctorate and become a psychologist.  “I want to show kids who have gone through rough circumstances that there is a way out,” she said.

   She credits the TTLP program for her success, including learning how to set goals.

   “TTLP was there to help me with anything I needed, such as school work, preparing for college, transportation home from work, and financial issues. They helped me learn how to budget my money, shop for groceries, make healthy choices and work on my relationships. TTLP showed me how to deal with growing up fast, and they taught me the skills necessary to live on my own,” Machella said.

   For the last 20 years, the Teen Transitional Living Program has served youth ages 16 to 21. Residents can stay in the program for up to 21 months. It was the first such effort in Broome County to provide shelter for a growing population of runaway and homeless young people. 

   Statistics provided by Catholic Charities on homelessness in Broome only go back a dozen years, when there were 1,800 people without a place to live. In 2014, the county’s population of homeless youth and adults was just over 4,000. A year ago, a count found the number of homeless youth at 949. 

   “Family circumstances seem to be driving the increase in homeless youth, such as the increase in poverty, affordable housing, rising health care costs; in addition to the typical family issues such as mental illness and substance abuse,” said Sandra Ohlsen, director of the Youth, Family and Community Services Division at Catholic Charities.

   “Many youth coming into our program have lived lives that included trauma, abandonment, loss, and in some cases, even physical and emotional abuse. They come to TTLP to escape an unsafe living situation,” Ohlsen said.

   Residents are required to have a job or attend school while in TTLP. And they are also led to participate in community service and volunteer opportunities. Those with children are taught parenting skills. All must work to achieve set goals on their living plans.

   “TTLP provides a safe, structured and supportive living environment for runaway and homeless youth, so they can learn the necessary skills to become self-sufficient, well-connected young adults,” Ohlsen said.

   “Our mission is to recognize strengths and honor one’s individual choices and values, as we are empowering the youth to move toward independence and self-sufficiency in partnership with their family and community supports,” Ohlsen added.

   For Machella, the continuing support is essential. “As long as participants are willing to work hard and take the program seriously, I think it has a lot to offer for those with unfortunate home lives. TTLP can help participants learn how to become independent, when they are forced to grow up fast,” she said.
“The program also teaches how to give back to the community, which I think is really important. If it was not for all of the people who helped us, we would not have had all of the opportunities we were given.”

   For more information on programs offered by Catholic Charities of Broome County, visit www.catholiccharitiesbc.org.

   Deacon Tom Picciano is a longtime contributing writer to the Sun. A professional journalist by trade, he currently serves at St. Vincent de Paul Blessed Sacrament Church in Vestal.

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