Monday, December 28, 2009

Music in the House by Gina Cocomello

At Alternative House my office is upstairs in the back of the house. Today as I was working away at my desk I thought I heard violin music. It was very nice and I enjoyed listening to it while I continued working. The music continued for a few more minutes so I decided to investigate. Downstairs was a shelter resident a teenaged boy playing the violin. He asked staff if it would be ok if he practiced while he was here. Of course the staff encouraged him to do so. The music was soft and soothing, a nice change from Guitar Hero.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Youth Advisoy Council by Meghan Huebner

As the director of residential services, I am fortunate to work with teens in a number of different settings. One of the more unique ways is through our youth advisory council, who serve as volunteers to advise Alternative House on shelter policies, perform outreach to their peers, and participate in fundraising. The group of 7-12 teens meets monthly throughout the school year and has participated in various projects, such as gift-wrapping, creating and presenting information to teens on issues of depression, and distributing packets of information to guidance counselors and other individuals who come into contact with teens on a regular basis. They have also selected inspirational quotes that were painted on the walls of our shelter and organized a fundraiser through Ledo’s Pizza.

One current Youth Council member reflected on her experience:

“Despite America’s prosperity, many of the youth in our own country lack essential daily needs. With the recent economic downturn, this has only gotten worse. After seeing a homeless family in D.C. with small children, I decided that I had to do something to help, no matter how small. I joined the Youth Advisory Council at Alternative House, a home for teens who basically need shelter whether it be for the night or the week. I really enjoy laid-back environment at Alternative House and the rewarding meetings that I look forward to each month. Though advertising and suggesting improvements does not seem like much, each little step counts.”

By creating an environment where teens can help their peers and volunteer their time, the Alternative House has created an arrangement where residents, staff, and the teen volunteers can all benefit.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's for dinner?

Yum…is that lasagna that I smell? Alternative House’s Emergency Shelter provides services for over 200 youth a year, on average there are 75 youth involved in our Community Outreach programs everyday, as well as the mothers and youth involved in our Assisting Young Mothers program and Homeless Youth Initiative. That translates into huge need for snacks and meals for these young people. During the average week while school is in session, Alternative House provides 56 breakfasts, 28 lunches, 487 snacks, and 455 dinners. Volunteers are essential in helping us in this monumental task. We have several volunteer groups and individual volunteers who drop off or prepare meals for our programs. Some volunteers will prepare a meal just once while others prepare meals either weekly or monthly. Regardless, this is a huge help to our staff. By providing meals for our Emergency Shelter for Teenagers and Outreach programs, volunteers allow our staff to focus on individual coaching sessions with teens rather than meal preparation. In the Community Outreach program these snacks and meals represent food that the youth might otherwise not have access to. By providing meals for the Assisting Young Mothers program volunteers are helping the mothers by alleviating one of the many tasks of their personal, work, and family life that they are trying to balance. All of our programs eat family-style meals and this helps them to know that other people care about them and have the opportunity to interact with positive adult role models. Thank you to all who help us feed the youth we serve and please contact us if you would be interested in helping to provide snacks or meals for our programs.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thank You

Just a short while ago I was writing a piece for our newsletter on thanks and Thanksgiving. Our newsletter pieces are very short and I wasn’t able to talk about ALL the things I’m thankful for. (I won’t here either – just a little more in depth.)
People often ask me if it isn’t sad or depressing to work with young people who are homeless or who don’t have the advantages many of us take for granted. My answer is “sometimes”. It’s sometimes difficult to see the hard knocks life has handed the youth we help but it is good to know that because of our shelter, youth are not sleeping on the street and because of AYM, homeless young mothers and their babies have a safe place and that because of our outreach, disadvantaged children have food clothing and a chance to grow. I’m thankful that Alternative House is here giving all these young people an alternative and I’m thankful every day that I can come to work and help make it happen.
I think one of the key words in that last sentence is help make it happen. There are so many people involved at Alternative House. In addition to our dedicated staff we have amazing volunteers. I’m very thankful for them. Our Board of Directors are volunteers as well. They are talented and caring and make sure that we stay on track both financially and, as an organization committed to making things better for children and youth. I can’t begin to tell you how thankful I am that they stand by Alternative House.
Finally, I must add how thankful I am for all of our donors and sponsors. In these hard economic times where more children need our help, our donors have stepped in. Whether it’s a pledge at our benefit breakfast, the donation of time and labor to help keep our Shelter safe and operational, a workplace giving donation or a coat drive, these gifts mean we can be here at a time when it is more critical than ever to help our community’s at-risk children and youth. I’m very thankful for that. Thank you to all of you who make such a positive difference.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Holiday Adoption Program

Years ago before I was working for Alternative House when I was in another career I had the fun job of doing community outreach for my company. I often worked with nonprofit organizations helping them with fundraising events. But there was one thing I always looked forward to. Each year during the Holidays my company would adopt a family or some children and purchase gifts for them. I got to do the shopping. I selected gifts from a list that was given to me by the nonprofit organization representing them. I did this for years. It became a tradition that I truly enjoyed.

For many of the young people in Alternative House programs the only Holiday gifts they will receive are those donated by people like you and me. If you, your office, faith group or family would like to adopt one or more of our young people for the Holidays we will supply you with a Wish List that each client has filled out. Then you can select the gifts and deliver them to us by December 8. We will even do the gift wrapping for you. Each of our clients has selected three gifts under $30 each. We will give size information and favorite colors. I hope you will consider adopting one of our young people this Holiday Season. This is especially fun if you have children. Let them help with the shopping and selection process. This could be the start of a new tradition in your family.

For more information on this program please contact me at

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Volunteers Help Alternative House

Alternative House could not serve the youth and their families in our area without the tremendous support of its volunteers. Last year alone we had 561 volunteers donating over 8,450 hours of their time. These volunteers helped the staff in our programs, prepared meals, sorted donations, held donation drives, helped us maintain our facilities, assisted with special events, and anything else that we needed help with. Our volunteers represent a wide variety of people. We have both undergraduate and graduate level interns who are working with us to meet school requirements or to gain experience in the field. We have a core of corporate and religious groups who come to the Emergency Shelter for Teens and to the Assisting Young Mother’s Program on a weekly basis to prepare meals as well as many different groups who came to our programs to do projects that help us maintain and beautify our facilities. There are individuals who volunteer faithfully on a weekly basis in our programs; working directly with the youth and impacting their lives. We also have individuals who come to our programs just once or twice to do “handyman” type of task, yard work, and donation sorting. If you would like to join our team of hard working and dedicated volunteers who give us a helping hand, then please contact us.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

September at the Shelter

September can be a busy month for teens and their families. Back-to-school preparation, end of the summer plans, switching into fall mode….there is certainly a lot to do this month! For many families, however, it can also be a stressful time. Will there be enough money for school supplies? What kind of grades will be brought home this semester? What is going on at home when parents are still at work? There are many concerns that families have, and many factors that contribute to these concerns. Fortunately, there is also a support for these families in crisis.
The Alternative House’s Teen Crisis Shelter is designed to serve families in need. If a teen is thinking about running away because of the arguments they’ve been having with their parents over school, if a parent does not know what to do because their child has been sneaking out of the house after curfew, or if a social worker needs information for a family that has been in conflict over a recent separation, the teen shelter is available to provide the needed services. Whether it is counseling over the phone on our toll-free 24-hour hotline, providing referrals and resources, or conducting individual, group, and family counseling with residents, the teen shelter helps families transition out of crisis.
Most recently, we helped a youth whose parent was hospitalized to find a safe and secure home with a relative, gave another youth a safe place to stay while she transitioned to a long-term mental health residential treatment center, and facilitated a reunification between a mother and her son, who had been out of the country for four years. Each month, no matter what time of year, brings positive changes to the lives of teens and families.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Opening Doors for Children

As the Development Director of Alternative House a big part of my job is to carry the message about our programs and services for homeless and at-risk youth and teens out into the community. I often speak to corporate, faith and civic groups. I enjoy telling them about how our programs help the young people we serve stay safe, stay in school, build their self esteem, learn valuable life skills and to become self-sufficient. I try to use examples of how our programs have helped individuals and families overcome difficulties.

What is even better then hearing me tell you these stories is to hear it directly from some of our clients and to meet some of our program staff. I would like to take the opportunity to tell you about the Alternative House second annual Benefit Breakfast Opening Doors for Children that will be held on Wednesday, October 7, 2009. This event will be held at the Gannett Building in Mclean, it is free and it will only last one hour. During that hour our guests will hear from several of our clients, and have the opportunity to meet with program staff. You will also have the opportunity to see a video about Alternative House, meet our Executive Director and Board members.

Yes, this is a fundraising event. You will be asked for a donation. There is no donation too large or too small. We will consider this event a success if we are able to raise funds to continue providing our programs and services for youth, recruit new donors and volunteers who can offer us professional services. We want the opportunity to tell the Alternative House story to people who are interested in learning about us first hand.

If you would like to learn more about this event or you are interested in attending please contact me at 703 506-9191.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Our First Blog

This is the debut of the Alternative House “blog”. As the Executive Director I have the opportunity to be the first staff person to blog. At the moment, that seems like a mixed blessing. As Gina, our Development Director, commented when I asked her how long this piece should be, “your newsletter articles are always longer than they’re supposed to be. I’m sure you will have no trouble filling up the blog.” Faced with a blank piece of paper, however, that doesn’t seem so certain.
The thing that I am best at talking about or writing about are the kids who are in our programs and the staff and volunteers here at Alternative House who do such an amazing job, so that is what this first posting will be about.
Alternative House has helped thousands of young people over the 37 years we’ve been in existence. Just this past year, we helped 13 young mothers and 15 children in our Assisting Young Mothers (AYM) program and almost 200 young people at our Emergency Shelter for Teenagers. Our Outreach staff worked with more than 1,500 young people providing help and support to youth who are at risk of dropping out of school or making other unsafe choices.
To help these young people be safe and make positive choices takes some very special people. The dedication of the staff at Alternative House is incredible. Our Directors and Program Coordinators are available 24 hours a day to provide guidance to staff when a young person has a crisis. Our counselors work very hard to help young people find their way to a more stable, positive place.
Our Outreach staff recently went that extra step for a young person who took a devastating blow. A girl who has been coming to our drop-in teen center in Culmore recently lost her mother. Her father is disabled and the mother was the primary financial support for the family. Our counselors have connected the father to resources in our community so that they will be able to keep their apartment. We have been able to help with food and clothing and link the family to longer term help. But the counselors in our Outreach program didn’t stop there. Since the family has no money, grief counseling seemed out of the question. However, after many phone calls, our staff found “Camp of Hope” which will provide counseling twice a week for this young girl as she struggles to cope with the death of her mother and the family’s precarious financial situation.
This is just one example of the way the people who work at Alternative House go beyond what is expected and strive for excellence.
Our volunteers also go way beyond for the young people in our programs. Community members do everything from helping with dinner to answering our 24-hour hotline (1-800-SAY-TEEN) to shooting hoops with a youth at the Shelter. It means a lot to the young people in our programs to know that there are people who care enough about what happens to them that they will take time out of their busy day to show they care. Last year volunteers provided almost 9,000 hours of service.
My final thoughts are on the young people who come to Alternative House. At first glance a young person who ran from an abusive home, a young mother who doesn’t have her high school degree and is homeless or a youth struggling to stay out of neighborhood gangs may not seem to have a lot going for them. What you find after meeting these young people and talking with them are that each one has special qualities and gifts and most just need a little help to build on them. That’s the help that Alternative House provides.