Thursday, December 9, 2010

Frostival a Fun Family Event

Alternative House is partnering with Celebrate Fairfax, Inc. to raise awareness of their newest event, the second annual FROSTIVAL, an exciting new winter-themed family festival being held December 30, 2010 - January 2, 2011 at the Dulles Expo and Conference Center in Chantilly. The FROSTIVAL is geared towards families with pre-K and elementary school aged children. Activities include games, bounces, slides and rides, winter-themed crafts, storytelling, musical performances, as well as exhibits and vendors.

As a Celebrate Fairfax Community Ticket Partner, Alternative House has been given a unique promo code. For every ticket sold using our promo code, an amount equal to 20% of all funds raised through ticket sales, based on our code, will be donated by Celebrate Fairfax back to our organization!

Alternative House's unique promo code is: 160. Use this code when you purchase tickets so that we receive credit for your transaction. If you are ordering more than one type of ticket (adult ticket, youth ticket, weekend pass etc.), you will need to enter the promo code more than once. Once you have selected your tickets, before you checkout, you should see a confirmation page which lists each ticket you are purchasing and the promo codes associated with each ticket. Double-check to make sure our code is listed! All tickets sold online in advance of the festival are discounted, however, there is a $2 surcharge fee per order (not per ticket). Admission for children 2 years old and younger is free!

To purchase tickets now, visit Don't forget to enter our code: 160.

Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving at the House

It is the day before Thanksgiving and our Emergency Shelter for Teens is full, 5 boys and 3 girls. This afternoon they are off from school and they are in the kitchen making Mac & Cheese with one of the interns. Tomorrow a donor is bringing over a Thanksgiving Dinner for them.

On behalf of Alternative House staff and clients Thank You to all of our donors, volunteers and supporters. We couldn’t do it without you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Assisting Young Mothers

The Assisting Young Mothers program (AYM) provides housing, life skills training, parenting skills training, case management, and mental health services to pregnant and parenting young mothers. Mothers who are homeless and have no place else to go are able to finally give their children – and themselves – a safe and secure place to live and learn the skills needed to become independent and self-supporting.
One important component of the AYM program is helping young mothers develop the life skills they need to live independently. Through structured groups and informal interactions, residents learn skills ranging from budgeting to preparing nutritional meals for themselves and their children to addressing an envelope. For many moms in the program, this is the first time they have been able to learn many things that we might take for granted. With staff, interns, and volunteers, residents come in contact with a variety of positive role models who are able to answer questions and exhibit positive parenting and life skills for residents. One recent resident who graduated the program returned and told staff that she had learned so much from the program that it had saved her daughter’s life. Before entering the program, she had not been aware that certain behaviors or actions were putting her baby at risk. Since graduating the program, she has kept in contact with staff while living in her own apartment with her daughter and working full-time. Most recently, she visited the program to tell staff how much money she had saved and that she wanted to continue to “make us proud” of her.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Homeless Youth Initiative

I just got back from Houston Texas where a presentation on our Homeless Youth Initiative was a huge success. Kathi Sheffel, the Homeless Liaison for Fairfax County Public Schools and I did a workshop at the annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth to tell others about our innovative program and what a difference it is making in the lives of homeless high school students. We were overwhelmed by the response. The conference organizers had told us to expect about 30 people at our workshop and 150 showed up! We heard from educators across the country that they are facing exactly the same situation we are; hundreds of homeless young people who are still in high school and don’t have any family support. Our Homeless Youth Initiative is a unique and innovative solution to this problem that is achieving remarkable results. I am so thankful for the backing of Fairfax County, the foundations, the faith community, our schools and the community members who are keeping us going. I also hope that those who were at our workshop will be able to take some of our ideas back to their communities to help homeless young people nationwide.

Judith Dittman

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Three weeks is such a brief time to help

Teens come to the shelter in crisis and we have up to three weeks to foster solutions to the issues they are dealing with in their adolescent lives. As a therapist working with the teens at the crisis shelter, my hope is that we plant seeds of change. Three weeks is such a brief time and while we try to begin the process of assisting our residents to do things differently, hearing from former residents affirms the work we do. Recently, I received an email and a letter from two former residents and I wanted to share some excerpts with you to show you how our counseling services can influence one's future.

"I was a resident in the alternative house in 2005. When I was there I talked to a counselor about getting some gang-related tattoos removed. I was told about a program called Skin Deep. I really don't know too much about the program. Of course at that time I was 17 years old and I didn't pay to much attention to it. Now I'm 22 years old and after the two weeks that I was there I decieded to change my life around. Your program gave me a little push to improve my life. It wasn't easy, but I did graduate High School. I have a full time job at CVS/Pharmacy and I'm going to start my first year in NOVA in the spring." Karen

"I'm writing this letter to thank you for the services you all provided me with. The two weeks I was there yall encouraged me to better myself thanks to the counseling. Thank you for helping me when I needed it. Yall changed the way I act, feel and I really want to go to college now." Jerome age 16

Susie Guido, LPC
Alternative House

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Octavia's Story

Octavia is a client in our Assisting Young Mothers program (AYM). Below in her own words she tells you part of her story.

Good morning! My name is Octavia and I have a son named AJ who is almost four months old. I have lived in the AYM program for five months.

When I was younger, I always wanted to be independent and wanted to see what it would be like to be on my own. But, when I got pregnant, I knew that it was really time to take matters into my own hands. I knew that I needed to learn how to be independent now because I was going to have to take care of a child soon. During this time, I was homeless. My child’s father didn’t want to help. I have family, but they are spread out across the state and busy taking care of their own things. It was important to me that I get to keep and live with my son. I began calling shelters and searching the internet for a better option and I found AYM.

While in AYM, I am working on many different life skills that will help me to become independent and will improve mine and AJ’s future. Before I had AJ, I didn’t know how tired and unmotivated I would be; but being in AYM has really helped me to figure out what my game plan is going to be. During the past five months, I have kept my job and learned how to better improve my situation. One of the biggest changes I’ve made since coming to AYM is doing what I need to do to get what I need for me and my son. Before coming to AYM, I was a big procrastinator. But now I make sure that I am at work on time, working hard to keep my job, scheduling important appointments, and keeping those appointments.

I’ve also been working on building a savings account. The AYM program requires you to save a certain portion of each paycheck. At first, I thought “wow, that’s really a lot of money.” But now I’m glad that I have money saved up.

After having AJ, I’ve learned that you have to live your life differently once you have a child. I’ve learned that you don’t need to have friends over all the time or stay out late. I’ve learned that being in my house at an appropriate time for my child will make tomorrow morning easier for both of us.

In AYM, we all attend a Parenting Group once a week. I think that some young parents really want to do a good job but they don’t know how to. During this group we learn important skills for taking care of our children that we wouldn’t otherwise know, such as appropriate discipline and the importance of reading to your kids.

Having a child is a big responsibility; you have to make a plan for yourself and your child. You need to stay focused on what is important and not what other people are doing. When I first came into the AYM program, I struggled with my priorities; I wasn’t taking full advantage of AYM and I wasn’t pushing myself to do better. Since then, my focus is different. I’m using AYM as a stepping stone to a better future. Being in AYM can be challenging and there are a lot of rules and restrictions to follow; but I’ve seen that if I’m willing to put in the effort, that I can set goals and achieve them.

When people find out that I’m 19 and have a son, they usually say “that sucks.” But when I look at AJ I see our future. I’ve found a stronger sense of faith through my son. I know that I still need to learn a lot and I plan to grow with AJ as he grows. Like I said in the beginning of my speech, becoming independent is something that has been a goal in my life for a long time; but after having AJ, that goal has become much more meaningful. AYM is helping me learn to be independent so that I can have the life I want for me and my son.

Thank you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Great News for Homeless Teens!

We just received fantastic news for our Homeless Youth Initiative. Fairfax County is awarding $75,000 to keep the program going. While it won’t cover the full cost, when combined with the Emergency Grant from the Community Foundation of the National Capitol Region, it gets us a long way down the road. Most important, it means the 30 high school students currently in the program that have a safe place to live while they’re in school, won’t be back out on the street. Fairfax County’s Pat Harrison, Dean Klein, Nanette Bowler, Anita Smith and many others were amazing to work with. It is really hard to come up with funding with economic times so difficult for so many. Unfortunately, those difficult times means there are even more young people who need the Homeless Youth Initiative to help them keep a roof over their heads while they’re still in high school. It also means that we are full at our Emergency Shelter for Teenagers and in our Assisting Young Mothers Programs. Our neighborhood outreach staff are also running at capacity with more requests for food, clothing and school supplies than we’ve ever seen. I know, though, that despite the tough times our community won’t let our children and youth down.

Judith Dittman

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

CSYP Go Ape!

Alternative House is so grateful to Jenny D’Agostino from Go Ape! for donating a wild and wonderful field trip to the young people in our Culmore Safe Youth Project (CSYP). Go Ape! is located in Rockville, Maryland. It is an adventure course made up of the world's best zip-lines, obstacles and tarzan swings on the most elaborate ropes course you've ever seen. The kids and a few staff members had the best time. Swing by their website to see how fantastic this place is.

Thank you Go Ape! I loved climbing with you and this is why:
I am very scared of heights and Go Ape made me overcome my fear of heights. Thanks so much. I loved swinging in the air. Thanks Go Go Go Go Ape! OHOHOHOHOH Tarzan!
Aiah 11 years old

The field trip to Go Ape was the best field trip ever! I cannot wait to go again... It was awesome, specially the zip wires! Thank you Go Ape!
Samman 12 years old

It was so much fun! Even though I was nervous and scared, once I did the first zip wire, and walked on the high swings from one tree to the next, It was so cool! I really want to do it again. Thank you so much Go Ape!
Esmeralda 12 years old

Even though I was not tall enough to do it. It looked so much fun, and I cannot wait to be tall enough to go. I enjoyed going to the lake and seeing the fish.
Sergio 10 years old

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Opening Doors for Children

This morning was our third Opening Doors for Children Benefit Breakfast. It was held at the beautiful Gannett Headquarters building in McLean. Despite driving rain, the room was full and it was an amazing event. Everyone especially enjoyed hearing from a young mother in our Assisting Young Mothers program and one of our rising stars from our Neighborhood Based Outreach Programs, a 13-year old young lady who wants to go to Thomas Jefferson and have a career as an immigration lawyer. Two of our volunteers Debijo Wheatley and Amee Borgoyne spoke of their experiences and brought a tear or two to people’s eyes. Becky Manicone from Greenburg Traurig was the keynote speaker and gave us all a wonderful perspective on why Greenburg Traurig is involved with Alternative House. She also shared how participating in the holiday gift program introduced her young daughter to the concept of giving in a unique and personal way. The event was capped by a video produced by Jerry Ferguson of Fairfax Cable Access. By the time the breakfast was over at 8:30, the sun was out and we all left with renewed hope and dedication to the young people of our community.

Judith Dittman

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Learning to communicate

“Liz”, a 13 year old girl from Fairfax County, came to our Emergency Shelter for Teens recently due to conflict with her biological father. As the oldest of three siblings, Liz struggled with effectively communicating with her father, a single parent, about the difficulties of growing up female without a mother figure in her life. Alternative House staff were able to refer Liz for a psychological evaluation where she received an appropriate mental health diagnosis. Liz and her father actively participated in family sessions where they were able to begin exploring how they could improve their relationship and communication. Liz was able to return home to live with her biological father and will begin individual and family counseling soon.

Are you a teen or do you know a teen who needs help? Alternative House provides free confidential counseling and referrals to teens and parents. Call 1-800-SAY-TEEN or 1-800 729-8336.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Targeted Youth Program

Our Targeted Youth Program is designed to help students who have been identified by their school as being at-risk of repeating 9th grade. This summer we worked with one student and her family in particular. The focus was on case management for the family as well as individual and family counseling. The family all obtained library cards and have been attending the free English classes offered at the library twice a week. The student, “Lori”, participated in an online summer school class to help her develop her language skills. She hopes that stronger language skills will help her work towards her goal of an advanced high school diploma. We also helped the family obtain giant bonus cards and are working with Lori to help her learn budgeting skills. We assisted the family with providing immunization information to the school to ensure that Lori will not be held up in the beginning of the school year. We’ve also tried to help Lori’s grandmother with the challenges of raising a child in America, with different opportunities and different cultural attitudes towards child rearing than what she grew up with.

Friday, September 17, 2010

August was a busy month for our teens

Our Emergency Shelter for Teens provided services for 22 residents and their families during the month of August. Residents participated in a variety of outings including going to the DEA museum, a tour of George Mason University campus, a Redskins game, and to the movies. The college tour was conducted by a counselor, who is a current GMU student, and provided the teens an opportunity to explore their educational options and observe the college experience. The residents received information about George Mason that included learning about the admissions process, different degree options, campus life and the tools needed to be successful in college. The Redskins tickets were donated to the game against the Ravens. For most of the residents, this was their first experience attending a professional football game.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Homeless Youth Initiative gets emergency support

Alternative House just got some very good news. The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region awarded our Homeless Youth Initiative an emergency $25,000 grant so we can help kids who are homeless and still in high school find safe shelter. We were going to have to tell 30 young people that they only had 30 days to figure out how to pay their rent and stay in school. Now that won’t happen.
The Homeless Youth Initiative has had some incredible success this past year. In June of 2009 there were 100 young people ages 16 to 20 who were homeless, who didn’t have the support of a parent or guardian and who were trying to finish high school. Numerous students in this situation had to drop out of school and almost 10% ended up in adult homeless shelters. And let me assure you….an adult shelter is no place for a teenager.
At the end of this year we had 200 high school students in Fairfax who were homeless without the support of a family. But because of this program, none were living in an adult shelter and only one dropped out of school. Seventeen are going on to college full time and many others have found full time jobs and are enrolled in NOVA.
About a month ago, I went to a lunch with a handful of other nonprofit executives and we were asked what was keeping us awake at night. I shared my heartache of possibly needing to close a program that had done so much good -- a program that was making a real difference in the future of some of our young people. Instead of dropping out of school, they are going on to college. Instead of being propositioned in an adult homeless shelter, they were living with a family and graduating from school. At that lunch was Terri Lee Freeman, President of the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region. She said they might be able to help. Less than 30 days later, our program and our young people have some breathing room. It’s not safe yet. These dollars will get us through the next several months but we still need longer term support.
The Homeless Youth Initiative addresses in an innovative way a problem that is growing nationwide. With a combination of host homes (like those who house a foreign exchange student), rent vouchers that pay a small amount (about $350 a month) to a family to rent a room to a student and a small group home in Vienna for four young women, we have made a real difference.
It looks like next year there may be federal funding to address this issue. That won’t help the kids who are homeless and trying to finish school this year. We don’t want our youth in an adult homeless shelter with no education, no prospects and no hope. In the end, it helps all of us to have our young people graduate from high school and move on to productive lives. That’s why we will turn over every stone to search for the dollars to help them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pro Energy Consultants and Air Treatment Company Donate Services

Alternative House is pleased to acknowledge Pro Energy Consultants’ and Air Treatment Company’s contribution of an energy audit and related HVAC services at our emergency shelter for teens in Vienna. Alternative House especially wants to thank Gary Graff and Kathryn Whitecotton for their assistance. Gary, the owner of Pro Energy, conducted the audit himself and found several problems with our air conditioning system. He suggested we have an HVAC company look at them immediately. We then contacted Kathryn, and Air Treatment Company graciously sent a technician, Carl, over to take a look. Carl expertly repaired the HVAC system, explained everything, and even made suggestions on how we could better maintain our system in the future.

Gina Cocomello, Development Director of Alternative House, states, “Alternative House appreciates the support of Pro Energy Consultants and Air Treatment Company. We can’t thank them enough for their generous donations. Both of these Vienna businesses stepped up to help us. They are a perfect example of good corporate citizens, giving back to the community where they do business.“

Friday, August 27, 2010

Youth Advisory Council needs members

Alternative House is looking for new members for its Youth Advisory Council. The Youth Advisory Council members are local high school students who help Alternative House extend the reach of its programs and services to the young people in the region. The Council serves as a forum during which members share the challenges and issues they and their peers face and use these experiences as a basis for developing, refining, and effectively applying constructive changes to Alternative House's programs, policies, and procedures. Youth Advisory Council members are expected to attend council meetings which are held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., on the first Wednesday of every month from September through June, at the Emergency Shelter for Teenagers and to actively participate in the Council's community service activities, fundraisers, and special events. Please visit our website for more details and for the Youth Advisory Council application.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

AYM is Dropping Drop Side Cribs from Inventory

The Assisting Young Mothers Program (AYM) is reaching out to Alternative House supporters for help. On July 10, 2010 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission voted unanimously on new mandatory standards for cribs. These new regulations, which are scheduled to take effect in 2011, will ban the manufacture, sale and use of all drop-side cribs. Currently, AYM only owns one crib (out of twelve) that will meet these standards.
But, why make these changes? The Consumer Product Safety Commission attributed 32 infant deaths to defective drop-side cribs and is considering the role of drop-side cribs in 14 other infant deaths. The commission is also pushing for better mattress support, higher quality wood and sturdier hardware. This ban is not just concerning for families with hand-me-down cribs. Hotels, childcare providers, family shelters and transitional living programs will all be responsible for replacing inventory. While necessary, replacing cribs will prove to be expensive. Small companies and non-profit groups, such as AYM, will suffer most from this ban. With little funding in a poor economy, it will be difficult to replace the inventory that has taken so long to build.
Our organization is beginning to prepare for this measure now and will no longer accept drop side crib donations. AYM will fully comply with the orders and mandates of the ban set forth by the safety commission. However, we fear that in doing so AYM infants and toddlers will be forced to co-sleep with their mothers or sleep on mattresses on the floor if our crib inventory is not replaced. Furthermore, these scenarios pose a multitude of other safety concerns and hazards for the children. We rely heavily – almost solely – on the donations of families, companies, and organizations. AYM will not be able to provide cribs to our mothers and children after the ban without the support of our community. We hope to make the transition smoothly and be able to replace all drop side cribs before the ban goes into effect. Please consider AYM when thinking of monetary or gift donations this year.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Back to School

This month our Wish List is all about Back to School. Help the young people in our programs get a good start with the right supplies. Please share this list with others who may help.
We need Binders, Lined Paper, Spiral Notebooks, Pencils, Pens, Crayons, Colored Pencils, Markers, Glue, Scissors, Calculators and Backpacks. Gift cards to Staples and Payless shoes are also useful.

Donations may be dropped off at the Shelter on Gallows Road in Vienna any day between 9am-8pm or you may call 703 506-9191 for more information.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Making a Difference by Christine Bartell

Hi I am Christine Bartell and I just joined Alternative House as the new Office Manager and Volunteer Coordinator. I recently left a career in the IT industry after 15 years and decided I that I wanted to change paths after being in the fast pace corporate world. After much thought and a leap of faith, I decided I wanted to contribute my time to something that could help make a difference in a life, however I never thought at the same time it would change mine.
I have never seen such dedication and drive from a group of people to help make an organization run so smoothly. To see the passion that each staff member and volunteer have is beyond amazing in itself and I commend each and every one for what they do. I am excited being here and whether it is stuffing envelopes, sweeping the floors or making someone smile; I look forward to helping here at AH. I believe that we do not always know how we will touch another person’s life however one thing is for sure, I am able to go home and sleep better knowing I made a contribution in one way or another and that these young people will have a better chance in the world doing the same. Isn’t that what life it is really suppose to be about anyway?
We could really use your time and I personally encourage you to come and be a part of Alternative House in one way or another. Whether it is volunteering long term or short term, you can make a difference. I am having the next Volunteer Orientation on August 25th from 6-7pm and would love to meet you and please call me if you want to know more sooner. I can be reached at 703-506-9191.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


‎1-800-SAY-TEEN This crisis intervention, counseling and referral service is staffed by trained counselors 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Hotline is an immediate resource for youth and parents who need assistance, whether it's a counseling referral or help with parenting resources.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Girl World for ages 9-12

Alternative House operates a program called Girl World at the Franconia Family Resource Center for girls ages 9 to 12. The girls get homework help and counseling, participate in life skills groups and recreation activities and go on field trips. We also try to identify needs the family have for food, clothing and community resources. Our Boys program provides the same services.

Here are some comments from three of the girls in the program this summer.

Fayra, age 12, “ Being at Girl World makes me want to give something back like the Culmore Clean-up Day and it makes me feel good about myself.”

Giselle, age 9, “This summer I was reading a lot and playing games. They gave me some clothes, snacks, food. I feel safe and happy.”

Maryori, age 11, “I helped with Culmore Clean-up Day and they gave me a shirt. They provide snacks and clothes and food for my family.”

Alternative House Awarded a 4-Star Rating

Alternative House has been awarded a 4-star rating for sound fiscal management by Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator, America’s premier charity evaluator, highlights the fine work of efficient charities like Alternative House.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Renee Finds a Foster Home

Renee is a 14 year old girl who moved to the United States about two years ago to be reunited with her mother after several years of separation. Renee attempted to integrate herself into American culture, but her mother experienced many issues with her acculturation including arranging for Renee to live with a family member in what became an abusive situation. When Renee came to Alternative House she had been on the run for several months in an attempt to avoid being abused by her biological family as well as her step family. Renee was at Alternative House for almost two weeks and then taken to juvenile detention due to the runaway report her mother had filed. Throughout Renee's stay, staff advocated for her to be placed in a safe and secure placement, so she would not be at risk for further abuse. After being in the Juvenile Detention Center for 4 days, Renee returned to Alternative House, this time in Child Protective Services (CPS) custody, and stayed for another 11 days while CPS located a foster family for her. She was able to visit with a potential foster family while at Alternative House, and transitioned to that foster home at the end of her stay.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alternative House named Nonprofit of the Year

Alternative House is pleased to be named “Nonprofit of the Year” by the Vienna Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce. Senator Chap Peterson presented the award at the VTRCC Annual Service Awards dinner on July 20, 2010 at the Maggiano’s restaurant in the Tysons Galleria. Last year’s winners and many VTRCC members attended.

Judith Dittman, Executive Director of Alternative House, states, “We are so thankful to the VTRCC for recognition of all of the hard work by our dedicated staff and volunteers. Alternative House is truly a community endeavor, and we are thrilled with the support the VTRCC members have always given us. During the last 12 months, we served 230 clients at our residential refuge in Tysons, and we were able to expand our homeless youth, Assisting Young Mothers and after school programs. At risk youth always need our support, but the current economic climate makes our mission that much more critical. VTRCC is a super organization, and we are so happy that we can work together to achieve our goals.”

Alternative House, founded in 1972, transforms the lives of children and youth by helping them stay safe, make positive decisions, achieve educational success, and overcome personal crises by providing counseling, shelter, neighborhood support and after-school programs. Alternative House offers children, youth and families hope for brighter futures. To learn more, please visit the website at

The Vienna Tysons Regional Chamber of Commerce has served diverse businesses and citizens in the Northern Virginia communities of Vienna, Tysons Corner, Oakton, Merrifield, and Dunn Loring since the 1940s. Their mission is to provide a strategic link between businesses and the community through community engagement, networking, special events, marketing, advocacy, education and political representation. For more information, see

Monday, July 12, 2010

Homeless Youth Initiative

During the 2008 - 2009 school year, approximately 100 youth in the Fairfax County Public School system were identified by their teachers and administrators as being either homeless or unaccompanied. The Homeless Youth Initiative is a two-prong approach to providing assistance to these young people, ages 16 - 21, who are working to complete their high school education by providing a shelter and host families for the youth to live with. Alternative House opened a shelter to house four females, ages 18 - 21, while they attend school and is actively working to match other male and female youth, ages 16 - 21, with host families who will provide them with a stable living environment while they complete high school.

All of the youth participating in this program receive not only housing and community support, but also case management services, individual therapy, life skills education, tutoring, and assistance with emergency food and supplies.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Rewarding Break

Have you ever wished during a long day at the office that you could get up and have a fun break? Well, basically that was exactly what I did yesterday; I volunteered to help transport children from our program Culmore Safe Youth Project to a field trip at Ultra Zone Laser Tag in Falls Church, Virginia. What a terrific afternoon! The children were so eager to start the game and once we were given the orientation it turned out I got to play too! The giggles were everywhere; Alternative House was the red team, we went up, down, across and even though our team lost, all you were able to hear was the giggles and the laughter. We were only able to offer this outing thanks to a generous donation from the owner of Ultra Zone Laser Tag. For most of the kids that attended it was their first time playing laser tag. It was one afternoon where they were able to just be kids and did not have to face their routine of living in “Culmore” with limited resources, crowded spaces and lack of supervision. Personally, I definitely enjoyed my break and loved hearing the children say this was the best field trip ever!

In the Community Outreach program of Alternative House we constantly try to offer the youth we serve a safe, fun and productive option, whether it be at the teen center, the Safe Youth Project, the Girl World or the Boys Program. In our programs we try to offer a substantial recreational component in addition to the academic and preventive piece. For the mental health and well being of these children they need to be exposed to what is positive out there away from their current situation so they understand that there is much more to life than conflict and struggle. We are very fortunate to receive donations that make these outings possible.

Nandred Navarro
Director, Community Outreach

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mr. Gonzales Has the Right Formula for Volunteering

By Susan Blalock

Alternative House is proud to announce that Jose Gonzales who is a volunteer at our Culmore Teen Center was nominated and won a volunteer award. He was awarded the Norbert Grabowski Founder’s Award by the Optimists Club of Central Fairfax on Tuesday, June 23, 2010.

Mr. Gonzales first began to come to Alternative House’s drop-in Teen Center in Falls Church to pick up his daughter who was employed as one of our Youth Workers. While waiting for his daughter to complete her work, he noticed that many of the teens in the program were working on homework and that some were really struggling with their math assignments. He took it upon himself to speak with the staff to see if the teens could use a tutor for their work. It has been very difficult for us to get tutors, especially in math, for this program and the staff were so happy that Mr. Gonzales was willing to help out. He has now been coming to the Teen Center on a weekly basis to help teens with their Algebra and Geometry work for about seven months. During this time, Mr. Gonzales’ relationship with the teens has changed from being just a tutor to also being a mentor and a role model. As the teens learned more about him, they really came to respect and look up to him. Mr. Gonzales immigrated to the United States from Peru when he was young and struggled to learn English, assimilate into the American culture, and despite his own personal economic struggles he continued to pursue his education. Many of the youth at the Teen Center struggle with these same issues and Mr. Gonzales has been a source of hope and inspiration for them. In addition to making a difference for these young people academically and on a personal level, Mr. Gonzales serves as a positive role model to the teens by giving back to his community. As a construction worker Mr. Gonzales has the opportunity to work additional hours to support his family, but he has made sure to leave his schedule open on Wednesday afternoons so that he can work with the teens. A perfect example of the respect that the teens have for Mr. Gonzales occurred about a week ago, Mr. Gonzales arrived at the Teen Center to work with one particular teen and the young man did not have his school materials. He said that he had forgotten about tutoring and would run home to get his books. As soon as the teen left, the staff thought that he would not return and that he had used forgetting his books as an excuse to get out of tutoring. A few minutes later, the teen returned to the Teen Center with all of his school materials and worked with Mr. Gonzales for a couple of hours. Many of the teens have seen that working with Mr. Gonzales helps them with their school work and jump at the chance to get math help from him. For many of these teens, there is no one at home who can help them with their school work so working with Mr. Gonzales prevents them from getting frustrated and lost in their school work which has helped some teens bring up their grades. Not only has Mr. Gonzales inspired some of the teens to do better and given them the tools they need to succeed, but he has also helped youth stay in school. The youth that the Teen Center serves all come from low-income families that struggle financially even during good economic times. Some of these teens have been put in a position where their families want them to leave school in order to get jobs to financially help support the family. Mr. Gonzales has worked with a couple of these teens to help them find a good compromise that will allow them to stay in school and work outside of school to help the finances of their family.

Congratulations Mr. Gonzales and thank you for all of your hard work to help the youth in our program.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Our Programs Support Teens by Meghan Huebner

One of the great things about Alternative House is the variety of programs that we run. This allows us to serve youth and families in multiple ways, and this past month we were able to assist one teen in particular through multiple programs.

“Miranda” came to our teen crisis shelter after leaving her guardian’s home due to alleged physical abuse. A senior in high school, she was weeks away from graduation when she had to leave her home. Miranda had been staying with several friends prior to coming to Alternative House, but this was not a permanent solution. She came into our teen shelter, where she stayed for almost a week while working part-time and attending school. This time was used to find appropriate, stable, longer-term housing for Miranda, who then moved into our HYI program for homeless youth trying to graduate from Fairfax County Public Schools.

Miranda was able to use her time in both programs to maintain her attendance at school and work, and to have a stable living space until graduation. Miranda’s long-term plan is to join the armed forces, where she has already been accepted. During her time at HYI, she was able to reunite with family members and will join them for a permanent living situation after graduation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

We Rocked the House by Gina Cocomello

On June 13 Alternative House hosted our 14th Annual Rock the House 8K Race. We have been working for months to get ready for this event. On race morning the weather was hot and muggy but no thunderstorms. The morning starts early I arrived before 6:00am bringing in supplies and setting up registration. Soon volunteers started arriving. We needed to get ready for the runners. Over 50 volunteers turned out to support this event. Volunteers registered the runners, handed out T-shirts and bibs. They were stationed on the route as course marshals to cheer the runners on and to serve water. Two volunteers were out on bikes riding the route to help organize the volunteers and watch for the runners. We wanted everyone in place before the race started. Almost 300 runners registered for the race. The runners were getting ready, stretching, doing short sprints, and pinning on their bibs. There was a group stretch and warm up. The DJ was playing Bruce Springsteen songs right before the start. The runners were lining up. We even had a few runners with jogging strollers lined up in the back of the pack. Then they were off. While they were gone we got ready for their return opening cases of bottled water and sports drinks, cutting up fruit and organizing the prizes. It didn’t seem like very long before the first runners were crossing the finish line. One or two at first then more and more, as they crossed the finish line there was lots of cheering, finally the last runner, more stretching and lots of water. Prizes were awarded for best in category and even random prizes so everyone had a chance to win something.

The Rock the House 8K Race is our largest fundraising event of the year. We couldn’t do it without the support from our sponsors, Board, volunteers, staff and runners. I personally want to thank everyone involved in this event. The proceeds from this race go to support our programs and services for homeless and at-risk youth and teens. Thank you.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thank you for your Service by Gina Cocomello

Always remember to give back to the community where you live, work and play. Think about what your community would be like if people didn’t share their time, talent, skills and good fortune. Last year at Alternative House we had over 10,000 volunteer hours given to us by people in the community who want to make a difference in the life of a homeless or at-risk youth or teen.

These volunteers were mentors to young mothers trying to find a path to self-sufficiency, answered Hot Line calls for teens in crisis, helped a middle school student with homework and watched as a toddler took her first steps. Alternative House volunteers spent hundreds of hours painting, cooking, doing yard work, collecting donations and stuffing envelopes. Every one of these people helped our clients stay in school, build self-esteem, develop new skills and move forward to becoming productive members of our community. On behalf of the Alternative House staff and clients I would like to say thank you for your service.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Keeping Young People Safe

by Judith Dittman

As I am writing this, we have nine young people in our Shelter and two waiting to come in. We're only supposed to have eight youth in the house at once, but there is nowhere else for these young people to go. We have eight formerly homeless young mothers and their children in the Assisting Young Mothers program and a long waiting list. So far this year we've helped 50 high school students who are homeless and don't have the support of a parent or guardian. Last year there were 109 young people in this position, so far this year there are 180. And our community based programs are distributing more food and clothing than we ever have -- up 50% from last year. Thank you for your help in keeping these young people safe.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Assisting Young Mothers

By Meghan Huebner

Working with young mothers in our Assisting Young Mothers program (AYM) for the past four years has truly been a rewarding experience. Being able to work with a family long-term, and see them change before your eyes, is often exciting for staff and residents alike. There have been many wonderful achievements by AYM residents that I have been fortunate enough to witness: high school graduations, earning driver’s licenses, passing certificate courses, obtaining a GED, and much more. The children also achieve many milestones while in our program: first words, first steps, first day at school, and other causes for celebration.

Many times, it’s not the major accomplishments that are the most important. For many residents, it’s the small things that living in a stable household can create that are the most important, and have the most impact. As one resident recently told me when we were talking about her achievements after a year in the program,

Since coming to live at AYM, I have been able to establish a routine for my son, and he is secure with it. He is going to his babysitter and he knows when I am busy that he has to do his own thing. He knows that things will be the same each day and he can rely on me when things are routine.

Her perspective of her accomplishments was completely different than the achievements that I think of when I consider her time at AYM: holding a full-time job for over a year, obtaining her learner’s permit and driver’s license, beginning to enroll in college classes, living in our most independent townhouse and more. At AYM, I am constantly reminded of the importance of looking at both the very big and the very small pictures: everything from buying a car down to a child’s smile.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Tug at My Heart by Debi Jo Wheatley

My first glimpse of the Alternative House shelter was attending an Open Door at the House event to learn more about the organization. What struck me most is how hard everyone has to work to keep the place together for the teens. They are in constant need of new bedding for incoming teens, walls need to be repaired and painted, plumbing and a roof may need to be replaced. What could I do to help make the place just a little brighter?
As part of my design work, I also paint and thought maybe I could bring some brightness to the shelter. The brightness was brought to me. As I painted in the kitchen and day room, the kids who were in attendance were so welcoming even in the midst of their problems----problems that they shouldn’t have to face at their young age.
One young lady in particular tugged at my heart. I was finishing some work on a piece that I had started, and she was in the day room on the phone talking with a family member. When she got off, she came my way to see what I was doing. When I engaged her in conversation she harshly stated that she’d been in the system a long time and just wanted to have a steady place to live. The more we sat and spoke, the hard shell cracked open, and she was a fun, vibrant 14 year old, ready to learn what her future might bring.
When she went upstairs to do her homework, she asked me to please let her know when I was leaving so that I could say goodbye to her. It made me realize that there were probably many times in her life that someone left without a goodbye. So, I made sure to say goodbye. I told my husband about this encounter with tears.
Since then, I was asked to serve on the board of directors for Alternative House, a very proud moment for me. Teens have so many issues facing them these days, and to confront homelessness or futility in their daily lives shouldn’t be one of them. What Alternative House brings to these kids is a chance that they might otherwise not have either through the Emergency Shelter for Teens, the Assisting Young Mothers program or the Culmore Teen Center.
I know I will be a proud supporter of Alternative House for a very long time.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New Eyes by Lynn Olden

I attended the Alternative House Annual Breakfast and Fundraiser in October 2008, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do my field placement at Alternative House. What touched my heart most was the testimonies of the youth who, in various ways, became involved with Alternative House, and how they were helped by the programs. In August 2009, I began my internship experience at AH.
I love this age, adolescence, that transition period-teens learning to adjust to the changes and the choices they are facing. It is a time of excitement and exhilaration and confusion, all at once. They are finally seeing, through their own eyes, the life that they have been preparing for, and realizing that they have the ability to make that life happen.
During my internship at AH, I provided individual and group counseling with the teens and relished the opportunity to listen to their stories, encourage their goals, build positive relationships and help them improve their communication skills to successfully address challenges at school and at home. I also worked with many families, and helped parents and guardians to envision a new possibility for helping their teenager to develop into the kind of person the teen has dreamt of becoming. But what we provide collectively at AH is so much more. We give adolescents a good meal eaten together, respect, structure, expectancy, humor and laughter. We see every adolescent through new eyes, devoid of the mistakes they have made and full of the hope they have lost sight of; and that is what makes all the difference.
The counselors at AH are as competent and dedicated as they are compassionate and creative. They love to have a good time, while they’re doing their work, which makes it a more productive environment. I’ve watched the counselors look for an adolescent’s strength, and then bring it out, so with new eyes, the teen can see and utilize that strength. They care deeply about the adolescents and their families and are intent on seeing the youth succeed. I once heard that the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. The people at AH do great work; and during my internship, they provided me the extraordinary opportunity to share and contribute to that work.
My greatest strength lies in my ability to teach and to remain teachable; I was able to do both while at AH. When I think back to sitting at the table in that breakfast fundraiser, I am proud of myself for this one thing, I had the courage to follow my heart and my intuition, and they did not lead me wrong.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Van for Alternative House

Alternative House is pleased to acknowledge The Ward Family Foundation’s contribution of funding, to purchase a new van to distribute survival supplies such as food and clothing to youth in need. Alternative House provides support to at-risk children, youth and families through counseling, shelter, crisis intervention, and neighborhood outreach.

Judith Dittman, Executive Director of Alternative House, states, “We are so thankful to The Ward Family Foundation for their generous donation. Our previous van was more than 10 years old and needed major engine work. The new van got us back on the street at a crucial time when cold weather and school closings increase the need for warm clothing and food for children living in poverty.”

Each month Alternative House distributes an average of 3,000 items of food and clothing to young people from its outreach van. It is a recognized and welcome sight in neighborhoods throughout Fairfax County.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rock the House by Gina Cocomello

For almost two weeks now we have been dealing with the effects of the snow. First we had to get ready for it by doing grocery shopping, rearranging our work and school schedules and possibly buying a new snow shovel. Then there was the fun part where the snow was pretty and we all had a few days off and the shoveling was still not too hard.

Now I’m ready for the snow to be gone so let’s fast forward to June and some warm weather. Alternative House is preparing now for our 14th Annual Rock the House 8K Race that will be held at the Fairfax County Government Center grounds as part of the Celebrate Fairfax Festival. So it isn’t too early to start thinking about doing some stretching exercises so when the snow melts you can get ready for the warm weather and our 8K Race.

Ah! So you aren’t a runner, me either. Alternative House is also looking for volunteers to help at our race. We need course marshals to cheer the runners on along the race route. We also need sponsors who would like to support our event. Last year we had almost 400 runners and over 50 volunteers. Our sponsors, runners and volunteers made last years race one of our biggest fundraisers ever.

If you would like information on sponsorship or volunteering contact me at If you would like to register to run visit in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Third times a charm

By Kristin Sorenson, LPC, The Alternative House
Program Therapist for the Homeless Youth Initiative and
the Annandale Targeted Youth Program HYI

I recently completed my first week as Alternative House’s youth and family therapist for their Homeless Youth Initiative and Annandale Targeted Youth Program. Like most first weeks at a new job, it was spent getting to know the program, the staff and the teens I would be working with. This first week was unique however, as I had the advantage of working for Alternative House in the past, and it felt a bit like coming home.

I started my career with Alternative House, as a residential counselor at the teen crisis shelter. I was freshly out of college, and the shelter provided me with my first full time job in the counseling field. I was able to gain experience, hone my counseling skills, and get to know the teens, volunteers, and community members that make Alternative House such a unique place. After working at the shelter for a little over a year, I left the area to pursue my graduate degree in Mental Health Counseling.

After completing graduate school, I returned to Northern Virginia and to Alternative House. I worked as a counselor and therapist at the teen shelter, providing individual and family therapy to the teens and their families. Over time, I transitioned into the role of Program Coordinator at the teen shelter, and was able to continue to provide therapy to the teens and families as well. My time at the shelter provided me with the experience and supervision to work toward my professional counseling license.

About a year ago, I left the teen shelter and Alternative House, to work in a long term, residential facility, for children and teens with severe mental health issues. While it was an incredible learning experience and challenged me as a therapist, I felt that something was missing. What I missed so much was the connection to the community that I always had as an employee of Alternative House. I have always found the shelter, Outreach programs, and the Assisting Young Mother’s program to be environments that are totally unique from any other facility or work experience I have had in the past. The staff are incredibly talented and invested in what they do and they handle crisis like no other. They juggle so much at one time, and they make it look effortless. I always felt fortunate to be around others that were as invested as I was.

When I learned a position was open as the therapist for the new Homeless Youth Initiative Program and Outreach’s Targeted Youth Program, I made the decision to once again return to Alternative House. I am excited to get to know some of the other Alternative House programs and to work closely with county agencies, schools, and local businesses and facilities. I am of course excited to continue working with the youth of Fairfax County and the wonderful volunteers and donors that help make these programs possible.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Nonviolent Crisis Training

By Meghan Huebner
Director, Residential Services

I recently spent a week training to become a certified trainer for Nonviolent Crisis Intervention. After years of being trained in Nonviolent Crisis Intervention as required for our residential programs, I finally had the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. In addition, I was able to attend the training with staff from hospitals and schools, giving me the chance to interact with professionals from across the youth and mental health spectrum.
Training for Nonviolent Crisis Intervention involves two days of training in verbal and physical de-escalation techniques, one day of "trainer training", and a day of teaching, exams, and physical competencies. At Alternative House, we face many crisis situations in our daily work.
Part of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training involves diffusing a situation so that no one comes to physical harm. If a youth is pacing quickly back and forth at the teen center while everyone else is doing their homework, or if a resident at the teen shelter is refusing to do their chores, staff is prepared to handle the situation using carefully selected words and body language. During my training, I leaned the reasons behind why these interventions are effective, as well as how negative reactions by staff can escalate a situation.
Although Alternative House uses no physical interventions, I had to learn them all to become a certified trainer. One by one, my fellow trainees and I pretended to punch, kick, and pull one another's hair. We then used the appropriate intervention for each "attack" under the watchful eye of our instructor. After a week, we all certainly felt much closer to one another!
Now that my training is complete, I am certified to train new Alternative House staff and provide refreshers for current staff. We provide Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training with the goal of de-escalating crisis situations before they become out of control, and with the safety of all clients, families, and staff in mind. I look forward to providing staff with new skills and tools to use, and to continuing to advance my training through Nonviolent Crisis Intervention.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tell Two Friends about our Teen Shelter

Whenever I watch the local news or read the newspaper, I find that I hold my breath and my heart beats faster when I come across a story involving teens that are missing, possibly runaways or teens that were involved in a traumatic incident – domestic violence, suicide, or a shooting. My mantra is “please don’t let it be one of our teens.” Then I wonder if this teen was aware of the services at the Alternative House teen crisis shelter? I wish that more teens had the opportunity to enter our program, to talk out the heavy demands of their life with a counselor and stay for a restorative period, trying to figure out how to improve their life. My hope is that word of the residential services Alternative House offers will reach as many teens as possible. Perhaps by coming to the Alternative House teen shelter, a potentially harmful situation could be avoided. After you read this, tell two friends about the teen shelter and ask them to tell two friends so we can spread the word and possibly provide assistance to a teen that is hurting, before they hurt themselves, someone else or a situation erupts that could cause lasting harm to the family. If you know of a speaking opportunity (PTA, homeowner’s association, youth group, or any gathering that involves parents of teens or teenagers) please call us as we have speakers available. I want teens to have a chance to choose to come to us.

Susie Guido, LPC
Residential Therapist