Wes Suskey and Lynda Gruber-Suskey had been empty-nesters for more than a decade when they decided to open their home to a local teen in need.
Family friends had helped out another teen who needed a place to stay, and when the couple learned that teen’s sibling was also in need, they decided to help. Wes and Lynda, whose last child left for college 12 years ago, offered the homeless La Crosse freshman her choice of three bedrooms and any support and advice the two could provide when she arrived at their door with the clothes on her back and a backpack.
“When we were asked, how could we say no,” said Lynda, who is the retiring Emerson Elementary School principal.
The two received help from the Family & Children’s Center Host Home program, which the organization started in 2015 after receiving a grant from the La Crosse Community Foundation. The program provides a full-time social worker who works to connect homeless youths with families who have volunteered to provide host homes, as well as support and resources such as hygiene supplies, warm winter clothing and referrals to other services in the community.
During the past two years, the program has worked to connect three host home families with homeless youths and is looking to expand the program, Wisconsin Director of Programs Vanessa Southworth said. According to state data, more than 180 students in the La Crosse School district were reported homeless during the 2015-16 school year, and she said the need for such programs is great.
“We know there are kids out there that need help,” Family and Children’s Center Development Director Jamie Korn said. “We just need to reach them.”
Homeless youth can be referred to the host homes program by their school social workers, others in the community or by themselves. After applying for the program, the social worker will meet with the youth to figure out what the needs are and how best to meet them.
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Families interested in volunteering for the program also fill out an application and go through a state and local background check, and a home visit by program staff. The program works with both the children and the families to make sure the fit it right before placing a youth in a host home. Participation is voluntary, and both sides have the right to set their own boundaries and pull out of the program.
For Wes and Lynda, the relationship with their host home teen, now a sophomore, has been pretty hands on. They’ve helped their placement with some expenses such as a cell phone, as well as transport to and from school events such as soccer practice.
While their teen still has a relationship with her biological family, who help out with things such medical care and other necessities, the two are there to provide advice and listen. They’ve invited their host home youth to Thanksgiving with their families and have been there to cheer her on at soccer games.
“The goal when we took her in was that we wanted her to feel safe,” Lynda said. “Give her some control over her own life.”
Rick and Cyndi Kyte have had a more informal relationship with their host home teen, who is graduating this spring. She’s a very independent person, they said, active in school events, and she has a part-time job that keeps her busy most of the day.
Instead, their goal was to provide a safe and stable place for her to rest her head at the end of the day, and they are there if anything else should come up. While the two families had different experiences with their teens, all four said they would do it again in a heartbeat.
“When she came to us, we could tell she was really stressed out,” Cyndi said. “To see that go away and to see the relief on her face when she knew she had a peaceful, safe place was priceless.”