From the early stages of my life, I have been surrounded by activism and those fighting for social justice. My mother tells me in the early 70s, being a new mom didn't stop her from from hitting the streets to fight for women's liberation. She would just strap me to her back and take me to those protests...with me wearing a kiddie “Women's Lib” t-shirt and all.
I've always found myself drawn to and inspired by people with a passion for making this world a better place. During my coaching course I volunteered for a program coaching executives pro-bono and as fate would have it, I was matched with the fabulous Keely Freeman. As we began working together, I was in awe of her and her life's work. I just had to share it with you all. Keely Freeman is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Sierra House, an incredible non-profit organization, dedicated to fighting homelessness and rescuing the lives of at-risk youth and young adults through housing, education and community services to inspire healthy living, emotional stability and success.
At a time when I am pondering the concept of visioning and preparing for The Visioning Party Autumn 2014, Keely Freeman epitomizes how amazing one small moment can evolve into a powerful vision. It takes dedication, right action, positive intentions and diligence, yet here before you is proof that a vision can blossom into a beautiful reality. You can profoundly shift your life and empower others around you, when you live your life from a place of authenticity. In Keely's interview below you can't help but be inspired to do you. Join me on October 11th for some rediscovery & insight into taking the next steps. Check out my girl Keely Freeman, as I bask in celebrating powerful women, making this world a better place....
Hope: Just when many 20-somethings were in party mode and enjoying newfound adulthood, you left a prospering career in investment banking to help literally save the lives of at risk-youth in New Jersey. What inspired you create Sierra House?
Keely: Volunteering. I always enjoyed volunteering, but never knew that it would change my life. While volunteering at a homeless shelter for teenagers in Newark I learned that many youth were selected to enter the program from a waiting list and it broke my heart. Even more important, it compelled me to take action.
Hope: It’s one thing to say you want to help others, it’s another to make the major life decision to do it. How did you actually do it?
Keely: I took the money that I saved and purchased a big house so kids will always have a place to live. No one deserves to be homeless. Especially, not children. I understand that Sierra House only puts a damper on the problem of youth homelessness, however my goal is to help as many homeless youth as I can.
Hope: What are your top three most memorable moments at Sierra House?
Keely: First let me begin by saying I have some many memorable moments at Sierra House. The first would be making the Sierra House a reality. It took me 6 years to get Sierra House off the ground. Why, because I was clueless. At the time, I had no clue what a nonprofit was. In 2006, I went back to school at NYU for my Masters in Nonprofit Management. During my time at NYU, I gained the skill set that I needed to make the Sierra House a home for homeless young women and mothers. Literally, I took the lessons that I was learning in school and applied it directly to the business. The day after I graduated from Grad school the doors of Sierra House opened.
My second most memorable moment was of a young lady who entered the program when she was 18 and pregnant. Her mom lived in Jamaica and her aunt that she was living with kicked her out after she learned that she was pregnant. This young lady was in her last year of high school and had already had a son living in Jamaica. When she came here to live at Sierra House her motivation absolutely impressed me. Every day she would get up, rain, sleet, or snow and catch the bus two towns over to complete high school. When she graduated from high school, she didn’t want to apply to college because she wanted to work to provide a better life for her children. That’s what she said. The truth was, she didn’t think that she would be accepted into college so she didn’t want to apply and be let down. Here at Sierra House, we value education and encouraged her to apply. Guess what? She was accepted into five of the seven schools that she applied for. Today, she is living in an apartment of her own with her two children, works full time and attends college part time. I am so proud of her.
The third most memorable moment was winning the Russ Berrie Award for Community Service. Of over 200 recipients, I was one of eleven finalists.
Hope: How have the youth you have supported through your programs affected you?
Keely: My Sierra House residents keep me young. Although I am in my 30s, I am so old to them. I t’s funny to hear their perception of old age. Nonetheless, they keep me updated on the latest fashion, hair styles, music, etc. Above all, they inspire me to love harder, to give more, and to appreciate the simple things in life, friends, family, time and many, many more things.
Hope: Share with us a favorite success story of one of your girls living at Sierra House?
Keely: A young lady who came to Sierra House four years ago and wanted to study to be a doctor. Before moving to Sierra House, she was sleeping at the airport. While living at Sierra House, we helped her to get a job at a local deli. We also helped her to apply to Rutgers University. Three months later she was accepted into Rutgers. This individual cried tears of joy on the day she moved to campus, because all her life people told her she wouldn’t succeed and here she was, beating the odds. This individual, like many other Sierra House residents, can and will succeed.
Hope: What changes in our society do you see still need to be made to aid in eradicating homelessness?
Keely: Policy. We have to advocate for affordable housing, homelessness prevention, and funding to eradicate homelessness on a legislative level. It is impossible to live in our country without witnessing the pain of homelessness on our streets. The statistics are frightening: in New Jersey alone there are 11,818 homeless people (NJ Point in Time Count 2014), and a much larger percentage of residents go through each day without enough money to pay for adequate food and other basic necessities. Women account for nearly half of the homeless population and children make up about one-third of the homeless population. Essex County, where Sierra House is located, has the second highest number of homeless people, accounting for 14.7% of the state-wide homeless population, up from the 2012 amount of 13%. Without education and a stable living environment, people usually find it extremely difficult to obtain employment, pay rent, and meet basic needs, such as food and clothing.
In addition, New Jersey is the fifth most expensive state in the nation. According to the January 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average monthly fair market rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey ranges from $870 to $1,184. Thus, a worker earning the minimum wage of $8.25 must work between 105 and 144 hours per week in order to just pay rent. In desperation for food, clothing, and housing, many homeless people, especially youth, gravitate to potentially dangerous settings for survival. Prostitution, selling drugs, and theft are just a few of the options taken. When homelessness is not addressed, the rate of crime, recidivism, childbirth, disease, and other conditions substantially increase, and we all pay the price.
The Sierra House Transitional Program is important because it provides homeless young women, ages 18 to 25, and their babies the skills needed for self-sufficiency. Sierra House provides them with much more than a bed and a meal for the night; it provides other necessities, such as one-on-one counseling and extensive support services that enable young women to successfully get back on their feet and, most importantly, break the cycle of homelessness. In summary, we as individuals must continue to advocate and fight for affordable housing and policies to protect children and families.
Hope: How can we help you at Sierra House?
Keely: Groups, clubs, organizations and individuals can help pave the way for homeless young women and their babies at Sierra House by hosting and event or activity and donate the proceeds i.e. a bowling event or a charity dinner to Sierra House, sponsoring a drive or collecting goods that will help residents with their day to day living, make a donation, becoming a Sierra House volunteer or by becoming a Sierra House member.
To support and ignite change for homeless youth, at Sierra House please check out Sierra House.org
Want to rediscover what your personal vision is and get inspired to take action? Come join me on October 11th at The Visioning Party Autumn 2014.
What activités do you feel passionate about? How do you inspire or empower those around you? Do share. I would love to hear from you.