HALO offers a hand of hope to children who need it the most.
Most people in Jefferson City know about HALO or have at least heard its name. Many locals have even donated money or time toward its efforts to end youth homelessness and help kids rediscover their value and embrace their potential. The foundation, headquartered in Jefferson City and formed in 2005, has blossomed in its 15-year existence. Its programming now includes housing for hundreds of homeless youth in 11 international orphanages and two domestic shelters, plus education in learning centers that offer a variety of future-focused programming.
These significant accomplishments in a relatively short amount of time say a lot about HALO’s leadership. It takes a whole crew of volunteers and staff to assist with day-to-day operations and strategy. But the impact? That’s what makes it all worth it.
HALO welcomes at-risk young women from the community to live in a shared, safe space. During their stay, they are able to escape homelessness, abuse, neglect, and other social and physical barriers that keep them on the fringes of society. In HALO homes, these girls learn or review living basics that many others take for granted, like making a bed or writing a resume. They are also exposed to art therapy, counseling sessions, medical check-ups, life skill courses, and a program called iEmpathize, which teaches kids how to recognize and avoid negative relationships, sex trafficking, and predators.
Suzanne Wilson serves as Jefferson City’s program director. In her role, Suzanne’s duties extend far beyond your typical job description. On a daily basis, she helps pregnant, parenting, and non-parenting young women develop plans and paths for a happy, healthy future.
Suzanne was so moved by HALO’s work that she came out of retirement to take the position. As a former school teacher and administrator, Wilson understands that not all kids start out with an equal playing field.
“We are not just simple housing for these teens,” Suzanne says. “We are a program that teaches life skills, requires participation in goal setting, and reaches those goals that move their lives forward.”
“We are a program that teaches life skills, requires participation in goal setting, and reaches those goals that move their lives forward.”— Suzanne Wilson
During her time at HALO, Suzanne has witnessed laughter and tears along with good times and hard times. She says those celebrations she shares with the girls are what stay closest to her memory: when a girl tells a doctor that, yes, they live in a safe place for the first time in their lives; when they feel overwhelmed by the idea of bringing a child into the world, but find support from others in the home; when they exchange gifts, build friendships, finish high school, get a first job, or find a home of their own.
“It’s just like a real family,” Suzanne remarks. “It really is a home.”
Founder and CEO Rebecca Welsh agrees the relationships formed there are special.
“Suzy’s seen it all,” Rebecca notes. “When a girl breaks a rule, Suzy looks at it like a mom would, not like an employee would. It comes from the heart.”
Those connections can continue for the rest of a girl’s life, including after they leave HALO and venture out on their own. Wilson notes that many past residents come back to visit for holidays or with questions about more advanced challenges. And they are always welcome.
Looking forward, Suzanne hopes to develop even more pathways to success for the girls of HALO. Part of that starts with reaching out to more community members with HALO’s message and mission and expanding job readiness opportunities.
“The teens we work with at HALO are all part of our community,” Suzanne says. “Perhaps the training opportunities might allow our teens to gain community-based work experience through something similar to having a paid internship. This means we could expand our partnerships with businesses in the community.”
Suzanne and the HALO team are also preparing for an increase in needs after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, noting that the challenges stemming from the pandemic can push families over the edge toward homelessness. Whatever the future holds, HALO plans to adapt and continue to support its youth.
“It’s important we are able to help our youth become successful, contributing members of our society because today’s youth are the future of our community,” Suzanne says.
This summer, HALO has begun introducing a new program and home aimed at helping local boys find a safe place of healing and hope that puts them on a path to a positive future. Plans for the program include tutoring, life-skill development, and recreational activities, as well as a spot for dinner, laundry, showers, and assistance with other core needs. Additionally, it will be a space where teens can connect with male role models and develop healthy relationships they might not have in other environments.
“My biggest goal is to make sure that every young man who comes through our program knows that they have a place to come when they need it.”— Darian Pruitt
One of those role models is Darian Pruitt, future program manager. Serendipitously, Darian met Rebecca Welsh during an encounter at Capital City Christian Church. Darian has a history of working with youth in programs like basketball teams and church groups. After the two got to talking (and Rebecca heard her own two kids raving about their interactions with Darian), plans for the new boys’ program took off to new heights.
Under Darian’s direction, youth will gather at the new program’s facility from 3-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
“That time of night is a high time for boys not getting enough to eat, boys not being able to work on their school work properly, or just not having a safe place to go at night,” Darian says. “Then they get into trouble, don’t finish their homework, or go to bed hungry. With our program, we want to be able to provide for those things.”
A lot can happen in the span of six hours. For teen boys, in particular, the hours encompassing the end of the school day and sleep can be a time for sports, homework, part-time jobs, and family. But for young men who are homeless or in unsafe environments, those hours can be lean.
HALO plans to collaborate with all three area high schools to engage with youth participants and ensure a full circle of care for those in need both during and after classes, and even in the summer months. Principals, athletic directors, teachers, coaches, and others who work at the school directly with kids can recommend the program to someone who could use it, and HALO staff will occasionally be at school lunches, games, and other activities to build stronger connections and grow awareness.
“We have men from all different backgrounds, careers, and families in this community who want to be a part of this program,” Darian says. “I am excited to see the relationships that are going to be built that maybe wouldn’t have had a chance to form without HALO.”
The new boys program will be housed in a home surrounded by six acres of land with plenty of room for activities. Area groups have already volunteered time to help develop the space, which will include a large common area for connecting and sharing meals. HALO is still seeking donations to support the space, including a registry of items on Amazon featuring everything from dishes and utensils to cornhole sets and footballs.
Darian says it can be easy for people in Jefferson City to assume that most boys go home to a safe place that cares for them and has resources that promote a healthy and successful lifestyle. But the statistical and anecdotal evidence proves that to be untrue.
“Unfortunately, when you look closer at the boys’ lives, that isn’t what’s happening in a lot of their cases,” Darian notes. “We’re trying to bridge the family foundation gap that there is for a lot of boys in Jefferson City.”
And Darian’s heart is up for the challenge.
“My biggest goal is to make sure that every young man who comes through our program knows that they have a place to come when they need it.”
For more information or ways to help HALO visit haloworldwide.org