In 1990, a Sister of St. Joseph serving at St. Mary of Sorrows Parish on the East Side of Buffalo got the idea to start a residence for homeless women after noticing how many young women were wandering the neighborhood's streets. After seven years, Sister Mary Augusta Kaiser, SSJ started the Teaching and Restoring Youth program. Today, it offers transitional housing for females between ages 16 and 21, offering food, shelter, education and life skills in the site of the former Holy Name Convent in Buffalo.
One of these young women, a 17-year-old named Iyisha, served time in prison after an altercation at her family home and was left without a roof over her head after she was released. She had originally lived at Compass House, which offers temporary shelter for runaway and homeless youth in Buffalo, before finding out about the TRY program, which she said helps young women to safely grow up.
"They make sure you get your education, so they make you go to school and stuff like that," Iyisha said, noting there are several phases, starting with the entry phase when the residents cannot leave the house for 30 days, unless they go to school, while getting used to the program. In the last phase, the program maintains Level II apartments that enable departing residents to transition into independent living.
When Iyisha first came to the TRY program, she was failing her high school classes. Since entering the program, she has improved her academic average by more than 20 percentage points and is now looking forward to being a high school graduate. This year, she is attending summer school and has been guaranteed a job working at a gas station after she finishes courses she needs to catch up. It is because of the TRY program that young women such as Iyisha get support they need, and it has a rich history.
Sister Mary Augusta recalled of the program's beginnings, "I would go out on Communion calls and I would see young women standing on the street corners. I'd try to talk to them. Some would talk, and some wouldn't talk. They indicated that they were homeless. Many of them had left home because of abuse. There was abuse in the homes and so they were out on the streets trying to survive. Unfortunately, a number of them were prostituting themselves in order to survive. That was way back in the '90s."
The residents of TRY come from various backgrounds and neighborhoods in Western New York, and one is even from Pennsylvania. A common factor that brought them to the program was a troubled background, frequently childhood sexual abuse and violence.
The first 10 residents had been arrested for prostitution, and some of the current residents are former prostitutes who are trying to secure a better future for themselves while restoring their self-esteem and dignity after experiencing and surviving trauma.
In the program's earliest days, when it was still a seed of an idea in Sister Mary Augusta's mind, one of the biggest obstacles was finding a suitable building. Sister Mary Augusta and Father Roy Herberger led a group that purchased a former convent in the neighborhood, but it was not up to code. After they put a sizable amount of time and money into restorations, the TRY program opened in December 1997. It boasts a 96 percent success rate, with over 290 young women having come through the building's doors.
Sophia McDaniel-Francis, the program's executive director, said the focus of the program is to "try and reach the entire girl" in a holistic approach while working with other service agencies.
"We provide case management and a lot of linkages through the community, as far as linking them up with services and making sure that they're able to fill their needs, and that's anywhere from registering them for public assistance, to social security, to monitoring their education," McDaniel-Francis said. "If they're not in school, then we register them in school or a GED program, helping them find jobs, and independent living skills - how to take care of themselves, opening up bank accounts and finding jobs."
In the earlier phases of the young women's stays, they focus on education and helping their residents to get back on their feet, back in school and committed to self-improvement. Later on, the focus moves to becoming independent and being discharged. The program has had many success stories. This year, three graduated from high school, and McDaniel-Francis and Sister Mary Augusta said many of the former residents are now married with children. Others recently became certified nursing assistants.
"Some of them keep in touch. It doesn't always happen, but we try to keep in touch with them for six months," Sister Mary Augusta commented. "(A former resident) has four beautiful children. She's married. She'd been a dropout from Kensington High School. She finished her junior and senior year in one year, and won an $87,000 scholarship to St. Bonaventure University, and then she went there."
When asked about the biggest challenges of running the TRY program, McDaniel-Francis cited issues related to fundraising in order to keep the services going, as well as the challenges of helping women accustomed to life on the streets or in troubled homes to live in a structured environment. "We do fundraising. We're starting to do grant funding," McDaniel-Francis said. Most comes from the public. Sister Mary Augusta added, "We wouldn't survive without grants and the support of the community."
The main fundraiser for the TRY program takes place every September at Salvatore's Italian Gardens in Depew, with many former residents coming back to share success stories. This year, the Founder's Award dinner will be held at 6 p.m., Friday, Sept. 23. According to Joe Testa, a member of the TRY program's board, the prospect of helping young women is the reason for the program's existence, and each year, the fundraiser is the primary source of fundraising and lets the program continue to help women.
"We have seen them go off to school and have productive lives. We have seen them move into Level II housing, where they're independent but they still have the opportunity to come back here," Testa added. "They have a home base because their family life is - well, TRY becomes their family life."
For more information about the TRY program, how to volunteer or to support its upcoming fundraiser and awards dinner, call 716-892-2814 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.