By Elaina Bedio-Nashua Digital
Editor’s note: This is the second article in our Nashua Nonprofit Spotlight Series highlighting some of the Greater Nashua area’s approximately 365 nonprofit organizations and the meaningful work and crucial services they provide.
Established in 2020, Stepping Stones is a drop-in center that provides supportive services to young people 25 and under facing homelessness in the greater Nashua area. In the short time since it has opened its doors, the services and programs Stepping Stones has been able to develop are impressive.
At the drop-in center, homeless and under-housed young people can get a shower, do their laundry, have a meal, and find clean clothing. Beyond the basics, Stepping Stones also offers enrichment programs, like recovery support, mental health support, educational support, and assistance in applying for such services as Medicaid and food stamps.
“We opened our drop-in center here in December of 2020, right in the middle of COVID, for a couple of different reasons,” said Executive Director Kathleen Farland. “Partly because everything was closed. So all of our youth that were outside had nowhere to go. There wasn't even any place to use bathrooms because everything was closed.”
Stepping up to provide services
Farland was inspired by her years of experience as a foster parent and realized that when young people age out of the foster program and still do not have proper support, it is extremely difficult for them to succeed.
“I started attending a few of the Continuum of Care meetings in Nashua, which is all of the agencies that work with the homeless population, and realized that there really weren't any services there either.” So, within a matter of months, through hard work, grants, and a little good luck, Stepping Stones opened its doors to area youths in need.
The typical age range for people who use the organization’s services is 18 to 25. The circumstances by which they come to need these services vary, but all are dire. “Seventy percent of homeless youth left home because they were either being physically or sexually abused at home,” said Farland. “And that is a staggering number when you figure that doesn't even count the kids that are in DCYF already,”
Another major cause of youth homelessness is rejection. Farland works with young people who were evicted from their homes because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. “I have youth who were kicked out for being pregnant. Even in this day and age, it seems crazy that it still happens as often as it does … but it does.”
Farland said one of the major motivators in working with these young people is the hope of getting to them before something else does. “Once they’re out on the streets, they are three times more likely to start using drugs than their housed peers because it's an untenable situation. They feel like they need something to help them cope, and it's cheap and available everywhere on the streets. It takes so little to actually get hooked,” Farland said. In addition, she said, “They’re more likely to become victims of crimes because they're more likely to put themselves in unsafe situations to be able to get whatever it is that they're using.”
Farland also said that, along with substance use, sex trafficking is another common danger that displaced youth are vulnerable to, and for these reasons, it is important to intercept and help them as soon as possible.
In addition to the services provided at the drop-in center, Stepping Stones recently opened the Step Up program at what was previously a dormitory building on the now-closed Daniel Webster College campus. Step Up is an independent living, transitional housing program that will eventually house up to 60 individuals, making it the largest program of its kind in New Hampshire.
In Step One of the Step Up program, four residents share a room, share chores, work on achieving their high school equivalency, and learn basic home-keeping skills. “We have kids that come in and have never done dishes — they have no idea how to do it. They've never cleaned, vacuumed, mopped a floor, or done any of those things, so everybody switches chores once a week,” said Farland.
When they graduate to Step Two, there are two people per room. They pay a nominal rent, learn new skills, and are required to secure a job. Stepping Stones provides classes on topics such as money management and food and nutrition. “They have to be able to keep their job for three months to graduate out of Step Two, and, for a lot of reasons, that's a huge struggle,” said Farland. “So we want to build in those skills so that they can stay at the job and then get into something more of a career.”
Step Three is where the rubber meets the road. Residents get a one-year lease for their own room, including a kitchen, bathroom, and laundry. Over the course of the year, they pay their rent and utilities and continue to work. “When they leave, they've got a rental reference, they've got the money saved for their security deposit, they've got a good history with the utility companies. They've been building some credit so when they move out and go to look for an apartment, they actually have an employment history of at least six months, and they've got the rental history and credit history."
How to help
The value of the Stepping Stones program and what it means to these young people and to the community at large cannot be overstated. Homelessness has become an increasingly noticeable issue in Nashua, and the organization is “stepping in” to elevate and empower struggling youth, helping them to see their potential and saving them from years of desperation.
How can the community help? Stepping Stones is most in need of volunteers and monetary donations. The staff is small, and case managers often need to man the front desk. “And that’s time they can’t be working with kids,” said Farland. Having volunteers at reception would alleviate a lot of the pressure on the staff, she said.
Monetary donations are always needed. This is true for all nonprofits, and they all struggle to communicate this need. Asking for money is awkward. Supporters tend to favor in-kind donations (physical items), perhaps because they feel more tangible or personal and the donor has a firm understanding of how it will be used. But monetary donations are crucial for organizations like Stepping Stones, which need to rent a building, heat it, provide electricity, food, water, and pay staff.
Community members can also donate their time to Stepping Stones by serving as a board member. Nonprofit boards work in tandem with the executive director to support the organization, contribute to strategic planning, and ensure that policies are being followed. Farland said Stepping Stones is particularly interested in board members who work in finance, real estate and law. Anyone interested in being a board member can contact the organization to find out more.
To donate items, a wishlist can be found on the Stepping Stones website, where there are links to their Amazon and Walmart wishlists as well as a list of desired gently used items, such as clothing and housewares. If you are interested in learning more about Stepping Stones, visit steppingstonesnh.org.
Kathleen Farland started Stepping Stones in 2020, inspired by her years as a foster parent, when she realized that when young people age out of the foster program without proper support, it is extremely difficult for them to succeed. (Stepping Stones photo)
Photos: Drop-in center:
The entrance to the Stepping Stones drop-in center. The organization provides supportive services to young people 25 and under facing homelessness in the greater Nashua area. (Photo by Elaina Bedio)
Stepping Stones volunteer:
Mark, a volunteer, cooks a pasta dinner for those arriving at the Stepping Stones drop-in center. (Photo by Elaina Bedio)
The next installment in the Nashua Nonprofits Spotlight Series will profile The Youth Council, which specializes in programs centered on youth guidance and counseling. Please send all inquiries to [email protected].
This article was produced in partnership with Nashua Digital and is being shared with partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.