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Nashvillians of the Year: Because of Hal Cato and Rodger Dinwiddie— and the remarkable youth center they founded—Nashville's lost and forgotten teens will sleep safer

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When a lot of kids turn 18, they get something special—a party, a night out, sometimes even the keys to a car. On Xavier's 18th birthday, he returned to the apartment he shared with his mother to find an unusual present. What little he owned sat ready to go, where his mom had packed it up. She informed him he no longer had a home.

Three years earlier, Xavier's father, caregiver and mentor—a former TSU football player turned psychologist—had died unexpectedly from pulmonary hypertension. After growing up under his father's steady guidance, the son was forced into his estranged mother's custody. Quickly, his stable life began to fray. He had always remembered his mom flying off the handle with him when he was little. Now she seemed angry at him all the time. She often told Xavier that his dead father raised him all wrong, leaving behind a monster.

But he wasn't a bad kid. He was studious and responsible, which only confused him more. Worse, his father, who had always been Xavier's biggest supporter, wasn't around to protect him physically or emotionally. Money he stashed away from odd jobs started to disappear mysteriously among the apartment's rotating cast of visitors. It wasn't long before his grades at Hillwood took a plunge. Soon he dropped out of the sports he loved playing—football, baseball, basketball and track. Whatever interest his mother had in keeping him ended with the last of his assistance checks.

"She said, 'You know you gotta get out,' " recalls Xavier, who has the bright eyes and quick smile of a kid who seems able to talk his way into anything. "She was very angry. She just said it was time for me to go. I said, 'What do you want me to do?' She said 'Get out.' But there wasn't really anywhere for me to go right then. But three days later, my stuff was still packed. And she had called the police on me. She said I was being very disorderly. Which I really wasn't. I was just asking questions. So the police came and then I had to go."

For a while, the teen got by couch-surfing. When his favors from friends ran out, his aunt agreed to let him stay with her. Yet that temporary solution also fell through. She was afraid of getting evicted for allowing an extra boarder, and that sent him back to square one, staying with friends on and off. Where Xavier had been making plans for college, with his father's help, he now received warnings that with his abysmally low GPA he probably wouldn't graduate high school.

"Family is where you go when everybody else in the world leaves you alone," Xavier says, shaking his head. "Family is supposed to be your backbone. After my family had done me like that—and it was my mom, I was like, your mom ain't supposed to treat you like that—man, that really messed me up."

Xavier isn't really sure what would have happened to him if his cousin, a student at Nashville School for the Arts, hadn't told him about a possible solution—an unprecedented new youth center at 17th Avenue and Charlotte, acting as a single hard line of defense against the many social and economic predations a kid without resources faces. Maybe he would have drifted into unimaginable acts to get by. Or maybe he would have bounced back just fine. All he knows is that if he'd had to keep on living hand to mouth, day to day, it would have been easy to slowly undo every good thing his father ever taught him.

It was for kids in Xavier's situation—kids in need of fast, direct, easy-to-obtain assistance—that Hal Cato and Rodger Dinwiddie devised an idea for perhaps the most progressive model for social services ever attempted in Nashville. It is for creating and shepherding this project that the Scene honors Cato and Dinwiddie as its Nashvillians of the Year, though no less deserving are the many interlocked directors, staffers and volunteers who make up Nashville's remarkable Youth Opportunity Center.

Nashville is home to hundreds of nonprofits. Some 750 alone are registered with the Center for Nonprofit Management, and dozens of those offer services targeted to kids. But there was an unfortunate irony for the underage folks who need those programs. Getting help required navigating a labyrinth of offices all over town, typically by relying on a haphazard bus system not exactly known for its reliability.

Cato and Dinwiddie, both Nashville natives, weren't strangers to each other or the nonprofit world. They met nearly a decade ago through their collaborative referral efforts between their two respective nonprofits. Cato had been at the Oasis Center since 2001, working with kids in need of basic shelter, counseling and leadership opportunities. Dinwiddie had spent the years since 1986 at Students Taking a Right Stand (STARS), a program that aids youth in prevention and intervention for everything from substance abuse to bullying and harassment.

Both knew how easily communication wires could get crossed while shuttling kids around the city to a myriad of services.

"We're always referring kids across town, and we know that at least 75 percent of the time—I think the stat is actually higher—when we would refer a young person to an outside agency for help, they wouldn't go," says Cato, who has a calming presence even though he takes a staircase two steps at a time. "For one thing, they're already exhausted. Imagine you haven't eaten in a day, you didn't sleep the night before, you come in for help and you're told to catch three buses to Murfreesboro Road, and someone there will help you. You're just going to say, forget it."

That inefficiency frustrated both Cato and Dinwiddie. So they looked at what their organizations —different in approach but alike in mission—needed in common, and how pooling some of their efforts might help the kids they serve.

For starters, they needed more space. Oasis had begun to outgrow the offices on Music Row they'd inhabited for some 20 years. The same was true for STARS, housed in digs a mile away on Hillsboro Road. Sure, they weren't far apart on an MTA map, but it didn't take much distance to create communication breakdowns between agencies.

So they dreamed up a master collaboration that would meld nonprofit philosophies, logistics and cultures—something that would put all the things a kid in crisis might need under one roof. What these two men wanted, though, wasn't just one-stop shopping for social services. They envisioned something that would encourage kids to think of themselves not as orphans of the system but as engaged members of the community. Say you feel disenfranchised? Come in and be treated not as a statistic, but as a person—a citizen.

The result is the Youth Opportunities Center, a sleekly rehabbed 35,000-square-foot space that combines nine different organizations in one, offering some 30 programs that range from hot lunches to help with college applications. It even includes a transitional living center, where kids 18 to 21 can live for up to 20 months. The drop-in shelter for 18- to 21-year-olds is the first of its kind in the city. And in less than a year of being open, the center has already served more than 60,000 young people in Nashville through all its programs combined.

The YOC's gift to Nashville is a place where kids learn that their circumstances don't define them. Where crime is reduced by virtue of taking one more endangered body off the street. Where police work can refocus toward other problem areas, and where emergency rooms can mark a few more off the waiting list. By redirecting troubled or at-risk teens toward community service, the center keeps more kids in school and encourages them to take an active role in the life of the city. And the YOC's synergistic approach means that participating organizations are able to save money, reducing overhead and operating costs by sharing so many resources.

"It is a wonderful model for how collaboration in a nonprofit world can be successful," says Lewis Levine, director of the Center for Nonprofit Management. "Oasis and STARS have been looking for ways to collaborate for a number of years, and other than actually legally merging, they found the ultimate way to do so by sharing and integrating."

Levine mentions cities such as Boston that have attempted like-minded models, as well as local arts organizations that have successfully joined forces (such as the Nashville Ballet and the Nashville Opera). But there's never been an attempt in Nashville on this scale — and few around the country, although Cato says he was inspired by a similar undertaking in Charlotte, N.C. In today's Darwinian climate for charities, nonprofits must compete for brand identity and funding resources, so the act of combining forces out front and behind the scenes was a bold risk.

So was the building—an abandoned warehouse on Charlotte that Cato says was "boarded up and felt like you were breathing asbestos." Even so, he says, it was a dream location.

"We've got a bus stop right here," Cato says. "MTA access is key. For homeless kids, the majority of them float between downtown and the parks system. This is kind of the heart of it. If you look at a map of Nashville and put a dot in the center, we're almost there."

Inside, the space resembles something like urban-loft style digs. High ceilings and exposed brick meet exposed ductwork and industrial elements at the ceiling. Dark hardwoods are covered with rugs everywhere, and comfy, oversized chairs give the place the feel of a college dorm lounge. On the walls hangs the artwork of the youth who've spent time at the center—which is rotated out every couple of months because there's so much to showcase. The remaining wall space, courtesy of local photographer Dennis Wile, bears haunting oversized black-and-white portraits—the faces of countless kids who've already passed through the center.

It didn't take much convincing to get other tenants on board. Ellen Zinkiewicz, director of Youth and Community Services for the Nashville Career Advancement Center—the city agency for workforce development—said it was a no-brainer. Her organization was the first group on board as a tenant at the center. Used to helping 800 kids a year get job placement or the credentials to become eligible for work, her outfit took one look at the YOC and saw a clear way out of a bureaucratic maze.

"If a kid has a relationship with people who have high expectations for where they can go," Zinkiewicz explains, "[that kid] will go forward and do amazing things. But being along for the ride to get there means a lot of systems navigation. We've done a lot of work around, 'How do I get them here and here and here?'

"When Hal said this is what we're thinking of doing, I saw loud and clear. I saw people who cared about those kids, and resources that we would otherwise have been sending kids on buses here and there [to access]."

Housed here are nine total organizations that reach out to teens. Oasis and STARS co-own the building, and others who joined in are United Neighborhood Health Services (a health clinic), Big Brothers Big Sisters (a mentoring program), Nashville Career Advancement Center, Nashville Prevention Partnership (an anti-drug coalition), Youth CAN (job placement), the Alcohol and Drug Council, and Kids on the Block (educational programs for middle schoolers).

Together, they offer some 30 programs that cover an exhausting range of issues facing the average teen today, whether troubled, uninformed or merely disconnected. Substance abuse, violence, conflict management, anger management, sex education and help with issues facing gay and lesbian teens are just a few—all mere steps apart. Down the hall you can get help filling out a financial aid form for college at the Nashville Career Advancement Center. Need to see a doctor? Zigzag around toward the back of the building for health services at the United Neighborhood Health Services, back around for volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and downstairs for a little vocational skills training in the bike shop. Homeless youth who are still in high school can even have all their homework and tests sent to the YOC, where they "attend school" staffed by teachers for credit applicable to their actual school.

Xavier isn't the worst-case scenario, or even the best-case scenario, of the kids who come through the YOC's doors. He's just one of the couple hundred who walked in off the street this year and got help. Just over half of them are African American. Many are the children of immigrants. Some 80 percent are from schools where more than three-fourths of the student body is on the free lunch program. They're all looking for a spark of possibility, and they just need someone to ignite it.

The space could have just as easily housed another upscale residential development like the ICON in the Gulch. Indeed, it was slated to become actual lofts until Cato got the ear of Mike Shmerling, the Nashville entrepreneur and business developer who held the site.

"Mike had put the building under contract and was going to develop yuppie lofts," Cato says. "I went to him and asked, 'What if we created a one-stop shop that would help kids?' Basically, he gave me 90 days to see if the community would buy into the vision. Ninety days to find other tenants and find out if the funding community would support it. It was a huge scramble. My pulse didn't slow down for about four months."

The two began their capital fundraising campaign during the economic boom of 2007 with lead donors such as the Martha Ingram Foundation. In the middle of fundraising, though, the recession hit. Cato and Dinwiddie redoubled their efforts, selling the idea to both backers and potential partners. In the end, they raised nearly $9 million dollars—enough to pay for the space outright so the tenants, who jumped at the chance, could occupy it rent-free. Today, they pay only utilities.

Even though the organizations haven't legally merged, the YOC is akin to a bona fide marriage, not a union with a few common-law perks. The groups don't just share space, they share resources, including staffing, IT and training. Borrowing ideas and strategies from each other, but also consulting with corporate health care companies such as HCA, they're currently working on integrating an in-house referral system that tracks how kids are directed throughout the building—a move that will make sending kids all over town for counseling and mentoring a quaint relic of the past.

"Oasis had transitional living and the emergency shelter, but we weren't down the hall from each other," says Dinwiddie, who often speaks with a pastor's thoughtful intensity. "Where we literally could walk across the aisle rather than make a phone call and risk losing all the things you can lose in translation. This ensures a better way on our end to be good stewards of the relationships to get kids the things they need."

But getting kids the things they need depends on getting the kids in the door—and therein lies another beauty of the YOC. Inside, kids see a place of big ideas but bigger hearts, with a staff full of visionaries and nurturers, formerly troubled teens and adults from enviably good families who simply felt called to help others. It's kind of like Rocketown without the religious underpinnings. Instead of spiritual cleansing, staffers and service providers instill community leadership skills and the incentive to help the youth who come through the doors effect their own kind of change within the system.

First, though, the center has to meet them at their level. That means providing a comfortable place to hang out. At any given visit, you'll hear music thumping from a radio, see kids absorbed in books or find teens surfing the Internet. There are movie nights and Wii tournaments, dance classes and yoga instruction. Food is readily available.

There's even a smoking porch—a compromise much like Rocketown's inclusion of secular bands at their venue. It was the only obstacle to the center becoming LEED certified. "In the list of things important to that young person right now, telling them they can't smoke is so far down our list," says Cato. "We just created a safe porch so we're not sending them back on the street. It's part of meeting them where they are."

For a kid like Shoreh Daraei, a stylish 18-year-old Kurdish immigrant with dark eyes, the center met her at a crossroads where she could have become just another directionless teen or an extraordinary leader. She credits the YOC with opening up a world of volunteering and leadership opportunities that she never knew were possible. Though she doesn't consider herself an at-risk teen, she admits she was at risk of living a disconnected life, focused entirely on her own goals.

Instead, thanks to Oasis and the YOC, her week is an enviable blur of community service. Monday she works on the Mayor's Youth Council. Tuesdays she does Oasis' International Teen Outreach Program after school. Wednesdays is TMAC—Teens Making a Change. Thursdays it's TIRRC, or the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, where she works on the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act bill to help immigrant students go to college. Ironically enough, Daraei's volunteer work has become something of a gateway drug—she's involved in so many organizations her mother banned her from the center for long enough to get her college plans together. Then again, as her family's first college student, she got help figuring out the application process through the center.

"I always wanted to do a medical thing," Daraei says. "Usually when you are Kurdish—or maybe I should just say foreign, because I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but they always want you to be a doctor or lawyer. But maybe they aren't informed about what else is out there. I am thinking about changing just doing medicine now that I'm involved with all these other things. Now I want to help people and connect the medicine to volunteering."

She also got involved with a new organization in town for Kurdish-American youth called KAYO, and she's taking the strategizing skills she learned at YOC to help teens whose parents brought them to the U.S. when they were young and don't have citizenship, which effectively bars them from college. (See the related story on p. 7.) That could have been her too—but luckily, her citizenship came through a month before she turned 18.

"Some people think, why should I care?" she says. "Even though it doesn't affect me, I have friends I have been with since middle school. And in high school they are straight A students. Taking the most difficult classes. And they can't go to college because their parents brought them here when they are little and undocumented."

Kids like Daraei are lucky: They may never need to utilize the center's pièce de résistance—the drop-in shelter. Teens who enter through that door and take the staircase to the top will find immediate, judgment-free welcome. The center is careful not to alienate, so the rules are simple: Be safe, be peaceful, and participate.

That means you'll check your bags at a locked cubbyhole upon entering. That means if you're carrying weapons or drugs you'll be asked to hand them over or hit the road. That means if you're a minor, Department of Human Services will be notified, and possibly the police if you're in danger. It means you'll be asked to leave for stealing or disrespecting others.

But it also means you'll be met with food, a shower and a place to nap, and a counselor if you need it. You'll be offered a bed for the night, if available, or a room to call your own for up to 20 months if you're eligible. You'll pay rent, which will be deposited into a savings account and returned to you when you move out, to help you get set up in your first apartment. Most importantly, they'll help you set goals for the day, the week and the month, and teach you the skills to meet them.

Though all the kids who pass through the shelter have one thing in common—lack of a safe place to live—that can look very different depending on the kid.

"It can look like a young person who's with a family who's about to get evicted for the first time, or it can look like a person whose family maybe for generations has been on the edge of not having housing," explains Michelle Hall, director of the Transitional Living Services. "Then there are young people who don't even have that much connection or they've run through all their resources to stay with friends or family, and they might be on the streets camping or in their cars or in shelters."

It could also be a gay or lesbian teen who technically has a safe place to live, but only on the condition that they pretend to be someone they aren't. It could be a private school student from a well-resourced family who has found their way to drugs and just needs some counseling. Or someone who's been on the streets since he or she was 15 and has no family to speak of.

Having an open-door policy certainly brings all manner of teens to the center's doorstep, but the staff also spends two or three days a week networking and doing outreach. That means hitting the streets to find where younger homeless kids might be hanging out, whether it's in coffee shops, downtown, or at Tent City.

"It's kind of an invisible population," explains Ben Griffith, a 20-something staffer who once worked at Rocketown but has since become the YOC's street outreach coordinator. "They're vulnerable, so they try to stay hidden, so they're not showing up in the same places as adults, because they may not feel it's safe for them to access the services. So for them to go to a typical rescue mission, they may not feel like that's a safe choice."

The problem? Young people are usually the victims of a crime within 48 hours of being on the streets. "The person who commits the crime is always invisible," Griffith explains. "It's possibly other homeless adults doing it, but homeless people are also targets of drunk people coming out of clubs. You hear a lot of stories about that. There are stories about that being part of gang initiation."

So the team spends much of its networking time talking to homeless adults—they pass out around 1,000 pairs of socks to them every month—because there is no slam-dunk location to finding homeless teens.

"It's not magic," Griffith says. "People call me all the time and ask me where do you go, where are the spots you find kids? And there's no magic place to go. There's no magic thing to say. It's really just being out there and building up trust, but it's a lot of building trust and relationships with homeless adults because we can't be out there all the time."

But what they can do is let the homeless teens know there's a safe place where they can rest and heal and get off the streets, even if it's just for a moment.

"We go out with a backpack that's a survival kit," he says. "There's a gift card to McDonald's, a bus pass, clothes, hygiene supplies and a blanket. That's a no-strings-attached gift. A lot of youth are burned on services where they have to do something to access. They might have to be clean or sober or do this or that to access the service. That backpack is no-strings-attached. If they say they want it, we give it to them. So they know on the front end that we try to meet them where they're at. It's a simple thing, but it goes a long way toward establishing trust. It lets them know that we aren't trying to force an agenda on them."

And to get them to come back the next day, they have a standing offer for a shower, to do laundry, take a nap. "There's always food on the table because it's obviously silly to get a young person to think about a job or housing if they can't eat or get nutritious food to help their brain work," Griffith says. "And we're offering counseling if they're dealing with something."

There are 10 beds in the transitional living facility with a constant waiting list. These are supplemented by two emergency hotel rooms—one of which recently housed a 17-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins while they worked for a week to find a more permanent solution for her.

But for the teen who comes in the door and needs a place to stay that night, there isn't always an answer. The shelter also has two crisis beds, but those also stay full.

"What people do in the meantime is a question that keeps me up at night," says Griffith. "And it's a question that needs to be addressed by the community. One of the most difficult and heartbreaking parts of my jobs is when we build the trust, and we meet a young person, and we do the work, and we help them face their goals and what they want out of life and they feel empowered to go get that. And then they say, 'Where am I going to stay tonight?' And I don't have an answer for them."

One case remains a haunting one for Griffith—a young man dealing with mental health issues who was self-medicating as best he could.

"He was one of those young people who came by, knew us, trusted us, we worked with him," Griffith says. "And we didn't have an opening for him to be in the program. We didn't have a place for him at the time, and we had to drop him off—he told me it was by a friend's house. He was one of the people last year who was killed when there was a string of homeless people being killed. And I dropped him off on the sidewalk, and he's dead now.

"If you want the worst case scenario, there it is. At the end of the day, I didn't have a place for him to stay."

The problem, says Griffith, is that there are multiple programs for people coming out of prison, or dealing with co-occurring disorders such as mental health issues plus drug addiction. But they have waiting lists and application processes—they aren't crisis housing.

"So when a youth in crisis says, 'Where am I going to stay tonight?' the answer is, most of the time, I don't know," he says. "Why don't you try and get three dollars together and sit at a coffee shop? Because there is not a short-term solution."

But that doesn't mean the YOC gives up. When they can't offer a bed, they arm the youths with three safe choices they can make at any time to be safer than they were. They can go sit at a coffee shop that's open all night. They can ride the bus all night. They can add them on MySpace or use their 800 number if they don't have a phone. If they can get through just one more night on the streets, maybe they'll come back tomorrow.

Xavier initially didn't come back the next day to the Youth Opportunity Center. In order to participate in one of the programs, he needed a driver's license for identification purposes. He didn't have one. A week went by, and his college counselor at the center, Sharonda Campbell—who'd once used Oasis' services herself as a teen—called him.

"He came here and said, OK, I see the services," says Campbell, who says she saw a "great kid" as soon as she met Xavier. "And then he disappeared for a week."

That happens. Kids often come back about seven different times for support. Some aren't at a place where they can face their situation yet.

"I wasn't ready," Xavier says. "I used the excuse that I had to have my driver's license. I had it, but I lost it. I used the excuse that I was going to get it and just didn't come back. Then Miss Shoronda called me and said, 'What's up—where you been?' That's when things started turning around. I came back, and she opened me up, and that's when I got busy. I started fixing my problems.

"I was trying to do it on my own, but I was worried about other stuff," he says. "About just making it. About where I was going to eat and where I was going to sleep. I was worried about that stuff, not school. In the back of my head I was like, man, once I get this stuff figured out I'll go to school. But in reality, if I just kept focusing on what I was focusing on, I would have never gone. I just would have been the guy who keeps saying, 'Yeah, one of these days.' "

Instead, Xavier found a one-stop shop for all the social services he could possibly need, all in one building. He gets a hot meal, a shower, daily life skills classes like hygiene, fitness and budgeting, and Internet access. Counselors are staffed just up the hallway whenever he needs to talk. He gets help filling out financial aid forms and college applications at the college counseling center a few steps away. Just past that, he visits the Youth CAN center where he can get tutoring, help with cost of books and job placement counseling.

And those are just the basics. He also has a range of activities to choose from in his spare time, whether it's hosting a radio show on Radio Free Nashville—which has a broadcast booth in the building to teach teens to produce their own newscasts—or learning to take apart and rebuild a bicycle in the Halcyon Bike Shop's on-site bike-repair course. A slew of leadership and volunteer options abound, depending on whether he feels like joining a crew of other teens to fight predatory lending, infant mortality or teen pregnancy. And if he just wants to hang out and take a nap or surf the Internet, that's cool, too.

As a result, "one of these days" is no longer Xavier's mantra. He's got a firm date—Jan. 14—when he'll begin classes at Nashville State to get ready for a four-year college, where he plans to study music and dancing. And though he has yet to figure out a permanent address, he's on the waiting list for the building's transitional living center.

"It's hard not to be motivated now," he says. "Seeing doors open. Coming up here every day. No one can go to my classes but me. No one can get me a job but me. And with all these people around to help? It makes it easy."

The staff here say that's all they can hope to do. If they can give a young person in need even five minutes to just rest, and relax, and begin to heal—to see their way out of the dark—that's the only reward they need.

"There are intangible things," says Griffith. "Helping a young person who was totally shut down because they were so traumatized. Helping them get to a place where they can even just dance—we have a dance class in the Outreach Center. It's not something that shows up on a data sheet for our funders, but it's beautiful.

"And when that young person three years later is still sending us notes and pictures and letting us know how they're doing? To me, this was a brief relationship—we talked three or four times over a month. To them, it was one of the most supportive and consistent relationships they ever had. That's really humbling."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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