Dance Marathon beneficiary StandUp for Kids helps raise awareness of homeless youth

Lilia Hargis

The $461,546.73 donation StandUp for Kids received was only one of the advantages of being Dance Marathon’s primary beneficiary.

Equally important was to raise awareness about youth homelessness in the United States-and Chicago specifically-and dispel some of the myths surrounding the issue, said StandUp CEO and founder Rick Koca.

“Without more and more people knowing about the problem, there isn’t going to be a solution some day, ” Koca said. “The money is going to be great, but it’s the awareness … the whole Chicago community needs to get involved or we are not going to solve this problem.”

Koca said he founded StandUp for Kids 20 years ago in San Diego. Today there are more than 60 StandUp programs in the United States, including a Chicago program that was re-established last May, according to the organization’s Web site. The main way StandUp addresses the issue of youth homelessness is through street outreach, in which teams of trained volunteers go to the streets with food packets and other basic necessities. They also ask the homeless youth what they can do to help them.

In assisting homeless children and teens, StandUp’s goal is not necessarily to get kids off the street, Koca said. Rather, volunteers help the youth “put the pieces together” to gradually improve their situations.

“Kids who have absolutely nothing don’t just need to be in an apartment or in foster care,” Koca said. “They need someone who cares about them. We go to the streets and ask, ‘If there is one thing I can do for you, what would that be?'”

During DM, each block of dancing included education for dancers about youth homelessness, Public Relations Co-Chair and SESP senior Kaitlin Vernon said. This included opportunities for StandUp ambassadors-youths who have lived on the streets-to tell their stories.

StandUp ambassador Crystal, who declined to give her last name, was found on the streets of Chicago about one year ago by a StandUp street outreach team. She said the volunteers gave her food and hygiene products, helped her find housing and encouraged her to go back to school. When she shared her story with the dancers during DM, she reminded them they were not just dancing for her, but for all 26,000 youths who are homeless in Chicago each year.

Ambassador Taliia Gibson said she first became involved with StandUp about three years ago in the Detroit program when she was transitioning out of foster care. The 22-year-old said she had fun working with DM because of the energy and support she felt from the dancers.

“I don’t really find too many people standing up for kids like me and other kids that are out there,” she said. “There are not too many people to back you up. To see people actually get up on their feet and do something wild and crazy like dancing for 30 hours is amazing.”

SESP senior Jorie Larson serves as the director of volunteers for the Chicago StandUp program. She said she was amazed to find meeting the kids and offering food and warm clothing provided a bridge for forming real relationships.

“We might go a whole night without getting asked for very much at all except for maybe food,” she said. “So it has gotten to the point that it is great that we have the necessities to give them as they need it, but it is more about the relationships now.”

Koca said people sometimes ask him if StandUp is just “enabling” kids to stay on the streets. He said by working with organizations like DM, StandUp seeks to dispel the myth that kids want to be on the street.

“I say yes, (we enable kids) to eat without having to prostitute (themselves) or sell drugs or do any of the other things kids get involved in,” he said. “Kids don’t want to be on the street, but in some cases it is safer to be there. DM helps us to become a louder voice.”[email protected]