A couple months into The Cove’s second year offering support to homeless Waco Independent School District students, attendance at the nonprofit has almost tripled, board members and co-founders said.

The Cove had 619 visits during a 59-day span this fall. In the 2016-2017 school year, the nonprofit had 440 visits across 118 days, said Kenneth McAdam, the organization’s new program manager. The increase in visits is a sign more students are using The Cove as a safe haven after school, McAdam said.

“This semester at The Cove has been an exciting semester,” McAdam said. “It’s my first semester on staff, but I’ve really enjoyed getting to work there and being part of the staff. I’ve seen a lot of transition happen with students or a lot of transition with the way we do things.”

The average nightly student-count has almost tripled compared to last school year, to more than 10 per night. The Cove has served 54 individual students so far this year, compared to 61 overall in the 2016-2017 school year, he said.

When The Cove opened in October 2016, students used about four hours after school to come and go as needed. Students have access to hot showers and laundry facilities, snacks, a family-style dinner, counseling, medical and hair-cutting services, case management and more. Students do not spend the night, but volunteers work diligently to make sure students have a safe place to go when necessary, board member Rosemary Townsend said.

The same services are offered, but because of the recent increase in demand, The Cove has tailored its operating hours to give the students a more structured schedule, with designated homework times, free time, time for motivational speakers and more, McAdam said.

“At the beginning of the semester, that was hard for a lot of our students because they weren’t used to that structure at The Cove,” he said. “Now we’re seeing they love the structure and need the structure. It’s something they want.”

Outreach efforts have likely driven the increase in students coming in, McAdam said. After getting feedback last year that homeless students were scared to visit some place where they did not know anyone, McAdam and volunteers held luncheons at Waco ISD schools to meet in a familiar place with students who might need a little help.

“From that, in the next two weeks, we saw eight new students,” McAdam said. “The thing that made the difference was us coming and saying hi to them, instead of just being at The Cove and waiting for them to come.”

Overall, Waco ISD has about 1,600 students classified as homeless or unaccompanied youth: those who do not have an official legal guardian and often bounce from one location to another for shelter.

“I’m just so proud of Kenneth and the manner in which the students not only come for a hot meal, but can see The Cove as a resource and tool to get them to where they need to go,” Townsend said.

A newly published study about homeless youth by the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall highlights how essential intervention is, said Cheryl Pooler, a Cove co-founder and board member. Pooler was also Waco ISD’s homeless liaison before she left this year to continue her education in social work at Baylor University.

The study found at least one in 10 young adults age 18 to 25 experienced homelessness during a 12-month study period and that one in 30 youths age 13 to 17 experienced homelessness during the same time period. The study also fount that students who are homeless as youth are also likely to be homeless as adults, and students of color are even more at risk.

The study primarily confirmed what people who work with homeless youth already knew, Pooler said. One finding that stands out to her is that youth homelessness affects rural areas at similar rates as urban areas, she said.

The Cove has received calls this semester from surrounding school districts, like Connally, La Vega, Midway and Robinson, requesting services for their students, Pooler said. Officials are exploring options for other districts, but, for now at least, The Cove is limited to Waco ISD, she said.

Funding remains a top priority, Townsend said. Before the center opened last year, representatives were struggling to find enough support to make the operation self-sustaining. Now, that goal is achievable, and the center already has raised enough money to continue operating through next fiscal year, she said.

“We’re like any nonprofit. Donations are always welcome. Not only welcome, but needed,” Townsend said. “But I’m so proud of a couple of things. We’re extraordinarily grateful for individual donors, which right now, has been the backbone of The Cove. But we need not only individual donors, but grants and sustainable fundraisers.”

The Cove needs about $100,000 to operate each year, Townsend said. Officials are also in the process of applying for a couple federal grants to help, Pooler said.

“I just think because we’re new, we’re learning, and most importantly we’re listening to the students and incorporating their voice and what feels best for them,” Pooler said. “We sit down as a team and ask, ‘What does this need to look like?’ and we figure it out together.”

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