WASHINGTON (November 6, 2002) -- Angela Lariviere, 30, who as a child learned the hard realities of homelessness, has spent the past four years developing self-help and empowerment projects that directly benefit Ohio's 35,000 homeless children and their education. In recognition of her work, she is the 2002 recipient of a national Catholic award presented annually to recognize young Catholics who have taken leadership roles in fighting poverty and injustice.
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented each year by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the national anti-poverty program of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The award honors Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (1928-1996), a leading voice on behalf of the poor who saw the need to build bridges across ethnic, class and age barriers. The award will be presented Sunday, November 10, in Washington, D.C. during the USCCB's annual meeting.
Ms. Lariviere has spent the past two years developing and coordinating the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) of the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio (COHHIO), based in Columbus. The Project addresses the needs of homeless children and youth through self-help, youth-run area councils, which offer children another way to think and talk about their homelessness instead of feeling despair. By organizing the community of homeless children and teaching them how to advocate for new laws and policies, YEP teaches children that they can effect change. When she became COHHIO's coordinator for AmeriCorps and VISTA volunteers in 1998, she was stunned to find that homeless children were still an issue.
"I grew up in several homeless situations my entire life, moving 39 times, attending 13 different schools," said Ms. Lariviere, "and I thought I was isolated. When I came here as an AmeriCorps coordinator, I really had a hard time adapting to the idea that there are 35,000 kids going through the same exact experiences that I had, and it's 15 years later. Looking at kids who can't do their homework because they don't have paper and pencils, I realized that there had to be something we could do to meet those basic needs. We need to empower the kids so that they can advocate for their own needs before they lose hope."
"Angela continually demonstrates a unique ability to recruit and retain youth in these community activities," said Mark Huddy, vicar for Catholic Charities and Social Concerns in the Diocese of Columbus. "Having lived in the homeless system during much of her youth, Angela has a keen understanding of homeless children and their concerns." That understanding comes in part from the fact that not much has changed for homeless children since she was one herself, Ms. Lariviere said. "Every issue has not changed as far as breaking the cycle. We totally have failed these kids on so many levels."
Ms. Lariviere and her husband Charles, a computer specialist, have two children, Kassandra, 9, and William, 7, who have only known stability in their lives. But her children are very familiar with homelessness and open to other children in different situations, Ms. Lariviere said. She and her husband together have 13 siblings, and have always committed to supporting their families in various ways. In addition, children from the YEP councils are frequent visitors to their home, for holiday meals or to use the washer and dryer.
"These kids go to school. They are normal kids. They want to live normal lives. They don't want to be singled out," Ms. Lariviere said. "And they're up against a community that has misconceptions about what homelessness is, and who homeless people are. Homeless families make up 40% of the homeless population. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is children under five."
An important part of the YEP councils are the service projects that give transitional children a tie to the neighborhood or community. "Homeless children move from neighborhood to neighborhood and program to program, but never establish the strong community ties that you need to feel supported," Ms. Lariviere said. "So our kids work with other agencies and they're not just locked into this homeless issue. We work in a park. Or we dig a culvert for a woman whose house flooded in southern Ohio. Or we paint a mural that shows how the community felt about September 11. And the kids know that they are active citizens, that they can make a difference in a whole lot of arenas and not just among the homeless."
Over the past two years, YEP has surveyed more than 700 homeless youth to identify the issues facing them and help design the YEP program. At the same time, YEP worked with Ohio legislators to pass the first state law that protects the rights of a homeless child to an education. "Schools don't always understand that federal law says that you have to be admitted to school if you're homeless, and that the child has the right to remain in school, to stay in their school of origin, or in the school closest to their new location. Schools require proof of address, and other information that a lot of homeless families don't have," said Ms. Lariviere, who added that when a school denies access to a homeless student and the issue takes weeks to resolve, the child may not be able to catch up and will then have to repeat the grade. She asked, "If homeless children aren't going to be supported in their education with their basic needs, how do we expect them to succeed? How do we expect them to break the cycle? How can we expect them to continue their education?"
"In June," Huddy said, "six YEP council members graduated from high school. Two years ago, graduation was not accessible for many homeless students. Because of Angela, it is now a reality for them and will be for thousands more like them."
"We know they've lived through things that we have never seen as adults," Ms. Lariviere said. "They may have the voice and the body of a 10-year-old, but they have the life experience of a 40-year-old. Their wisdom is deep. And then people treat them like they're stupid because they can't read. You are strong if you can face living in a shelter or living out of your car or living on the streets. We value life experience and teach kids to use those strengths to succeed in other areas like continuing your education. Kids need to know that even if they change school six times this year, they can use their strength to not give up."
Her own success attests to that philosophy. She credits her mother, Debra Adams, with teaching her to have faith in God and to see everyone as an equal regardless of their circumstances. She credits God with her resilient spirit and personal strength. "I don't think that God would give you more than you could handle. I believe that human beings are stronger than they give themselves credit for." She and her family are parishioners at St. Ladislas in Columbus. A recent Sunday Mass included her favorite scripture verse, from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians: "I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me."
CCHD Executive Director Father Robert J. Vitillo said, "Angela's organization had already come to my attention before she received this award because she applied for and received a CCHD grant. Our grants support efforts among low-income people to help themselves and to change the societal conditions that make and keep people poor. In addition, the U.S. bishops have charged CCHD with educating all people in this country about the root causes of poverty, and with building solidarity between the poor and those who have access to greater wealth. Angela's efforts to educate people about homelessness among children and to give hope back to these young victims of poverty are very close to the CCHD mission. We are all inspired by her work in Ohio, and rejoice in her receipt of the Bernardin New Leadership Award."
Over the past two years, YEP youth have been successful in: gaining increased funding for education programs for homeless children; creating a statewide plan with Head Start to provide better services to homeless children; working with the Ohio Department of Development to change state shelter policies that discriminate against teenage boys; gaining seats for youth representatives on several homeless and housing coalitions; and creating a partnership within the United Nations so that YEP can provide input to policies affecting street youth internationally.
"These are long-term programs," Ms. Lariviere said. "It's important that we get across to them that you might not be able to change the world in six months. It's important for us to stress that their own situation might never get better. But we ask if they'd like to see it happen for other kids. And they all understand that. They all understand that."
The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award is presented to a young Catholic between the ages of 18 and 30 who demonstrates leadership in dealing with the root causes of poverty. The 10 finalists for the 2002 award are: Veronica Castaneda of the Diocese of Wichita; Ryan Hall of the Diocese of Las Vegas; Christine Kielpinski and Marva Monje of the Archdiocese of San Francisco; Karyn Elizabeth King of the Diocese of Portland, ME; Jonathan Njus and Luchara Sayles of the Archdiocese of Chicago; Elizabeth Oakley of the Diocese of Oakland; Elizabeth Thole of the Diocese of New Ulm, MN; and Kevin Walsh of the Diocese of Camden.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is one of the nation's largest funding organizations for self-help, community-based programs initiated and led by the poor. Through an annual collection in Catholic parishes across the country, CCHD has distributed more than $260 million to more than 4,000 self-help projects over its 32 years. This year, CCHD announced more than $10 million in grants to support 339 local projects, selected without regard to religious affiliation, in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For more information about Angela Lariviere, the Bernardin Award or CCHD, contact Barbara Stephenson, 202-541-3364 or Paige McMahon, 301-320-8053. A photo of Ms. Lariviere is available. For more information about COHHIO, visit their web site at www.cohhio.org or contact Bill Faith, 614-280-1984.