The Unaccompanied Student Initiative (USI) of Casper held an open house last month to show the community just what it is that they do, as well as the services that they offer.

And the services they offer are vital, especially in Natrona County.

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According to their website, "USI exists to provide safe, stable housing and to develop support systems for high school students, ages 14 to 20 experiencing homelessness."

For Greta Hinderliter, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison for the Natrona County School District, working with USI and offering these services to Natrona County children is a dream come true.

"I identify and work with all homeless kids, ages 4-21, in the [Natrona County] school district," Hinderliter stated. "I've done this for 30 years, and I started noticing a long time ago that there were a lot of homeless teenagers that didn't have a place to go. So it's always been kind of a dream to establish a home for kids to just have a safe place to go at the end of the school day."

That dream took a while to actually come to fruition but, close to 16 months ago, the USI in Cheyenne reached out with a plan to expand to Casper, and they chose the Lifesteps Campus as the place in which to do so.

But it took some work.

From October of 2019 until February of 2020, the building was renovated, utilizing a lot of help from Highland Park Community Church.

"It was dark and dingy," Hinderliter stated. "I wouldn't want to live here and I sure didn't want my students to. So we cleaned, painted and decorated, all on volunteer hours. A lot of people wanted to see this come to fruition and here we are, over a year later."

This was not an easy path, however. USI opened their doors in February of 2020 and two-and-a-half weeks later, had to close their doors due to COVID-19.

"Because of COVID, we had to shut down," Hinderliter said. "That made me lose my contacts in the school, the ones who helped me meet with homeless kids. It was very hard to identify, but we had one student already identified and she moved in here the very first day we opened. She was a senior last year, so we saw her through graduation. We locked down and everybody stayed safe and healthy and she was able to graduate and is now completing her first year of college."

Those are the success stories (albeit ones with a number of complications), that USI strives for. Currently, USI is housing 5 girls and no boys, but it is equipped to house up to 5 boys as well.

One of the girls staying at USI is Madison, a young woman who struggles with depression and anxiety and just needed a place to help her get back on track.

"I think it's a pretty healthy environment to live in," Madison said of USI. "I'm pretty bad at, like, knowing how to motivate myself for stuff and get out of my room because I'm usually a pretty enclosed person. So Kori has helped me with that and the house parents have helped me with that and with my schoolwork. I feel like it's a pretty healthy environment; it's definitely better than my old environment."

Madison, who said she wants to grow up to be an accountant or a forensic scientist, said that she hopes USI will work with her on figuring out how to live independently once she graduates.

"I hope to learn more things about how to take care of myself better," she said. "Like, before I moved here, I didn't know how to clean bathrooms or properly dust, or cook and stuff like that. I feel like living here has taught me how to fend for myself and be independent."

The professionals at USI don't just focus on at-home care, either. They're also very involved with their students' schoolwork, checking in with teachers just like a parent would.

"We follow up on their grades," said Kory Squires, the Casper Program Coordinator of USI. "We're on the phone almost every day with teachers, talking about what they're missing, making sure that they are in class and getting their work done and getting the help and the resources that they need, because when you're out of school for three or five weeks at a time, you fall behind. So we want to make sure that they're doing what they need to and that they have the resources."

What USI does goes beyond just high school as well. As their name implies, they teach students to take initiative in their lives after high school as well.

"I think a lot of these kids don't see past high school," Squires said. "So we conenct them with training centers, the military, Casper College, UW, or any other college. We just open some doors for them and kind of light a path and say, 'Here, you can take this path and this is what you need to do, or you can take this path. We just help them with things that go on past high school."

USI helps their students find jobs out of, and sometimes during high school as well.

"Three of our girls in our house right now have jobs," Squires said. "They don't have anybody at home who has shown them how to get online and apply for jobs, let alone the importance of having a job and showing up on time. So we work on that here."

Squires said that various community professionals volunteer to come and teach health and lifestyle classes at the house also.

"We do all kinds of trainings," she said. "The Natrona County Health Department comes in and does STD and HIV training, as well as harm reduction, mental health, first aid and more. All kinds of stuff is available to them, not only for our kids, but our staff as well. We do these trainings a couple times a month."

Squires said that one of the most important things they offer, however, is just an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on.

"At the end of the day, they can come here and plop on the couch and tell us about their day," she said. "And I think just being able to get off of their chest how their day went, whether it was great or horrible or in-between; having that person there is so beneficial."

And that is why the Unaccompanied Student Initiative exists - to give young people a place to learn, grow, and find out who they are before showing what they've found to the rest of the world. It's a place to come into their own. It's a place to find acceptance.

It is, in short, a home.

Nick Perkins, Townsquare Media

 

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