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A brilliant new effort is turning San Diego's homeless youth into business pros.

“Whatever it is that you can conceive, that you can do, it can be done."

San Diego: A city with sunshine, sandy beaches ... and plenty of young people with nowhere to call home.

An estimated 2,500 young people, or more, to be more precise.


Photo from 8 West, used with permission.

The region's sunny weather and coastline appeal is a big draw to homeless teens and young adults from across the country who are trying to better their lives, which has helped make San Diego one of the worst cities in the country when it comes to youth homelessness.

The problem is that much of the city's resources dedicated to helping the homeless go toward older people, as chronically homeless adults are less transient (and, in at least that one sense, easier to help) than their younger counterparts are, according to Eric Lovett, executive director of nonprofit Urban Street Angels.

That's where soap (yep, soap) comes in.

A new initiative is empowering homeless young people in San Diego to take control over their lives. Using soap.

A program recently launched by Urban Street Angels is helping young people get a hand up in the business world. It's called 8 West, and it's a pretty cool concept.

“If we can help with them from a young age — before they become chronically homeless — than we have a better chance at keeping them off the street," Lovett said.

Homeless teens and young adults in the 8 West program are provided with supportive housing, mentorship, and part-time employment making and selling (sustainable!) bath, spa, and shower products.

GIF via 8 West.

The goal is to help them build skills relevant to their interests so they can leave the 18-month program with solid work experience under their belts.

"They're going to start getting into all aspects of the business," Lovett told Upworthy, noting participants will soon be able to help in the marketing and sales facets of the line as well.

8 West products can be purchased online, as well as in local retailers.

Photo by 8 West, used with permission.

8 West isn't just helping homeless young people build careers, though. It helps them build hope, too.

These young people have been through a lot.

Some were rejected by loved ones because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and others were exposed to drugs as children and are now fighting addictions. Several are coping with mental health issues or living with PTSD, and the majority have experienced sexual or physical abuse.

And if you consider how many of them have been emotionally abused, Lovett says the number is "astronomical."

Photo via iStock.

But participants are getting the message loud and clear: They have the ability to overcome the cards they've been dealt.

"Whatever it is that you can conceive, that you can do, it can be done," Lovett said he tells the program's young people. "So don't shortchange yourself. Don't believe what you've always been told — that you're nothing — and that you won't amount to anything. Because you can do it."

The program is gaining in popularity and has no plans to slow down.

Right now, the new program is relatively small, with just five participants. But a new Indie GoGo campaign is aiming to expand 8 West dramatically so that 100 young people can graduate by 2020.

And, from the sounds of it, they shouldn't have any trouble finding willing participants.

"We have a waitlist right now," Lovett said, noting that participants' friends who are also homeless have seen the hope the program instills and want the same for themselves.

"We see the more people that come in and see what's happening, they want that [too]."

GIF via 8 West.

Support 8 West's fundraising campaign here, and learn more about the program in the video below:

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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