Youth Haven shelters homeless Collier County kids during summer break

Reporter: Corey Lazar Writer: Joey Pellegrino
Published: Updated:

While many children look forward to summer break as a time full of carefree fun, too many kids dread it due to abusive parents, homelessness and a lack of regular meals. Now, the Collier County organization Youth Haven is stepping in to help.

“I was kind of couch-surfing with some friends here and there,” said Joshua Farias, a former Youth Haven resident.

When he was just 15 years old, Joshua’s life was turned upside down when his mother got in trouble with the law.

“I get a call by, like, 20 minutes later from her; she’s crying in the back of a police car because she got stopped at a red light,” Joshua said. “She was driving without a license, and she was also undocumented.”

Joshua had to fend for himself. He moved around and took multiple jobs, all while trying to make good grades in school. He had no home and no direction until he was brought to Youth Haven.

Youth Haven is an organization that takes in abused or homeless children and helps them get on the right track. Its website calls Youth Haven “Southwest Florida’s only emergency and residential shelter for boys and girls ages 10-20 who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect or abandonment.”

“I wouldn’t even know what to tell you, man; I’d probably still be homeless, or I’d be living in my car,” Joshua said. “I don’t know if I’d even be in college.”

These group homes on campus help teens develop close relationships with programs that help with education and careers. Sadly, they are busier than ever, and it gets worse in the summertime with kids out of school.

“Definitely an influx of more kids coming in different hours,” said Culmer St. Jean, Youth Haven’s residential manager. “All the situations are different: Sometimes it’s homeless, sometimes it’s runaway… most of the time, it’s abuse.”

St. Jean said the teens who arrive are typically apprehensive of a group environment and new people, at first, but that changes over time.

“Once they see that two, three days, and that they’re getting square meals a day, they’re going to do activities on campus,” St. Jean said. “Like, right now… they’re going to deal with the [Collier County] Sheriff’s Department and building chairs, gaining rapport with the community, shedding a different kind of light on what CCSO are… you know, a lot of these people experience the cops coming in and pulling them away from the home, and now they’re going to experience interacting and building something together.”

Joshua is living proof of the success seen at Youth Haven.

“I’m in college; I’m finishing up my first year at FGCU, Florida Gulf Coast University here in Fort Myers,” Joshua said. “I’m a nursing major hoping to be a pediatrician or a travel nurse eventually.”

Jennifer Dant, Youth Haven’s program director, has a simple way for adults to help children who may be nearing homelessness or facing abuse in their households.

“I think probably paying attention to your children’s friends, if you’re seeing something that might, you know, raise a red flag a little bit, not being afraid to talk to that child or reach out to someone,” Dant said. “If you’re seeing a family in the street, give them some water… see the humanity. We all have stories, we all carry our stories, and we don’t know what other people’s stories are.”

You can help by volunteering at the Youth Haven campus, located at 5867 Whitaker Road. The group is in the process of building another house to help even more kids.

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