Community reaches out to homeless teens

When Marlaina Thiel, the liaison for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition Program, and Jan O’Rourke of TUFF, Teens United for a Future, planned Sunday’s stocking stuffer party, they scheduled two and a half hours at the upstairs of Alice’s Champagne Palace.

So many people showed up, however, that stockings were stuffed and presents were wrapped for the 37 homeless young students in Thiel’s program so quickly that the task was done by 2 p.m.

“We are really trying to make awareness happen here so we can begin opening a discussion regarding ‘transitional housing’ for these youth,” said Thiel before the party. 

Judging by Sunday’s turnout, that awareness has grown following a homeless rally held earlier this month.

“I feel like the stars are lining up,” said Thiel.

Hats, gloves, toothpaste, lotion, personal hygiene items … you name it, it showed up Sunday to go into stockings or get wrapped as presents. Some items were collected at local businesses; some came through the support of the American Legion Post 16, Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion; some were brought to Alice’s.

“Monica Sallee from GCI drove by the rally and asked if she could put a box for the homeless youth up at her store. Then we went to other locations and it was wonderful,” said Thiel. “It’s really about the whole community bringing whatever their hearts move them to bring in. It’s just amazing.”

The Students in Transition program originated through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. Part of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, it mandates equal access to education programs and services. Qualifying students lack a “permanent, stable and adequate place to sleep at night,” according to information provided by the school district. That includes students living in shelters, hotels, tents, cars or doubling up with extended family members or friends. Also eligible are students not living with their parents or legal guardians or those living in substandard housing.

The program offers immediate school enrollment, free meals, transportation to and from school, school supplies, assistance obtaining documents such as birth certificates, referrals to social service agencies and an advocate to help students and families find community resources. 

“I also reach out to teens that have dropped out of school and tell them, ‘Look, I can help, but you’ve got to get back in school.’ I’m really all about them furthering their education and goals,” she said. 

Thiel is no stranger to what the youngsters in her program are experiencing.

“I was 14 years old when I left home,” she said. Because of family circumstances, she decided, “if I wanted to get anywhere, I needed to get out of there.”

It wasn’t until she was in her twenties that life took a turn.

“I went to a GED (General Education Development) office to take tests to find out what classes I needed and I passed all the tests,” Thiel said. “The woman said to me, ‘Marlaina, you just earned your GED.’ She said with scores like that I should be in college. I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ She told me about financial aid and I left that office in tears. All I could think was, ‘I’m going to college. I’m going to college.’”

And she did. 

“I spent four years right here in Homer getting a BA in psychology all on scholarships and grants,” said Thiel. “Now, I’m all about showing how to get educated and not go into debt.”

Another lesson Thiel learned from her experience was the direction from which help is most likely to come. 

“People who have the least to offer are willing to offer everything they have,” said Thiel. “People who have been through it have an incredible compassion for others that are going through it.”

While Thiel works with youth in school, O’Rourke is able to work with students not attending classes.

“We do emergency services to homeless teens and youth,” said O’Rourke. “We clothe them, give them emergency food and bedding, and do outreach for them for services that are available.”

Taking steps to become a nonprofit, TUFF already has volunteers to serve as board members: Dana Payne, Patrick J. Payne, Racheal Sena, Reba Sena, Sallee, Thiel and O’Rourke. They are in the process of developing sponsor-a-teen and host home programs.

“We had a couple of host home volunteers that showed up at the stocking stuffer event,” said O’Rourke. “That’s wonderful. This is all about getting these kids off the streets.”

• For more information about the KPBSD Students in Transition Program, call 226-1890.

• For more information about TUFF, email

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at