Writer | Mary Rose Kulczak
Photo | Step Up Northern Michigan

Building Community: Stepping Up to Serve At-Risk Youth

As a former educator, Cathy O’Connor has always had a heart for serving kids. This passion for children took her service in a new direction after a family tragedy in 2016 involving the loss of her 22-year-old son to suicide. That same year, O’Connor began her mission to help other families and at-risk youth.

“This kid slipped through our fingers because we didn’t know enough about depression and medications to treat it. It really motivated me to give back and say ‘I hope we aren’t going to let other good kids fall through the cracks,” O’Connor says.

In April 2016, she founded the organization STEP UP Northern Michigan with the mission to help at-risk students at Traverse City High School. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit group has since expanded, helping over 400 students in seven schools across the region. They offer drop-in food pantries, clothing, and gift cards for students and families.

“I love being the connector of the needs and the resources,” O’Connor says.

When a school teacher or administrator reaches out for help, STEP UP NM gets to work with volunteers and donors who will answer the call.

“We have seven locations. Traverse City High School (TCHS) is our main location. We have about 160 kids at that location,” O’Connor says. “What we found is that the most needy people have the hardest time getting to the resources. We want to make sure that the resources are there whenever they need it. All the connections and requests come through the relationships that I have with the social workers or the principals at those schools. I know when they call me, there’s a need for those kids and they’ve gone through all the possible resources.”

O’Connor is proud to report that the organization has found a way to help every time. “We’ve never had to say no to any request that we’ve had. That has ranged from a set of tires for a Mom to rent assistance if someone is at risk of being evicted. It’s clothing, it’s bus tokens. It’s primarily food. Anything that creates a barrier for some of those kids to get where they need to be, which is to graduate,” she says.

Not only does the organization help the students with basic needs, but they also help the teachers serving in those schools. Volunteers will provide staff appreciation lunches and gift certificates to thank the teachers for their daily service.

“We really support the staff at TCHS because those kids are coming from a situation where families are overwhelmed themselves,” O’Connor says. “They don’t have parent volunteers. We feel as though we adopt them as well.”

STEP UP NM partners with Northwest Food Coalition, a group of 50 to 60 food pantries in the area. They also partner with Food Rescue, which distributes excess food from area restaurants. This helps the pantry stock fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and other healthy options. In addition to operating the pantry, the organization is also able to offer gift cards for food through Meijer which they distribute to teens and families.

Area businesses often donate restaurant gift cards, which are especially important to teens who need help with meals when schools are on break. Gas cards and bus tokens also help the students get to jobs and appointments.

“Everyone is so generous. I don’t like to ask for money,” O’Connor says. “I hate fundraising, to be honest. I’m just amazed the more I offer people the opportunity to help, and they do.”

O’Connor is excited to offer a new after-school opportunity for students at Traverse City High School this year, thanks to funding from a donor. This program will feature a safe place for students to enjoy a meal, receive tutoring in life skills, and hear from a variety of speakers. Working with school staff, O’Connor plans to survey the kids to determine their interests and needs that the program hopes to address.

“We will keep it open-ended, but we will also give them some ideas,” O’Connor says. “Would you want to learn to cook, or sew, or fill out job applications? We will come up with a list, and be flexible with whatever need arises.”

The students will also have the opportunity to sign up for Crockpot Thursdays. Volunteers guide participants as they assemble ingredients for Crockpot dinners. The students take the Crockpot meal home, ensuring they will have a healthy meal to share with their families when school is not in session, and return the empty Crockpots the following week.

“It gives us a chance to connect with the kids,” O’Connor notes. “To say ‘Hey, we’re going to chop vegetables and follow a recipe, and this is how you do it.’”

O’Connor is looking forward to the opportunities that the after-school program will offer. “I’m just excited about it. These partnerships with these key people in the schools are important. I consider these people my friends. We plan together and ask ‘What can we do to help?’”

For more information on ways to help, visit stepupnm.com. You can also visit the Step Up Northern Michigan Facebook page.