If you love what you do, you won’t have to work a day in your life. The millennial generation is one of risk takers, young and dedicated adults feeling the fear and doing it anyway, all while taking their past experiences and aiming to make a better life for themselves and others.
Courtney Smith is one of these individuals.
She grew up in Detroit, Michigan and is an activist, social entrepreneur, and a traveler. Courtney’s life journey and her experiences have led her to become the Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Phoenix Center. The Detroit Phoenix Center provides critical resources, support and a safe nurturing and inclusive environment to high risk and homeless youth in Detroit. This idea came to her after she took a train ride through several states after graduating from college in 2016.
Her journey had taken her across states like Illinois, Wisconsin, California, Colorado; with her final stop being in Detroit, Michigan. A year later, the Detroit Phoenix Center was open.
“I took a train journey across the country and I found the most effective approach one that lowers the standard [the number of requirements placed on youth who wish to live in those particular shelters]. Courtney found out that this approach wasn’t being used and brought it back to Detroit in order to appeal to a greater number of youth facing homelessness.
This low barrier approach is to reach the “hardest to reach youth,” Smith said. By using a low barrier approach the Detroit Phoenix Center is able to take out the strict rules that most youth homeless shelters follow in order to reach more young people. “We have a unique fabric woven into everything we do, and that is amplifying the voices of our young people” Smith said.
“While various service providers adopt zero tolerance policies, we are committed to providing support to those youth who traditionally wouldn’t want to navigate a shelter system but still need their basic needs met and a community to engage and growth with, so they can be empowered to build healthy relationships and make decisions that yield positive outcomes,” Smith said.
Smith remarks that one of the greatest rewards of this work is seeing the power that these young people have as individuals. Too often the narrative of youth homelessness is being told through the lens of despair and sadness and working in this field you get to see them come out on the other side of their struggles.
“Seeing lives change right before my eyes… Seeing young people graduate from high school who didn’t believe that they could or move into their own apartment. To be able to see young people tap into their own potential, and that is not a narrative that is shared often” Smith said.
Helping young people tap into their potential also requires more resources than is readily available at the time. This is an issue that comes up all too often, but working in social services more often than not you just have to make due with what you have.
“The biggest challenge has been seeing [that] there is more need than the resources we have available. It was a hard reality to come to grips with, that we can’t get every single young person off the street. But we do as much as we can with the resources we have” Smith said.
Being in this work can sometimes be thankless and it is normal to lose motivation at certain points in time, which is why Courtney relies on her faith to help her get through those hard times. “I would definitely say my faith, has played a role in everything I do and to know that it is bigger than me. To be able to yield to principles bigger than me.”
Having the center open three years already, Courtney is beginning to see significant changes within the community she serves.
“We have been around for three years and we are doing the work to amplify the voices of our young people (using Youth Voice and Youth Engagement) and that means we lean on them to develop policies and procedures and the way we design the center is based on youth input. We want them to know that their input and voices matter when it comes to the work that we do.”
Looking to the future for the Detroit Phoenix Center, Courtney is hoping to double the number of youth she currently serves (going from 52 to 100), develop a stronger team, and have a greater impact in the community.
I’ll leave you with a good motivator for the next generation of change-agents, from the award winning woman dedicated to professional excellence, advocacy, and service for when time get hard on your journey to where you would want to be in your life.
“It is important to know your why because sometimes your work can be thankless and hard, knowing your why is going to center you when things get hard, you can look beyond when things get hard.”
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