Huckleberry Youth Programs: ESME’s Featured Nonprofit

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Educating, inspiring, and supporting youth who are underserved in the Bay Area

Huckleberry Youth Programs is far-reaching, innovative, and successful. Its motto, “Where there’s Huckleberry, there’s Hope,” is embodied in programs that support kids in trouble, whether they have run away from home, face addiction, have been sexually abused, are dealing with incarceration, or have simply fallen through the educational cracks. Additional programs include a community-based adolescent health clinic and a wellness academy that recruits, encourages, and trains young people to enter the health professions. Watch the video above, and read this interview with Huckleberry Youth Programs’ clinical director, Margo Levi, to get a better sense of the amazing work that Huckleberry Youth Programs does for underserved youth in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Q: How did Huckleberry Youth Programs get its start?

A: Our tradition of caring for Bay Area youth has spanned over four decades. The robust programs and services Huckleberry Youth Programs provides today can be traced to the dawning of what is now famously called the “Summer of Love.” In 1967, the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco exploded with the activity of the late 1960s youth movement, and young people from across the nation were converging on the city to participate in the jubilant moment of change and newfound freedom. Many of those arriving in the city were runaway teens who had left their homes and families in other cities and states, and then wandered the Haight without money, friends, or connections. It was then that our story began.

Q: How did you get involved?

Margot Levi Huckleberry Youth Programs A: I began working with Huckleberry as a clinical consultant in 2002 and joined the staff as clinical director in 2010. Huckleberry serves an important niche as an organization that is both youth-centered and also engages parents as critical sources of power to influence and empower young people.

Q: What are the key services your organization provides? What kinds of difficulties do your clients face?

A: Our mission is to educate, inspire, and support underserved youth to develop healthy life choices, to maximize their potential, and to realize their dreams. Since 1967, we have accomplished this by providing San Francisco and Marin youth and their families with a network of services and opportunities [that is supported] by caring peers and adults.

We seek to empower young people to develop and maintain healthy relationships as well as promote their talents, ideas, leadership, and health; to assist youth and their families in overcoming the obstacles they may encounter, which can include family concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, mental-health challenges, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, violence, social and economic inequities, and physical and sexual abuse; and to assist clients in navigating complex social welfare, educational, and juvenile-justice systems.

Our core services include a crisis shelter, family and individual counseling, health services, case management, college-access support, and juvenile diversion.

Q: How many Solo Moms or Solo-Mom families are you able to help? Is there any family or mom in particular that stands out for you?

A: While we don’t specifically collect data on solo mothers, we know that the majority of families that we serve are not headed by two partnered legal parents/guardians. An estimated 70% of Huckleberry families are headed by moms who are single, divorced, or married to someone other than their child’s other parent. Here’s one family situation that I recall:

Fifteen-year-old Graciela came to live in San Francisco two years ago, [and] she had been separated from her mother for eight years. She had been living in El Salvador with relatives while her mother immigrated to the U.S. As Graciela and her mother, Eliana, began to rebuild their relationship, they were overwhelmed by the stress of acculturation, parent-teen conflict, and unacknowledged feelings about the long separation. Eliana was working two jobs to afford the studio apartment that they shared. Eliana felt that Graciela should be grateful for the tremendous sacrifices she made to give her daughter a better life. Graciela felt resentful of how much of her life her mother had missed and was wary of her mother taking an authority role. Graciela’s mother resorted to hitting her, in a desperate effort to impose house rules. Graciela became increasingly depressed and angry. She ran away, and the police brought her to Huckleberry House. The therapist was able to identify strengths in both the parent and youth. By enabling the family to voice their difficulties with renegotiating their parent-child relationship after this long separation, they were able to begin rebuilding their relationship on new terms. The therapist coached Eliana in methods to provide supervision and appropriate consequences, without resorting to violence. Through work in family therapy, the pair was able to learn and practice new ways to communicate. After 12 sessions, [both] agreed that they were experiencing success with their new tools. Graciela’s mood improved, as did her functioning in school. They are comforted knowing Huckleberry is a resource they can rely on, when needed.

Q: How do you know the goals of the organization are being met?

A: We see the transformation of young people who were floundering and in pain become healthy and productive. Moreover, parents who attend our skill building six-week support workshop, Parents’ Turn, tell us things like:

“I learned how to catch my daughter being amazing and beautiful.”

“I’m not afraid anymore. I actually feel powerful and parental.”

“I am not alone. Lots of parents have these problems.”

“The parental self-care helped me stay healthy so I can help my son.”

“I have hope again.”

Q: What are some of the challenges your organization faces in terms of funding and support?

A: Public services like child welfare are depending more and more on nonprofits like Huckleberry to deliver core social services. There is often not adequate funding to support those demands.

Q: How has this work affected you? Has it changed you in any way?

A: It is humbling. I worked with youth and families for many years before I became a parent myself, and I always wondered how my work would change with the perspective of becoming a parent. When I was deep in baby blues and struggling with sleep deprivation and difficulties with breastfeeding, I thought, Every parent I have worked with, every parent that I have maybe wanted to roll my eyes at and say, “Just do what needs to be done,” every one of those parents has already survived this, and most of them have done it with far fewer resources and support than I have. That realization makes me really respect the families that we work with and feel truly privileged that they share their struggles with us.

Q: What are you most proud of in terms of your work and participation with Huckleberry Youth Programs?

A: I’m proud of introducing Parents’ Turn to Huckleberry. It has brought tools, support, and empowerment to a lot of parents. There tend to be more parenting-support resources for parents of younger children. When you get to the teen years, there are fewer options. This leaves parents isolated and often feeling powerless and inadequate. We helped change that.

I’m also really proud that our counseling services offer family and individual therapy regardless of a family’s ability to pay. So many services require specific eligibility status. This makes it really difficult for parents to access services. At Huckleberry, we make access easy so that families can do the hard work of getting better.

If you are interested in learning more about or supporting Huckleberry, check out its website.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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