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KD Sunday Spotlight: Homeless Children's Education Fund provides education, opportunity, and hope

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - "When I first came to Pittsburgh. I had nothing. I had less than nothing. I came here with trauma. I came here fleeing a violent situation in my home," said Michael.

Michael also hoped that Pittsburgh would become his safe haven. Now, he's sharing his journey to empower others.

When he was just 13, he lost his father to suicide.

He also came out as gay which he said was not accepted where he was living in Ohio.

"That situation became unsafe for me, both physically and emotionally, and it got to a point where I did start to understand why my dad had taken his own life and I did start to have those kinds of thoughts and feelings," said Michael. "As that environment became increasingly unsafe, I knew I had to leave."

Michael stayed in the Hill District with his sister and finished online high school while working to pay rent.

He remembers going to bed hungry, sleeping on the floor, living without utilities, and struggling financially.

"I don't know how to describe to people what that kind of pressure feels like on that daily level of trying to survive in a way that I don't think anyone could understand unless they've been there," said Michael.

The executive director of the Homeless Children's Education Fund understands because she was also homeless.

Ardana Jefferson and her mother had to move to Pittsburgh to live with her great aunt, Ruby, while her mother finished college.

"Normally children run and play and they have their own space and their own room and I didn't have that," said Jefferson. "I had to share a space with my mother. Although Aunt Ruby welcomed us with open arms, there were some challenges living there."

Jefferson said this scarred her both emotionally and academically.

"That goes back to every time a child moves, they regress in their education 4-6 months," said Jefferson. "So, that is where I was as a 9-year-old child at that school. Regressing, not because I didn't know the information but because I wasn't stable."

Jefferson said in Pennsylvania, 30 percent of homeless students live in shelters while 70 percent are doubled up with family and friends, couch surfing, or in hotels.

"We know that any child, whether they're homeless or not if they do not receive their high school diploma or GED, they're 436 percent more likely to go into young adult homelessness because they can't secure a livable wage," said Jefferson.

Jefferson said nearly 3,000 students in Allegheny County identify as homeless.

HCEF supports those children from kindergarten to college.

"The first thing my team does is provide care and concern for that student and then get them focused on their education," said Jefferson.

HCEF offers a variety of programs, including one they're creating right now - "Winnie's Wagon."

"We're going to provide tutoring support to that student and their family," said Jefferson. "When Winnie's Wagon rolls into your neighborhood, we're going to then pass out educational support, bookbags filled with school supplies, books, whatever is needed."

HCEF has learning centers in shelters to create safe and educational environments. They also have a teen outreach program to help students improve their mental health and prepare them for the future.

"We will pay them to work at an employer's on-site location and provide them training," said Jefferson. "We've aligned with universities and colleges in this area to introduce our students to post-secondary education."

They also provide financial assistance through their "Hope Through Learning" Award and emergency education fund.

Michael was a benefactor of these when he got into Dartmouth College and couldn't afford transportation and book fees.

"For the first time, I started to feel like there were people who cared about students like me and students who are in situations like mine," said Michael. "And teaching me to be willing to reach out and ask for help when I needed it."

After Michael graduated in 2021, he moved to Colorado to work for Native American Bank.

"I love the opportunity it gives me both to be involved in my community, but also have a rewarding and fulfilling career where I feel like I'm making an impact where I'm not constantly worried where my next meal is coming from and how I'm going to pay rent next month," he said.

Michael and Jefferson remind students their situation is only temporary.

"It doesn't determine who you are. You are wonderfully made and perfectly crafted to do whatever it is that you choose to do, but you have to believe in you," said Jefferson.

"Start thinking about you and what you want for yourself and what you need to get there because there are people who will help you get there," said Michael. 

These two came to Pittsburgh with nothing and now they have more than they could have ever imagined.

If you want to get involved, learn more, or support the HCEF, head to their website at this link.

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