Stashed in Karen Light Edmonds’ garage are black garbage bags that hold all the belongings of a homeless teen. They represent the striking dichotomy in Rochester that Karen can’t sweep into the dark corners of invisibility. No matter how uncomfortable it may make others feel, in a city known for its world-class medical care, the opportunity gap widens. Karen counts eight children as her own, but in reality, some of those are children of other mothers.
There are the kids who were homeless but who are now excelling in college, kids whose families pushed them out when they stopped bringing in drug money but who now can count their sobriety in months or years. The kids who got their shoes and clothing from gangs but who now have jobs. Kids who lived in apartments where the lighting was so dim that assailants could easily lie and wait but who now have safe shelter. It is Karen and a group of volunteers who have stepped in to help through Project Legacy, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and support to youth of color in Rochester who want a way out but lack opportunities. “There are kids in Rochester who are just trying to survive every day,” Karen says. “It’s hard for me to believe that people don’t know this, but they don’t.”
Rochester’s Hidden Poverty
It’s a world that Karen is hoping to change, not only by helping as many disadvantaged youths as she can but also by raising awareness that Rochester is really just a microcosm of larger metropolitan areas with its own homelessness, gangs, drug problems and teen parents. Many kids, Karen says, want out — they want jobs, security, safety, a college education. But the challenges are enormous when they lack basic needs and are caught in the riptide of generational poverty. Project Legacy had its own humble beginnings. It grew out of a free yoga class that Karen offered several years ago to teen girls living in poverty in Rochester. By then, Karen already had a long history helping others — working with immigrant populations when she was a high school sophomore in Fargo, North Dakota, and later volunteering as an English tutor for Vietnamese families who were being resettled in the United States. In Rochester, where she has now lived for more than two decades, Karen volunteered with the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, teaching English to East African and Southeast Asian adults. But it was that free yoga class that uncloaked Rochester’s invisible youth. Word spread quickly among the teens of possible resources and support for the homeless, gang-affiliated or living in poverty. They were motivated but had few options in Rochester. The philosophy behind Project Legacy is that connections to ideas, information and opportunities can rekindle a sense of hope and possibility and create a new legacy. That is where the name “legacy” itself comes from: leadership, empowerment, guidance, access and connections for youth. Helping these often invisible kids and young adults requires blunt honesty — about Rochester, about those stepping up, about different worlds within one city. “I never set out with the intention of creating a program,” Karen says. “I know in my heart why I do what I do. All I have to do is look into the eyes of these kids.”
Finding a way out
One cornerstone of Project Legacy is what Karen calls streetwork: reaching out to these kids, gaining trust, and offering support, unconditional love and new belief systems, often over a course of months or even years as relationships are solidified. The other major facet of the program is providing resources and opportunities to overcome incredible barriers, sometimes simply by providing education, safe housing and guidance through baffling bureaucratic systems. Through Project Legacy, these kids — facing homelessness, addiction, abuse, jail time and the tug of dysfunctional family dynamics — are finding a way out for the first time. “My speech is always that their circumstances don’t define them,” Karen says. “They’ve been born into a life that is harder than that of many of their friends. But the message that the kids get is that if you need help we’re going to help you.” In addition to its other work, Project Legacy now supports seven young adults who are in college and another four more hope to head to college this fall. All this and no budget, not yet anyway. Her Project Legacy work often takes place before dawn and well into the night and on weekends. Help comes from her husband, John, who has a master’s degree in social work. He articulates the vision of Project Legacy and provides guidance about best practices for mentoring and counseling. There is also a large network of volunteers — about 30 in Rochester and another 40 from around the country who take on a variety of roles — sending care packages to the college students, chauffeuring kids to appointments, buying clothing, groceries or supplies, and simply offering encouragement and support. George DeStefano of Rochester is one of those volunteers, and he says he’s gotten as much out of the program as he has put into it. “Intellectually, I’ve long recognized that many children grow up without even the modest financial advantage my parents provided. I also knew many never had any moral support, encouragement to do well in school and go on to college,” DeStefano says. “There is a lot of strength and resolve to be gained from growing up in a family that holds the implicit belief and expectation that you will attend college and you will graduate. I knew this was missing for many kids and I knew it mattered. Now, after just a short while as a Project Legacy volunteer, I feel it in my gut. These kids are in a painful place. Being near them, seeing the day-to-day struggle to get past one stumbling block or pitfall after another…this is painful.”
As Progam Blossoms
As Project Legacy has blossomed right alongside the young people it helps, the financial strain has increased. Donations aren’t enough to sustain the program long term, especially as its successes mean more kids can head to college. During the last five years, more than 200 children and young adults from newborns to age 21 have found help through Karen’s efforts. This year for the first time, Project Legacy is fundraising, with a goal of $42,000. That money will be used for food, clothing and hygiene supplies for homeless youths, college registration fees and expenses, travel expenses to cultural events and college tours, drug testing kits for youths who request them for accountability, safe shelter, and outreach programs. Project Legacy also hopes to secure a van to help with transportation needs as well as sports equipment, such as a treadmill and portable basketball hoop. Karen is determined to see Project Legacy thrive. It’s hard, heart-wrenching work. Friends say that it’s simply in Karen’s nature. “She is the best example of everything that is good about being a woman,” Gayle Kall says. “Intelligent, strong, compassionate, kind, perceptive. She takes risks that most people would never attempt to take. She nurtures, she models every day what is the very best about humanity, the very best about being female.” And Karen keeps answering the call, whether text or Facebook, as more kids and young adults who want a way out turn to her and Project Legacy for help. “Somebody needs a place to live, somebody needs help with medical services, somebody wants help with their addiction,” she says. “The kids are drawn to me, they trust me. And this is my passion. This is what I’m best at — loving kids, igniting hope in kids, helping them see that they can have a different life than what they’ve known.” Because Project Legacy now has nonprofit status under its fiscal agent, Olmstead Outreach, all donations are tax deductible. Funds are being raised through word of mouth, and through social networking, its own website and on GoFundMe, a do-it-yourself crowd funding website.
To volunteer or make a donation you can contact Project Legacythrough its Facebook page or call (507) 254-3387. You can also mail a donation to Project Legacy, 2928-20th St, NE, Rochester, MN 55906.