Kashaun Cooper talks to a group of Berkmar teens about winning in life as underdogs
YO! Homeless kids, in Gwinnett?
By Carole Townsend
Think Gwinnett County, and what comes to mind? Sidewalk-lined streets, top-notch schools, and beautiful parks with miles of walking trails. Gwinnett attracts jobs and the people qualified to fill them, and it’s home to award-winning healthcare facilities. Gwinnett means, to many, success.
This county is one of the most diverse in the nation, with the population virtually exploding in the last 20 or so years. And it’s a sad fact that when a county grows from having tens of thousands of residents to nearly a million, there will inevitably be some problems that accompany that growth.
Think about these statistics. In the Unites States today, 2.5 million children are homeless. In Gwinnett County alone, nearly 2000 children have been identified as being homeless. These are children, not necessarily families with children. They could be homeless because they are runaways, or because their parents have put them out, because their homes are unstable, or because their entire family is homeless. Of course, with nearly 2000 children having been identified as being homeless, there are many more who haven’t been identified. They simply drop off the radar, for one reason or another.
In the midst of the affluence, the bustle, the success that characterizes Gwinnett County, there are children sleeping behind buildings, in county parks, or on a friend’s couch, at least temporarily. They may wake in time to walk to a fast food restaurant to wash their faces, maybe brush their teeth. Some are even fortunate enough to have a change of clothes. And a pitiful few make it to school for another day, where they sleep, fall behind in their studies, and no doubt worry about the coming night.
Domonique and Kashaun Cooper admit, they’ve never seen a “homeless child” problem quite like the one here in Gwinnett. Oh they’ve seen homelessness, poverty, inner city filth and violence. Domonique is from Baltimore; Kashaun, Brooklyn. The married couple are parents to 5 boys, and they have made their home in Gwinnett. Both passionate about children (and especially children in need), the Coopers began volunteering at the GIVE Center East. Specifically, they began mentoring Tier II Boys – kids on their way out of Gwinnett schools because of behavior and other problems.
Pictured: A typical session of the Coopers’ “THE REAL” / Give LIFE mentoring session ends at The GIVE Center East.
“During one of our mentor sessions in November 2016, we noticed a young man who was lethargic. He slept through much of the hour. After class, he told us that he had slept in a park for the last three nights,” said Domonique. “Right away, we jumped into action and called Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and other places, and we learned that there are no teen shelters in the county. If a Gwinnett child is found to be homeless, he is sent to Cobb or Fulton county.”
Christian City in Fulton county is a wonderful facility designed, basically, to rescue homeless children. It’s a great place, but it is far away from Gwinnett, an unfamiliar place. “Being homeless affects a child’s schooling, well-being, safety, everything,” said Kashaun.
After they heard about the young man who had been sleeping in the park, other students came forward and told the couple that they either were homeless or had been recently. “We couldn’t believe it. And homeless kids here don’t look like the homeless kids where we’re from. Even homeless kids here have cell phones, clothes with no holes in them, and shoes. It’s very different here,” said Kashaun.
Once the Coopers saw that there is indeed a serious problem here in Gwinnett – homeless children with no apparent safety net – they began talking to other Gwinnett County school staff members, who shared their frustrations. “Their hands are tied; there is no help for these kids,” Domonique said.
Enter “YO Gwinnett,” (Youth of Gwinnett), a comprehensive program founded by the Coopers and designed to uplift and inspire teens. From shelter care to counseling, crisis intervention, tutoring, life skills, family re-unification and more, YO Gwinnett was created to serve the needs of homeless children in Gwinnett County. “We need this organization. With the growth that’s happened here and the problems that inevitably come with it, we have to get ahead of this problem now,” said Kashaun.
Homeless children (and while the Coopers encounter mainly teens, they have heard of a child as young as 6 years old being homeless) are at great risk for exploitation. With the light being shined on the sex trafficking industry and the exploitation of children that goes hand in hand with it, these children are what so many might call the low-hanging fruit. Offer a homeless child a meal or a warm bed in which to sleep, and he could very well be trapped in a nightmare from which he may or may not come out alive.
“We are very well qualified to do this,” said Domonique. “We have worked with kids who fight, who commit crimes like arson and car theft, bring guns to school, you name it.”
Kashaun Cooper in a thought-provoking conversation with a BMS teenager. Cooper advised the young man to stop, think, and choose.
“And they respond to us. They actually love us, because we are real with them. We talk to them in very real, honest terms. We don’t tell them they’re stupid, but we sure do tell them that their choices and behaviors are stupid, and that they have to change,” said Kashaun. “They tell us all the time that they love us, they respect us, but that we can be real pains, too. And that’s OK. We do it all in love, and sometimes, it has to be tough love.”
Interestingly, while some children find themselves homeless because of abuse or neglect, when running away seemed the only answer, the Coopers see yet another phenomenon that doesn’t mimic Baltimore or Brooklyn. “The cities we come from are war zones, no kidding. Big heart, good food, bad to the bone,” Domonique added. And while they have seen their share of neglect, abuse and “street” problems here in Gwinnett, they see something else that’s even more prevalent, and perhaps more disturbing. “A lot of the kids who end up at the GIVE Center are there because their parents are afraid to parent them. They’d rather be their child’s best friend than their parent. Of course, what you end up with is a kid who neither has nor respects boundaries, and doesn’t recognize or have respect for authority,” said Domonique. “I know I may get a lot of hate mail for saying this, but it’s true. We see it every day. These kids (and her boys, too) call me the Drill Sergeant,” she laughed. “These kids (at GIVE) aren’t here because they’re dumb. They’ve never been taught accountability and respect.”
But they know that when the Coopers tell them something, they mean it, and they know that they will not get away with ignoring or disrespecting this pair, because they put their money where their mouth is. They are raising their own boys with the same loving, no-nonsense technique with which they mentor the Tier II Boys at GIVE Center East.
“My education and background help a lot,” Domonique said. “With a degree in Criminality, and my ten years’ experience with the Social Security Administration, I have a lot of useful tools at my disposal.” Kashaun added, “I mean, these kids flash gang signs. We have Crips and Bloods and MS-13s. In another situation, you think they’d sit down together and be able to talk about anything? In our classroom, they do. We cut through all that.” The Coopers are unpaid support staff at the GIVE Center, learning more as they go about both challenges and solutions since they are co-presidents of Berkmar Middle School’s PTSA. “Berkmar Middle School has been such a blessing to us as volunteers, allowing us to grow as leaders but beyond to our entire family. The administration at this school runs a smooth and rigorous environment. We are proud parents of two BMS students, one of whom was named a PROMISE of Gwinnett student in September of last year,” said Domonique.
But the credit for this far-reaching vision doesn’t end with the Coopers, or even with Berkmar Middle School. “We credit the vision of YO Gwinnett to the Principal of The GIVE Center East, Mr. Durant Williams.. Without his canvas, we wouldn’t be able to illustrate pictures of resilience and reality with the students that we work with. His leadership and love for humankind is heartfelt from the moment you meet him,” said Kashaun.
“We are volunteers. We teach these kids life skills, how to win as an underdog. We’re very real, and brutally honest,” said Kashaun. And the kids they mentor respond to this treatment be-cause at the end of the day, they know the Coopers are there because they care, and they’re there to help.
YO Gwinnett is an umbrella for several facets of a far-reaching program. This summer, the Coopers expect to open the first shelter, a facility for teens that offers a safe place to sleep, shower, hang out, and study. They plan to open more over the next 4 years, as resources allow. By 2020, they plan to open a Youth Complex, where kids can play sports, practice martial arts, enjoy a café, use computers, etc. “We want to be the premier youth organization in the county; there’s never been anything like this, of this magnitude, in Gwinnett. This is all aimed toward cultivating pride in self and in the Gwinnett Community,” Domonique said.
To learn more about YO Gwinnett, visit www.yogwinnett.org. To connect with the Coopers about YO Gwinnett, call 770-837-6684, or email email@example.com. Connect on Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat: @yogwinnett, or look up “YO Gwinnett” on Facebook.
FIRST TIME EVER HELD AT BERKMAR HIGH SCHOOL YO GWINNETT’S BACK TO SCHOOL BASH!!!
YO Gwinnett’s 1st annual Back 2 School Bash! Community event full of vendors, food, entertainment, give aways, activities and much more! All youth in attendence will be given FREE school supplies. A portion of all food and activity sales will support Build A Hopeful Home fundraiser.
Sat, July 29, 2017
11:00 AM – 1:00 PM EDT
Berkmar High School
405 Pleasant Hill Road
Outside parking lot
Lilburn, GA 30047
Admission is FREE!
Bring the entire family out for a memorable time.
Find Out More
We know that life can get a little hectic and you may not have had a chance to make it out to one of our events. As much as you would love to attend, time just haven’t been your friend. DON’T FRET!
You can still make an impact through our _TEXT2GIVE_ feature. To make a financial contribution to help end “Youth Homelessness” in Gwinnett County please text the word _GIVE_ to 770-629-0094 and follow the prompts. It’s just that simple.