Aging Out

by Paula Heath, Advocate

 Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened…”  Dr. Seuss

If you look at Wikipedia for the definition of “aging out,” this is what you’ll find:

“Aging out is American popular culture vernacular used to describe anytime a youth leaves a formal system of care designed to provide services below a certain age level.”

At Teen Feed, a youth ages out at the end of their 25th year; the minute they are 26, they no longer qualify for the program. Through coordination with other community programs, the staff tries to ensure that each youth has a plan and knows the resources available to them for on-going shelter, food, and medical care.

But is this aging out of Teen Feed really a Dr. Seuss occasion?

Happy birthday, goodbye, good luck, sure have enjoyed our dinner conversations. These are words that an advocate typically does not have the opportunity to say to the departing youth. He might be there on a volunteer’s Friday, but he is gone forever before the next Friday. I have found myself on several occasions asking the staff what happened to so-and-so, is everything okay. It may be that because I like human stories so much, this abrupt ending, which is not really an ending, of course, leaves me with a bit of a cliffhanger effect.

So I have wondered out loud to the staff how the youth feel about their disappearing act, their “aging out.”  Do they feel they have accomplished something, become savvier and more confident, or do they see the system just tossing them up to another program? How important was the Teen Feed meal to them, and how much will they miss it …?

I’ve only touched the surface here, I think; there’s much more to listen to and learn. Safe to say the headline appears to be that no youth wants to age out of Teen Feed. Their perspectives range from anger to resignation/practicality and may be correlated to their housing and income situations at the time.

The youth know that Teen Feed is more than a warm, complete meal every night (many often have no real meal during the rest of the day); it’s their living room, a place where they can talk with friends and form relationships. Gaining better skills for healthy relationships and lifestyles, experiencing safety and consistency – these are part and parcel of the program.

The youth with whom I spoke all know exactly when they will age out – in fact one offered the age-out years of a number of different programs. Many can have difficulty expressing their feelings and may become argumentative, disrespectful, and even angry as they near their end date. Perhaps, as one staff member pointed out, this behavior is an effort to distance themselves from the program before they know they’ll have to leave.

On the other hand, there is this: For one youth with stable housing and food stamps, it was a shrug and then, “I don’t want to leave Teen Feed, but since I will have to, I guess I’ll have to learn to cook dinner.”

All with whom I spoke said that, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being super important, Teen Feed is a 10 in their lives today. This gave me pause: Congratulations to the Teen Feed staff and volunteers of all kinds – you are making a real difference. Still, right now, the termination is abrupt, and the new life stage is not at all known — or inviting.

Be well through the holidays, everyone.

 “The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy.” – John Galsworthy

Grateful Volunteers

“Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.”

~William Faulkner

By Paula Heath, Advocate

Right now, you may be thinking that “grateful volunteers” should say instead… “grateful nonprofit organizations.” The truth is that I have been thinking how grateful I am for Teen Feed. And based on the attendance and enthusiasm at the Annual Celebration October 10 at Hillel, I think I’m not alone!

My own volunteer history has included two hospitals, trail repairs and cleanups, big sisters, and for the past 15 months, Teen Feed. And of all the organizations, Teen Feed has made me feel the most valued. So I have looked back to see what they’ve done, that’s touched me personally, in the way of thanks:

• a snail mail card for no reason except to say thank you

• a personal and a general thank you at every meal I attend

• e-mail reminders, reach outs for extra volunteerism at special events relating to teen feed

• warm hugs from the staff

• contagious and unwavering enthusiasm, kindness and positivity

• events just for us, like the Annual Picnic and Annual Celebration

This year was my first Annual Celebration. Smoothly run, thoughtfully assembled, and appropriately modest in presentation. Simple handwritten charts on the walls and table centerpieces that cost nothing but brainpower and staff creativity. Because we were at Hillel, the food had to be kosher and it was delicious, generous, and varied – Leah’s is the greatest! Each speaker was humble, sincere and gracious, and each honoree likewise was modest and happy.

So I’d like to say thank you to Teen Feed for the Annual Celebration – a demonstration of your commitment to your volunteers – and for all the other tangible and intangible ways you make me feel rewarded and a part of something good in exchange for just 2 hours of my time every week.

Will Thompson

“I was sustained by one piece of inestimable good fortune. I had for a friend a man of immense and patient wisdom and a gentle but unyielding fortitude.

I think that if I was not destroyed at this time by the sense of hopelessness which these gigantic labors has awakened in me, it was largely because of the courage and patience of this man.

I did not give in because he would not let me give in.”

– Thomas Wolfe

By Paula Heath, Advocate

[Will Thompson was Teen Feed’s Street Talk Outreach Program Coordinator for the past two years. He founded STOP to respond to the greater number of young youth Teen Feed was seeing on the streets, and has left a permanent impact on staff and youth alike.]

He is a big man, with a distinctive splayed walk. His broad face wears a virtually permanent smile with flickers of sharp humor dancing in his eyes. His booming voice rings across the nightly Teen Feed dining rooms – with engaging stories, sharing opinions on computer games and current events, and most of all providing guidance through his personal example.

To see him is to be drawn to him – a huge magnet of confidence, enthusiasm and caring. I watched with some envy as, without fail, his table filled up first, and the liveliest conversations began. Laughter, always. No one ever got up and left his table – he was able to connect with everyone.

When I asked a few of the youth how they would describe him, the responses were consistent. “He was knowledgeable about us, our lives, and the things we like to talk about.” “He was always informed and kept the conversations going, no down time.” “Kind, caring, available.”

Will has moved on to life in another city. We all thank him for everything that he accomplished here in the U District; the positive impact he had on so many young, vulnerable lives; and for showing advocates like me how to engage with our youth. A terrific mentor, he always communicated hope and optimism – a great legacy. Thank you, Will!

Teen Feed’s Vision

By Paula Heath, Advocate

Teen Feed staff asked me to give them my Advocate’s point of view on the Board-approved Vision statement. It is a little bit of a cheat for me to do this, because I have spent a lot of time around corporate vision, mission, and values development throughout my career. While it takes an enormous amount of collective work to create them, it is worth it – these are valuable statements for any organization to incorporate into their culture and the way they do business.

The Teen Feed Mission has also been approved by the Board of Directors. The Mission says what we do:

  • Teen Feed works with the community to offer support to meet basic needs, build strong relationships, and ally with homeless youth as they meet their future off the streets.

Before getting to the Vision, which says what it will look like when we execute our Mission, let me quickly share a few guidelines often used when developing a vision statement.

  • While it used to be a description of the state and functions of the organization after it had implemented its strategic plan, now it’s more of a motivational tool to inspire and motivate.
  • For an organization that benefits the community, the vision should describe the future it wants to create for the well-defined community it wants to impact.
  • It should be short, simple, and powerful, and use active not passive words…easily remembered, and deliverable in a quick elevator ride.
  • Ideally it gives a mental picture of the vision.
  • Focus on the most important facets of the overall vision.

Here is the Teen Feed Vision:

Every youth:
­* strengthens and is strengthened by their community,
* loves and is proud of the person they are,
* is passionate and experiences growth,
* is safe, and
* works toward justice and experiences peace.
Every youth sees their whole life experience as valuable.

I like it in many ways – each chosen ideal (strength, love, pride, passion, growth, safety, justice, peace) is admirable. However, all may not be achievable by every youth. It’s possibly challenging to remember them all.

 So, here are three suggested stand-alone Vision statements – which carry the weight of the above Vision’s intent, but allow for some of the sub-points to be brought in to flesh it out, as needed.

  1. Every [street] youth strengthens and is strengthened by their community.
  2. Every [street] youth sees their whole life experience as valuable.
  3. Teen Feed’s vision is that every street Youth can realize their full strength, value and potential for themselves and their community.
[Director’s Note:  Thank you Paula for providing great input on the heart of what we do!  To the next 25 years!  -megan]

A Guide for Youth Engagement

– By Paula Heath, Teen Feed Advocate

Life is slippery. Here, take my hand. – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

As an Advocate with Teen Feed, our role sounds pretty simple: establish a safe zone for conversation from 7-8 pm; elicit information, whenever possible, about the Youth’s present situation that can be used by Staff to help them meet their goals and improve their circumstances. Note that our role is not to become a Youth’s new BFF. That is deliberate – and a good thing. But it’s not for everyone: it takes the right fit, and some understanding of the core principles of social work.

Teen Feed is here to ‘restore and enhance’ the Youth’s ‘capacity for social functioning.’₁  We Advocates, who are not social workers, use our own life’s knowledge of people, attained through personal experience, to learn about the Youth’s condition and life objectives. During a one-hour meal in a bustling atmosphere. When conveyed to case workers at the end of each meal, this type of information can expedite assistance for the Youth toward their goals.

But a challenge can come into view if attachments form. When a Youth and an Advocate become too attached, it can be counterproductive and unhealthy for both, so boundaries and reminders of Social Work professional ethics are important. Admittedly, it can be hard to see the ‘line’ which should not be crossed. For example, for both Advocates and Staff, we can’t help to create success for the Youth without building rapport and gaining their trust…Two qualities Wiki uses to define friendship are trust and mutual understanding. Is it unhealthy to be friends, then?

The safest rule of thumb is to think in terms of ‘professional closeness’ when you walk into Teen Feed. Remember the importance of objectivity and clear thinking to success, and the productivity possible in the absence of potentially damaging irrational emotions. And use Staff members as the best source for any questions in the areas of exchanging emails, friending on Facebook, and meeting out of program (Note that all of these examples could be outside the ethical boundaries).

A friend in need is a friend indeedProverb

Ben Gibbard Benefit for Teen Feed

August 2, 2010, Seattle, WA:  Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is playing an intimate benefit show for Teen Feed on Wednesday, November 3rd at the Crocodile in Seattle.  Teen Feed is a nonprofit that operates a seven-night-a-week meal program for homeless youth and young adults in the University District of Seattle.  Tickets are $30 and will be available at the Crocodile and Sonic Boom Records. 

Teen Feed, which began as a six night per week meal program, recently expanded to cover all seven nights. Proceeds from this benefit show will directly support this expansion which ensures that homeless youth can access a safe dinner every night they are in need.  Founded in 1986, Teen Feed works with the community to offer support to meet basic needs, build strong relationships, and ally with homeless youth as they plan their future off the streets. 

 In 2009, Teen Feed served over 11,000 meals and case managers assisted 60 homeless youth enter into stable housing. Teen Feed case managers are present every night for youth in need.

 “I believe in the work of Teen Feed ,’ says Gibbard, ‘I wanted to do my part to help raise awareness and money for the organization.’

A former homeless youth who  frequented Teen Feed meals and is now successfully employed and off the streets said, “Teen Feed was consistent, dependable, and genuine.  I totally credit Teen Feed for keeping me alive.”  To find out more about Seattle’s homeless youth or the work of Teen Feed, please visit

Ticket Information available at online at or

For more information please contact:

Megan Gibbard
Executive Director, Teen Feed

Youth Experiences of Homelessness Vary by Race

The Teen Feed staff team and board have been discussing issues of race a great deal lately.  In particular, we talk about how we can serve youth as best we can and  how we work with one another.  Check out this article we have found helpful and thought provoking:

We’d love to know your thoughts.

The Face of America’s Homeless Youth

Hello Teen Feed Supporters —

Take a look at this article about homeless youth in Denver:

Food Teams Rock!


“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” –J. R. R. Tolkien

 By Paula Heath, Teen Feed Advocate

Today was July 3. The menu was bacon cheeseburgers with mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup, corn, and chocolate chip cookies. Last Saturday night, the menu was a full Thanksgiving dinner with real turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and yam casserole with marshmallow topping. Oh, and the most amazing pumpkin bread.

Teen Feed serves meals to between 40 and 70 homeless youth, aged 13 to 25, seven nights a week. There is sufficient food for everyone to have seconds. There are 50 food teams, so how on earth does all that food come together? It’s actually a very orchestrated process, with written instructions, to-do’s, and an assigned food team leader. Briefly, each food team is responsible for their menu, food purchasing, preparation, serving, and cleanup, including taking out the garbage and transporting leftovers to the shelter. On meal night, they will each spend about 3 1/2 hours at the site.

I have been an admiring observer of the food teams on the nights I volunteer as an advocate for about a year now. Here is what I would like you to know about them.

Without exception, each member of the team is focused on getting the job done well and on time because they know how much the youth depend on the 7 PM start. (Many youth will not have had either breakfast or lunch.) Everyone has a role. They’re chopping or shredding or assembling or cleaning up as they go. It’s noisy; the industrial dishwasher is almost always running, so the laughter is loud, and instructions are shouted out. Creating a tasty meal is important to the team because, simply, no one wants to disappoint. Each will serve a portion of the meal, so they will come face-to-face with their “customer.”

They serve from behind a table or counter, smiling, making polite queries about which menu item or how much, and then passing the plate to the next food team member, who repeats the process for their station, as the young men and women move slowly down the line. There is no slopping food onto the plate; precisely the opposite: care is taken not to spill, and to be respectful and pleasant. There is a bubbly murmur of voices, reminding me of the sound after a soccer game when the teams pass each other for a congratulatory high five and all say together: “good game good game good game.”

The team knows that food creates a comfortable, homey environment – even if the guests are “homeless.” And they take this responsibility seriously. Given this responsibility, the time commitment, the physical work, and the importance of genuine interaction with this population, who are these foodie volunteers?

They are your neighbors; members of your church; students from your local high school or college; new US citizens; young working people; retirees; entire families; affinity groups; and folks who work together at local businesses.

Why did they choose this program and this type of volunteerism? They hope to provide some comfort and happiness to those in need, with something they’ve made themselves. And, I think they intuitively know the truth behind the Latvian proverb: “A smiling face is half the meal. “

What’s in a Backpack?

  • “Where thou art, that is home.” – Emily Dickenson
  • “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”                        – Maya Angelou

What’s in those backpacks, anyway?

By Paula Heath, Teen Feed Advocate

At Teen Feed, every night, those of us volunteers who greet and sign in the youth for dinner must ask each whether they have, in their packs, any weapons to leave with us while they are ‘in program,’ eating their meal with the group. The most serious item I’ve seen was a Swiss army knife. I have heard from others about a cardboard sword; numchucks; an over-long pole. But these are peaceful young people.

Homeless youth almost always have a backpack with them as they walk by on the sidewalks of the U District, or play at anonymity in a sunny spot in the park. There are daypacks, external frame backpacks for longer-term needs, messenger bags, duffels and even a diaper bag for those with babies. No two bags are alike, of course. Some were once school-kid day packs – colorful, or with bold patterns like hounds tooth checks, and not really roomy enough to carry your whole life.

Others are major backpacks: external-frame; extended-trip packs with 5500 cubic inches of volume; 30+ inches high. You can definitely see the entirety of your possessions fitting inside.

When you have no permanent base that you can call  home, you have to have with you not just the important physical-needs stuff (tooth and body care; condoms; matches; ID; bus passes; cat or dog food if you have a pet) – but also, the stuff that’s important to sustain your soul and spirit.

Clothes, undergarments, and sleeping bags could take up most of the space. But you’d allow plenty of room for favorite DVDs and paperbacks, personal journals, and precious batteries. Some, who enjoy making their own clothing, will have a collection of fabric scraps for future patchwork garments.

So, what’s in a backpack are personal items, symbols of simple human need (the practical) and emotions, hopes and dreams (the spiritually satisfying). In other words, the same things you would keep – and treasure – in your purse, family album, briefcase or home.

“In the end we’re all just people.” – Elisabeth Moore, a Teen Feed Advocate