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Program of Promise gives hope to youths in trouble

If you are a teen and you are homeless, a future full of promise may seem out of reach. But a new program in Duluth is reaching out to young people who have major obstacles to overcome before they take off on a path for a successful life.

If you are a teen and you are homeless, a future full of promise may seem out of reach. But a new program in Duluth is reaching out to young people who have major obstacles to overcome before they take off on a path for a successful life.

Program of Promise is helping young people in the Duluth area get the education, training and life skills they will need to become reliable employees and independent, productive members of the community.

"We break down the barriers that are hindering young people to succeed," said Judy Phifer, coordinator for the program.

Phifer works in a basement office in Life House, the drop-in center for at-risk teens in downtown Duluth. On a typical day, she will take a teen to Lake Superior College to fill out an entrance application, take another for a driver's test and teach another how to do his or her taxes. In her spare time, she wants to make contact with local employers and set up job shadowing, mentoring and internship programs that will launch youths on successful career paths.

Program of Promise is funded through the Boys and Girls Club, and about 100 individuals and businesses have thrown their support behind it. Any club member can access the services of Program of Promise, which helps youths look to the future on several different levels. Younger teens may simply want information on a career, and the program can help by setting them up with a tour or a job shadowing experience. Others need more help, and the program expanded to the Life House location in December to attract youth in need of more intense job and life skill services.

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"It was a logical choice, and Life House is doing a great job with Program of Promise," said Steve Mangan, executive director of the Ordean Foundation, which has contributed to the program.

Phifer agrees the location at Life House is a good fit. The young people who visit Life House come because they are hungry, often homeless and need help with a variety of problems in their life.

Phifer said teens end up homeless for a variety of reasons. Conflicts at home, pregnancy and drug abuse by family members are all reasons why young people in St. Louis County end up on the streets, she said.

Once basic needs for housing, food and clothing are met, many teens look to their future.

"We help young people, typically older teens, between 16 to 20 tops, who may have dropped out of school and maybe they are working in fast food, and they have figured out that they want to do something different with their lives," Phifer said. "With some, it takes a lot of talking and trying to light a fire under them, which is typical of any teen, except they don't have a place to go or food to eat."

That was true for Duane Valure and his girlfriend Katie Degeler, both 17. Both dropped out of high school after the 10th grade. Both were homeless. They each now live in transitional housing provided through Life House. Degeler is pregnant.

Valure and Degeler came to Life House for support and counseling and have received food and shelter. Now they are ready to set their sights on the future, and Program of Promise is helping. On one afternoon, the pair logged on to Phifer's computer to search the Minnesota WorkForce Center's job bank. Earlier in the day, Valure had gone on an interview for a job he found on the site.

The couple, who eventually want to marry, have a life plan.

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Pointing to Phifer, Valure said, "She's getting me into college. She helped me fill out the application, she got the fee waived and I am starting this summer." He is finishing up work on his GED and plans on taking, and completing, a two-year auto mechanic course at Lake Superior College.

Degeler has already completed her GED, and Phifer helped her fill out her application to LSC, but she will delay starting until next fall, because her baby is due in May. She plans on taking all the necessary course work to become a registered nurse.

"I'm planning long-term to be an RN," she said. "And the college knows what I am planning."

Both teens credit the help they have received through Life House with helping them look to a future that will hold promise.

"We're doing it on our own, with the help of the Life House staff," Valure said.

"If Life House didn't exist, I wouldn't have my GED, and I probably would not be going to college," Degeler said.

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