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Roswell nonprofits create space for local youth recovering from homelessness

ROSWELL, Ga. — Two Roswell nonprofits are teaming up to create a more stable and enriching environment for women and children who have experienced homelessness.

Sunshine on a Ranney Day, a local nonprofit that specializes in building custom rooms for children with special needs, is committing resources to help the Drake House expand its programming and remodel its entire basement complex and teen spaces. Founded in 2012, Sunshine on a Ranney Day was created with the idea that every child should have their own unique space.

Drake House, founded in 2004, has helped close to 500 families get back on their feet after suffering hardships. Its after-school program provides tutoring, enrichment activities and social-emotional learning skills for up to two years for elementary and middle school students who have experienced a level trauma from being homeless, said Nesha Mason, Drake House executive director. The organization also serves single moms.

Over the past couple of years, Mason said space has been the biggest challenge, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it became financially unfeasible to expand its facility. So, she said, the nonprofit shifted its focus to expanding its programming and being more intentional with its existing space, putting the needs of its youth at the forefront while sacrificing its need for more administrative space.

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Mason said that before the pandemic, the Drake House served approximately 30 children, but after the remodeling is completed, it plans to serve up to 50 kids. The goal is to go from a very hard-lined, classroom-type of environment to one that is softer and more inviting to the kids. This will help them manage a range of traumatic stressors that can result in educational and developmental difficulties.

According to data from the Georgia Alliance to End Homelessness, more than 45,500 children experience homelessness each year in Georgia, and those children are four times more likely to be developmentally delayed and twice as likely to have learning disabilities.

The Drake House’s wish list includes an art room, library, study space and meeting space for social-emotional learning. Eventually, they hope to add a dance and yoga space, Mason said.

“We want to provide an environment that is more enriching and embracing and trauma-informed while recognizing the significance and importance of the kids having a dedicated space,” Mason said. “For Sunshine on a Ranney Day to take on our space as their project and bring their resources to the table is a tremendous blessing.”

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Sunshine on a Ranney Day Executive Director Joe Lane said the plan is to start the project in May, with help from Randall-Paulson Architects and Swinerton Construction. By partnering with local businesses and donors, Roswell-based Sunshine on a Ranney Day provides no-cost wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, dream bedrooms and in-home therapy rooms.

Lane said his organization’s partnership with the Drake House is unique because the types of children that they serve need relaxing sensory spaces that support their academic needs.

“It’s a small community, but it’s really cool to have everyone working together to help kids,” Lane said. “When the pandemic hit, the funding for nonprofits evaporated just when it was most critical, so being able to continue serving the missions that we have through partnerships like this has been pretty spectacular.”

Currently, the Drake House has two staff members and numerous volunteers and tutors that work with its youth. Many of its classrooms are multi-purpose, meaning they can serve as an eating area one moment and a mom’s classroom, conference room or storage space the next, which can create some anxiety for children who don’t have a space of their own.

Drake House Director of Programs Cheryl Carter said the primary reasons people in North Fulton become homeless are a loss of income, eviction and domestic violence.

Many, she said, also carry other trauma that has never been addressed, such as an adverse childhood experience or sexual assault. The Drake House works with them to identify, assess and address those issues so they can leave the program ready to acquire and sustain housing.

“In Roswell, the average household income is about $97,000,” Carter said. “I think it’s also important to note that the jobs that are available for families who have a GED pay $12 to $15 an hour, so with 30% of their income, they can afford $500 to $700 in rent per month. There’s not any affordable housing in this market for that except for maybe in DeKalb or Gwinnett County. What did exist in North Fulton has since been torn down to make room for other development.”

Yet, the service industry needs those workers, Mason said.

“When people talk about being a paycheck away from being homeless, that is very literal,” Mason said. “And when you look at all the things that are stacked up against a single mom who is working with one income for the household, I see how they might fall into a situation where they have to choose a car or their house. My mind always goes to the kids because they’re going to school trying to turn on a face of normalcy knowing that when they leave, they're going to spend the night in a parking lot.”

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During the pandemic, Mason said the Drake House has experienced a 65% increase in calls for assistance. She said she hopes the program expansion and remodeling will transform many lives.

“I briefly taught middle school, so I know you can tell in the classroom that something is happening at home with a child,” Mason said. “It’ll be interesting to get their teachers’ feedback. If we get the project down in the time frame we’re hoping for, we’ll go through the summer programming, and I am anticipating that we're going to see some great growth in this next school year.”

In the meantime, the Drake is looking for field trips and other opportunities to take the kids off campus in the spring during construction. The organization needs volunteers – men in particular – who have experience working with children. Mason said its number of volunteers dropped from over 600 to around 200 during the pandemic.

Mason said she’s grateful for the North Fulton community, which has been “tremendously generous” with their time, resources and financial contributions over the years.

The Drake House is located at 10500 Clara Drive. For more information or to donate, call 770-587-4712 or visit thedrakehouse.org.

Reach Chamian Cruz at 770-847-8079. Follow her on Twitter @xchamian.