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Pioneering poverty project
Daniel Langager

5/18/2010


Western senior Shelby Matsui helps organize donated clothing at Amy’s Place on Friday, May 14. — photo by Sarah Richardson
Every Friday and Saturday night Western senior Hans Stroo carries racks of soda up the stairs of 1704 North State St.

“The kids love Mountain Dew,” Stroo said. “I can’t stand it, but they love it. I think I have six [24-packs] in my trunk.”

Stroo volunteers at Amy’s Place, a center for homeless and at-risk youth.

He began working with the drop-in center after contacting it through his own volunteer program, the Bellingham Poverty Project.

Stroo started the project one month ago to make it both easy and rewarding for Western students to get involved in the Bellingham community, he said.

“[Organizations] make it really hard to [volunteer] when you should be able to do [it] with welcome arms,” he said. “I wanted to change that.”

Heidi Unick, the director of Amy’s Place, said homeless children need a safe place where more than just their basic needs are met.

“[Stroo] gave me a call and mentioned that he had some blankets and soda and wanted to come over,” Unick said. “I think he feels like he fits and the kids feel like he fits.”

Stroo said it was providence that brought Amy’s Place and the Bellingham Poverty Project together.

“I’m not asking volunteers to do something totally altruistic and sacrificial,” Stroo said. “In a bigger way, I’m offering them something.”

The Bellingham Poverty Project’s immediate goal, Stroo said, is to have 50 different volunteers give 500 total hours of service from May 1 to August 10.

“[The center] is a perfect vehicle for my goal of making it easy to volunteer,” Stroo said. “It’s an experience that makes [students] feel healthier and more involved in the community they live in.”

Stroo said he is trying to set up a version of the “Ashland Food Project,” a neighborhood food drive started in Ashland, Ore. People purchase food for donation and neighborhood captains collect them every two months, Stroo said.


Western seniors Hans Stroo and Shelby Matsui organize donated clothing at Amy’s Place on Friday, May 14. — photo by Sarah Richardson
Stroo said he thinks students will want to volunteer at Amy’s Place because it is a gratifying and eye-opening experience.

“More and more, I started to see that the good [of the project] was exposing these 50 people to this experience at this key point in their college careers,” he said.

Unick said volunteers try to foster change in the youth at the center by building relationships through mentoring and peer support.

“The kids that come here have fallen through the cracks,” Unick said. “Here, they know they’re safe and they know they’re accepted.”

She said the drop-in center provides a clean and sober environment to youth on the streets.

“The majority of them have mental illness and/or chemical dependency,” Unick said.

Amy’s Place is a program of the nonprofit organization Old Town Christian Ministries.

The center is open every Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays are specifically for 18- to 25-year-olds and Saturday nights for 17-year-olds and younger. The center is also open on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. for one-on-one tutoring and counseling.


Western senior Hans Stroo set up for the meal he cooked at Amy’s place on Friday, May 14. — photo by Sarah Richardson
“They can come here for clothes, hygiene products and food, [instead of] stealing them,” Unick said.
Unick said Amy’s Place has cared for 173 children since the beginning of the year, 38 of whom are homeless.

The shelter has helped about 900 children since December 2006, Unick said.

“It’s just about being there and being a role model,” Stroo said. “Someone stable, not chaotic, and who isn’t going to try to use them or talk down to them.”

The shelter also provides computer and telephone access, WTA bus tickets, air hockey, board games, movies, tutoring and assistance with job hunting.

Stroo said he puts together meal teams to cook dinners for the youth that come to Amy’s Place.

“I make a real effort to make sure it’s something that I would want to eat,” he said. “It’s important to me to give these kids the impression that I don’t consider them second-class citizens and that I’m not offering them clothes I wouldn’t want or food I wouldn’t eat.”

Stroo said he purchases the ingredients and puts together a simple recipe.

Alex Berg, a Western student and close friend of Stroo, started volunteering at Amy’s Place two weeks ago.

“It’s a cool opportunity for kids to come and hang out somewhere that’s safe,” Berg said.

Stroo said Berg provides exactly what the kids need — an outgoing personality.

“Where some people are kind of reserved, he has no problem with that,” Stroo said. “[Berg] lets himself be vulnerable and, when you think about it, that’s the rational thing to do.”

Berg said he met a young girl named Jade at the center who likes skateboarding.

“I even got to give her one of my skateboards,” Berg said. “I expect to be here every Friday and Saturday.”


Western senior Paige Schultz helps senior Hans Stroo serve chicken pot pie to Ashleigh “Kasper” Robinson at Amy’s Place on Friday, May 14. — photo by Sarah Richardson
Stroo said many of the youth that come to the center still have clean criminal records.

“They can do all sorts of things,” he said. “It’s easy and slightly more legitimate to write off middle-aged homeless people and it’s easy to say maybe they made a bad decision, but at [Amy’s Place] there are 10- and 15-year-old kids.”

Stroo studies political science and said he chose that major because he has a social imagination.

“I can imagine what it’s like to be all kinds of people,” he said. “I’m capable of caring about people by actually loving the place that I live in and the people that live there.”

After graduating from Western in June, Stroo plans to become an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Stroo said he will go to Quantico, Va. this summer to train as a platoon commander.

“As a second lieutenant, the main job is to take a bunch of young Americans in a treacherous, chaotic situation and bring them home safe,” Stroo said. “Working with at-risk kids is analogous to that.”

Stroo said he tries to view the world through other peoples’ eyes and act accordingly.

“Being a human, being alive, is serious business,” Stroo said. “We must try every day to be better at this business of living.”

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