DYP Member Spotlight: Michelle Kuhar of Covenant House

Michelle Kuhar, who as Community Relations/PR Liaison for Covenant House Michigan helps promote the group’s efforts to serve the city’s homeless youth, said working with disadvantaged communities has long been on her heart. “I’ve been given so much, it’s almost an obligation to give back,” said Kuhar, who grew up in South Lyon the daughter of a special education teacher and an electrical engineer.

A former Montessori preschool teacher, Kuhar was the 2012 Student of the Year for Eastern Michigan University’s Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, later earning her Master’s degree in nonprofit management from the school. A previous trip to work in an orphanage in India helped shape her perspective on the support she could give the Detroit area.

“In less developed places, people can actually starve to death,” she said. Conditions aren’t quite as dire in Detroit, she said, but “here, I find this starvation of personhood, where there’s no opportunity to thrive.”

Her work looks to change that. Covenant House Michigan, which opened in 1997 and was the beneficiary of last year’s DYP golf outing, provides food, shelter, education and transitional services to the 5,000 Detroit teens who are homeless on any given night.

Kuhar hopes to challenge the stereotype that homelessness is always the product of being lazy or making poor choices. That is sometimes the case, she said, but for the people Covenant House serves it may also be the result of something like a single mother choosing to move in with a boyfriend who has no room for a teenage child. If the youth lacks an external support system, the street often becomes their only option.

“Would you have made the same choices if you were hungry, or in an abusive relationship?” Kuhar said. “These kids have lived a life of chaos and uncertainty, and it’s really hard to get through life when you don’t have that stability.”

Next spring, Covenant House will host a “sleepout,” where participants spend a night in a cardboard box to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be homeless. Kuhar hopes to engage young professionals for that and other events to promote role models for the kids Covenant House serves.

“Where young professionals are is where we want our kids to be,” she said.

But she also cautioned that being an advocate for those in need doesn’t always bring the kind of progress that’s made for movies.

“When people come to help, they often come in with this altruistic attitude of ‘I’m going to change this kid’s life.’ And you have to be able to persevere through disappointment when we have expectations for how it’s going to look and it happens differently,” she said, describing her own experience of wanting a college education for kids she worked with who were more concerned about finding a job. “When you’re in emergency mode, you think of your immediate needs – you’re not thinking 10 years from now. Making a difference for them is being present and encouraging them, to help paint a long-term picture that something else is possible. They can own that dream, but you have to open up that dream.”

Learn more about Covenant House Michigan at http://covenanthousemi.org.

DYP is collecting toiletries at our Riverfront Takeover event at Milliken Park to support Detroit Rescue Mission. Learn more and register for the event HERE.

Tom Keller is a member of the DYP Communications Team. Connect with him on LinkedIn here.