Leadership Columbus participants put a face to an unseen population with their new campaign.

Twenty-two-year-old Kale, a guest at Star House in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood, looks like an average college student. Wearing one large hoop earring, a Batman T-shirt and baggy, paint-splattered pants, she smiles as she talks about yoga, roller-skating and the kindness of strangers. One day, she confides, she’d like to become a professional artist. But Kale isn’t a college student. She spends most nights trying to avoid falling asleep outside.

Though more than 3,000 youths in Central Ohio are homeless and another 4,000 are at risk of becoming homeless within two weeks, the problem remains nearly invisible. Not only do these young people tend to blend in with others their age, but they’re also disenfranchised from their families. Minors are ineligible for many government support services, leaving them to survive on their own. Without help, they often suffer from disease, violence, abuse and human trafficking.

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Six participants in the 2019 class of Leadership Columbus’ Signature Program, the civic-minded nonprofit’s 10-month training course, hope to illuminate this plight. As part of their culminating social service project, Josh Fitzwater, Mike Ball, Samir Dahman, Marc Hunter, Elizabeth Robbins and Melissa Thompson created “Strength in Stories,” a campaign designed to raise public consciousness about homeless youths.

In collaboration with Star House, a research-based center that provides support services for homeless youths from ages 14 to 24, the Leadership Columbus team set out to make this population not only more visible but actually seen, a distinction that Fitzwater, founder of Holden Ellis marketing, draws when discussing the campaign tagline, #CBusSeeUs. His team aimed to capture the humanity of these young people, including their struggles and triumphs, fears and hopes, losses and redemptions. “Struggle has to be part of this story,” Fitzwater says, “but more importantly, positivity.”

The team shot a two-minute video about Kale, who, like all Star House guests, uses an alias, and they took more than a dozen individual portraits of other guests, which they’re working to make into murals on area buildings. Fitzwater also has a vision for a website someday, allowing homeless youths to share their stories, artwork, needs and inspirations. The campaign is designed to bolster those young people, but their stories have strengthened the Signature Program participants as well. They have never collaborated so seamlessly and tirelessly, says Leadership Columbus director Robbie Banks. Many worked on the project on their own time and are continuing long after graduation, including Jeff Pongonis, who is looking for places to incorporate the murals, and Helen Speiser, a participant from another team who’s helping to find campaign funding.

Though the team’s vision for the campaign has grown, Kale’s everyday needs remain modest. Asked what has helped her, she describes a thermos a farmer gave in exchange for work, which allowed her to take sips of warm water on cold nights. She tells a story about a gas station clerk who gave her an apple when she hadn’t eaten in days. “A little bit of care can go a long way,” she says. “It feels really scary and lonely to have nothing, but when he gave that apple to me it felt like everything.”

She has faith that the public is generous as well, saying that when people truly see the extent of the youth homeless problem in Columbus they will help. “Eventually, you’re not going to walk down the street and see a kid sleeping under a bridge.”

Editor’s note: The print version of this story misidentified Helen Speiser. This article has been updated with her name and to reflect the contributions of Jeff Pongonis.

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