Jennifer Swain and the staff at youthSpark saw what could only be described as a “gap in the juvenile court system.” It needed to be addressed.

“We have historically worked in the area of child sex trafficking since our beginning in 2000,” Swain, who is Executive Director of youthSpark, says. “Since Georgia’s sex trafficking movement has grown and expanded under the [Statewide] Human Trafficking Task Force, we’ve begun to intervene with the juvenile court as soon as possible. So, we’ve built out a space for youth services for girls who have experienced exploitation, and then we began serving boys and LGBTQ+ youth.”

The programs were non-gender specific, Swain says. They created programs geared toward LGBTQ+ youth to provide a safety net to support them in school and “increase their voice around sexual identity and gender.”

But Swain says there were still problems with how data around LGBTQ+ youth was being collected in the court system. She said the Fulton County Juvenile Court system didn’t collect sexual orientation data “nor did they identify and report that data in young people.”

So, youthSpark, a longtime partner of United Way of Greater Atlanta, joined with Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform in a project that would enhance youthSpark’s capacity and the juvenile court’s system to become a national leader in creating a fair, inclusive and respectful culture.

This Capstone Project is called “Intentional Culture Change to Reduce LGBTQ+ Youth Discrimination, Victimization, & Overcriminalization,” according to a press release from youthSpark.

The project focuses on eight primary goals and objectives developed from an intensive review of youth experiences, quantitative data on the challenges LGBTQ+ young people face in Fulton County and a review of recommended best practices in serving this vulnerable population.

“We don’t know a lot about the LGBTQ+ population in the Fulton juvenile system, but the Atlanta homelessness study, or the Atlanta homelessness study we worked on with Dr. Eric Wright at Georgia State University, was the launching pad to see how to serve this population,” Swain says. “The way to do that was to find out how many of these kids identify in ways we don’t know.”

LGBTQ+ youth are at a much greater risk of becoming homeless. You can help United Way today provide more resources for LGBTQ+ youth and families.

The Capstone Project has potential to improve the well-being of LGBTQ+ youth and their families in communities across Greater Atlanta.

youthSpark’s Youth Services Center is at the heart of the organization’s work and serving LGBTQ+ youth is encompassed in that work. According to youthSpark’s 2019-20 annual report, since opening the Center in 2017, they have served more than 600 kids with 121 acts of crisis intervention, 2,200 instances of individual counseling, 565 group therapy sessions and more than 12,000 hours of intervention services.

Those direct services have helped youthSpark reimagine how to serve students and provide training for school—to make sure they are college and career ready.

The nonprofit’s goals align with United Way’s mission to improve the Child Well-Being of Greater Atlanta’s 13 counties and create an environment where all children can thrive.

“We are looking for organizations who can change the trajectory for young people,” says Michele Jacobs, Director of Youth Development at United Way. “We are looking for programs that remove systemic barriers and increase access to College and Career Ready opportunities for youth and young adults in low and very-low Child Well-Being communities. youthSpark is a unique organization that offers real solutions for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

“All their programs have been designed to create systematic change for trauma-exposed youth and the communities in which they live.”

Jacobs says grant managers and members of the Community Engagement team at United Way meet regularly to talk with organizations like youthSpark to find successes and challenges the organizations face. The goal is to help determine the level of support needed.

“We are true thought and collaborative partners in ensuring young people are equipped with resources they need to obtain education and secure positions in high-growth careers,” Jacobs says.

Swain has worked with youthSpark for 13 years and has been the executive director for over four years now. She says United Way’s support has been instrumental in allowing them to expand services.

“United Way has always supported our work, and when we transitioned our work over to the community-based response, United Way was our very first funder,” Swain says. “We’re very grateful for our partnership with United Way.”

When a community unites, lives can be changed. When we work together—pooling our resources, time and energy—our community impact grows exponentially to create and equitable future for all. Can children, families and Greater Atlanta communities count on you?