Jackson County has the third-highest number of homeless and at-risk children in Oregon – an estimated 2,500, according to the Department of Education. Homeless youth are more likely to miss school or drop out, receive lower scores on standardized tests and have a higher probability of suffering from depression, physical illnesses, and learning disabilities.
Mary Ferrell (’99) has been working to give homeless and at-risk youth a better chance for education and security. She founded the Medford-based, nonprofit Maslow Project in 2006 as a one-stop resource for homeless youth.
The Maslow Project provides a variety of services and necessities to area homeless youth, including food and clothing, hygiene items, laundry facilities and access to computers, school supplies, mental-health counseling and case management.
“We offer tools to help relieve some of the stress of students not having their needs met enough to focus on school,” Ferrell said. “When kids have their basic needs met, they can make progress in school.”
The education department defines homelessness as lack of a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” This means homeless youth might be living in emergency shelters, motels or couch surfing, or they could be sleeping in cars, parks or doorways.
After graduating from SOU with a degree in history, Ferrell worked for the Medford school system where she saw firsthand the difficulties students faced when their basic needs were not met. She also learned how complicated it was for students and families to access available services. “I realized that everything designed to help people had several layers of hoops to get through,” she said.
Ferrell rolled up her sleeves and partnered with other organizations to collect supplies such as backpacks, clothes and food, and ultimately founded the Maslow Project. “The goal was one stop for supplies, but there were other needs as well,” she said.
Ferrell would help in any way she could—even standing in line for food boxes when families were unable to get to the places supplying the food. Her partnerships grew, and the work expanded.
Today, the Medford School District, as well as the Ashland, Phoenix-Talent, Rogue River and Grants Pass school districts contract with the Maslow Project to provide services to their homeless populations.
The organization’s name and purpose are inspired by Abraham Maslow’s pyramid-shaped Hierarchy of Needs. Basic needs come first: food, water, shelter and clothing. Additional support services such as education, counseling, mentoring and tutoring follow.
“There is still so much work to do,” Ferrell said. “We have very little affordable housing in the region. The housing crisis is a serious issue.”
Despite the challenges, Ferrell’s work is paying off. As of last summer, 70 percent of the students served by the Maslow Project last year in the Medford School District had graduated from high school. That is significant since Medford’s overall four-year graduation rate for homeless high school seniors is higher than the state and national averages.
Since its start, the Maslow Project has received national and international recognition for its work, including an award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children & Youth. The recognition is nice, but feedback from the students has been the best reward.
“We have students who are incredible success stories, who give back to the community. Some stay connected with us and work with the project helping other kids,” she said. “One student is working with us now; she’s at SOU and she’s completely turned her life around.”
Ferrell says her time at SOU helped shape her life.
“While I was at SOU, I was a young mom raising two children. I had to balance school and family, and SOU made me feel so supported,” she said. “My son’s daycare program on campus was wonderful, and my instructors didn’t look down on me for being nontraditional. It all gave me a real sense of community.”
While she knew she wanted to work in a service capacity, Ferrell says she originally considered law school. “Then I realized it was easier to effect change working in my own community,” she said.
Ferrell advises young people considering a work in service to be fearless.
“I feel like young people think you have to wait for an opportunity, but I say don’t worry about it,” she said. “If you feel like you have a solution, put yourself out there. There is so much need, and there is a lot that a single person can do.”
Reprinted from the Spring 2017 issue of The Raider, SOU’s alumni magazine