Numerous community members have supported Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana, a Kalispell-based nonprofit that serves unaccompanied homeless high school students, through volunteering, donating and staffing the 24/7, 365-day-a-year operation.
But only one of those people has ever held the title of executive director — until now.
Jerramy Dear-Ruel, who had been in the position since Sparrow’s Nest earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2016, recently handed the baton to Rachelle Morehead, signifying a changing of the guard for an organization unlike any other in the state.
“We’re very unique,” Morehead said. “We’re the only one in Montana with this exact model.”
Dear-Ruel plans to remain active in the valley and surrounding region as a nonprofit consultant specializing in youth homelessness. Morehead, a Flathead Valley native who has a degree in community health from Montana State University, brings a varied background in the nonprofit and human-service fields, including working with child abuse and neglect for the state of Montana.
“I’m very excited to get started,” Morehead said. “I think this is the best opportunity for me to take my passions for nonprofit fundraising and making sure we’re an ethical organization, and also that case management piece of, ‘How do I impact these kids and make sure they’re better than when I found them?’”
Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana formed in 2013 as a volunteer group of Flathead High School parents who wanted to address the issue of youth homelessness. The group expanded into a community effort with a board of directors and set its sights on achieving nonprofit status to become its own fiscal agent, establishing a home and hiring an executive director, all of which happened in 2016.
That year, Sparrow’s Nest hired Dear-Ruel and unveiled a home in Whitefish that allowed five homeless students at a time to live safely under its roof. The organization then moved into a larger permanent home in 2018 in Kalispell, donated by Brian and Victoria Tanko, which can house eight high school students at a time. The home was thoroughly renovated as to “essentially be a brand new facility,” Dear-Ruel said.
“Being in Kalispell is a really good way to connect with the whole Flathead Valley,” Dear-Ruel said. “We’re able to serve youth all over the valley.”
The organization seeks to give unaccompanied homeless high school students resources and stability through a safe place to sleep at night, which decreases the level of hardship and stress in their lives, gives them a comfortable home environment, allows them to focus more in school and increases their chance of success.
Students must apply and meet various criteria, including enrollment in either high school or the HiSET equivalency program and no substance abuse. Sparrow’s Nest program participants have a 99 percent graduation rate, whereas Dear-Ruel said the national dropout rate for youth experiencing homelessness is 75 percent.
“This is a way to set them up for success and break that cycle of poverty they’ve been in all their lives,” Dear-Ruel said. “It’s a way for them to break that and get a lot more opportunities after graduation.”
The home is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The students are long-term residents with expectations of contributing in the household.
“We’re not a shelter,” Dear-Ruel said. “With this model, it’s more of a permanent housing for these students.”
Given the limited space, the nonprofit refers non-qualifying students to other local resources and also works with organizations such as the Samaritan House and Ray of Hope to place over-18 homeless young men and women in safe environments. Sparrow’s Nest also distributes donated clothing, hygiene products and other necessities to them.
The organization’s staff members work to cultivate a communal home environment in the house while coordinating with the schools and community resources to help the students in all aspects of their lives. They encourage the students to participate in extracurricular activities, secure jobs and enjoy healthy, safe social pursuits.
“Part of it is we’re trying to build resiliency,” Morehead said. “There’s a lot that goes into each student.”
For more information, visit www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org.
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