“I was homeless, not in a good place,” recalled Darryl Branch, of his teen years in Raleigh. On probation in fourth grade and kicked out of school by the time he was a high school sophomore, Branch was a poster child for the term “at-risk” youth. “I knew I needed help. A pastor told me Haven House was a safe place, so I went in one day.”
That was more than 15 years ago, but Branch still remembers the day. It was the day he started to feel some hope, began to see a path forward.
Volunteers gave him food, set him up in an apartment and helped him in court — but there was more. The folks at Haven House Services also gave him a business suit, offered him finance classes and led him through mock interviews to prepare him to get a job.
With new skills and a newfound confidence, Branch headed west where he finished his GED, got a driver’s license, a job, and eventually, an applied science degree. Today, the 35-year-old works as a journeyman for one of the top construction companies in the country, yet he still thinks about Haven House.
“I don’t know where I would be without those people,” explained Branch. “They gave me a way out of a situation I thought I couldn’t get out of. Haven House gave me a lifeline when I really needed it.”
Branch isn’t alone. Over the last 45 years, thousands of Triangle youth have had life-changing experiences through Haven House.
Whatever it takes
The nonprofit works with any young person, 6 to 22 years old, who is in crisis, whether it is homelessness, abuse, at-risk behavior or trouble at home with families. Although its stated mission, “to help youth be safe, supported and successful,” sounds straightforward and simple, it is often anything but.
Michelle Zechmann, Haven House Services CEO, describes their service approach as the more complicated “whatever it takes.”
“We want folks to know that no matter who walks through our door and what they are looking for, this is the place for help,” she said. “It’s never just, ‘No, we don’t do that, call someone else.’ Even if we aren’t the right people, we listen to their story and make sure they get connected to the right services.”
The nonprofit operates 11 different programs. Among them are Wrenn House, the region’s only emergency shelter for homeless, runaway, or troubled youth; a popular after-school boxing program called Second Round, which keeps kids engaged and encourages a healthy and fit lifestyle; counseling and family therapy; support for youth referred from the Wake County Juvenile Court; and efforts to prevent or end gang involvement.
Zechmann says kids in crisis come from every ZIP code in the area.
“Any kid can make a bad decision or be in a bad family situation. We see kids from every single Wake County school. We hear from parents and grandparents. The teen years can be tough for everyone involved,” she said.
A better way
Zechmann brings the same compassion and commitment to the oversight and growth of Haven House as its founders did 45 years ago. In the early ’70s when a judge and a pastor declared there had to be a better way to deal with kids in crisis than put them in detention, Haven House was born, and its array of services has expanded ever since.
Once almost completely dependent on government funding, Zechmann’s focus is on growing its financial support from the community through partnerships, grants and volunteers.
Nina Long, a local HR executive, started volunteering at Haven House more than 10 years ago by spearheading Thanksgiving and Christmas donations on behalf of her company. She was so drawn to the work and mission, she went on to become a long-time board member, and helped start an annual fundraiser called “Battle of the Bags,” the largest cornhole tournament in Raleigh.
“One of our primary goals was to share the Haven House name and to get the good work we are doing out in the community,” said Long.
Haven House Services is currently in need of a permanent home since its lease in Boylan Heights is ending soon. Wrenn House needs a new driveway so the kids can play basketball. When North Carolina’s “Raise the Age” law goes into effect later this year, Zechmann expects more 16- and 17-year-olds to move into the juvenile justice system. That will mean more youth will be eligible for the services Haven House offers.
“I love what the agency does,” Long said. “To see over and over the positive results that we have in helping the youth we serve is extremely rewarding, but there is always more to do.”
Branch recently brought his 14-year-old son to Haven House to look around.
“I want him to know there are people and places to help,” he said. “And I want him to know good things can come out of Haven House.”