Zara Babitzke and Jeannine Curley came from different backgrounds, but both faced serious challenges while growing up. It’s not surprising that the two remarkable women chose careers where they could help others—specifically at-risk youth.
In 2003, Babitzke, who experienced homelessness in her youth, founded the Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity (AHO) to help homeless teens and young adults, aged 16 to 25. AHO services include providing housing, jobs, free dental care, free eye exams and glasses, legal aid and trauma counseling.
Almost a decade later, Curley, who experienced significant loss and grief as a child, established Opening the World (OTW) to serve at-risk youth, aged 16 to 25. The organization’s hallmark program includes bringing the youth to impoverished communities, in the United States and around the world, to perform community service projects.
Although both of these thriving nonprofits play a critical role in improving the lives of Marin’s at-risk youth, the organizations each offer unique programs.
Twenty years ago, Babitzke worked at Sunny Hills, an established nonprofit that provided housing to vulnerable children. She managed a program to prepare the youth for success in the outside world, rather than just sending 18 year olds with no life skills on their way. Unfortunately, government funding for the crucial program ended.
At the time, Babitzke was working with James, who would soon be transitioning out of Sunny Hills. Without the program, she worried about the future of James and the other participants.
“I couldn’t just walk away from the young people that trusted me and had a whole history of adults not following through and supporting them,” Babitzke said. “So, I worked three jobs and started helping the people that I had been helping from Sunny Hills. I realized that I would eventually need to start a nonprofit because the gap for transitional services was huge. These young people didn’t have the support they needed to actualize their potential and create a life with hope and purpose and meaning.”
From AHO’s inception in 2003, the organization has accomplished its mission without government funding. Many services are supported by partnerships with local dentists, optometrists and families who open their homes to unsheltered youth, while other needs are funded by generous donors.
The program is designed for the youth to stay up to five years; however, if a person needs to stay with AHO for additional time, Babitzke doesn’t turn them away. The goal is to ensure that young people don’t fall through the cracks.
AHO also serves young victims of sex trafficking. When law enforcement calls AHO to meet with the youth, Babitzke enlists the help of an AHO participant who has experienced the same trauma.
“It’s scary for the person because they don’t trust adults and mainstream institutions,” Babitzke said. “Having an ally or mentor talk with the person, learning about AHO from someone with a similar background, there’s nothing more powerful than that.”
Babitzke stresses that everyone coming into the AHO family must ask for help. She likens the situation to that of an addict, who will only accept assistance when they’re ready.
Since AHO’s humble beginnings when it relied on funding from Babitzke’s three jobs, the nonprofit has helped more than 5,300 people. Even more amazing is that AHO provided housing support to almost 5,000 Marin youth.
OTW just celebrated its 10th anniversary of giving at-risk youth in Marin a caring, safe and stable environment. While participants come from culturally diverse backgrounds, they bond by sharing their unfortunate experiences, such as trauma, loss of parents or siblings, substance abuse, homelessness and poverty. Many have also been in the foster care or probation systems.
Curley, who is OTW’s founder and a licensed therapist, was inspired to start the organization while visiting Nepal and India as a young woman.
“I saw dire poverty, with children living in the slums,” Curley said. “It changed my whole life perspective, and I had a vision to work with young people that had similar life experiences to me. I wanted to bring them to Nepal to experience a new culture, broaden their thinking and help others.”
Eventually, Curley’s dream came true. It took years of grassroots fundraising by selling chocolate bars, holding car washes and wrapping gifts at bookstores before OTW participants visited Nepal. For those who made the trip, it was just as life-changing as Curley hoped it would be.
Diana Angelica Valdes-Contreras, 28, an OTW alumni, said the small village in Nepal brought back memories of the Mexican village she left at age 12, when she crossed the United States border with her single mother.
“We helped the people rebuild a school in this remote Nepal village,” Valdes-Contreras said. “It reminded me a lot of home because of the group thinking, the family thinking, the community thinking. It gave me a whole other perspective of what life could be. You don’t have the things you have in the U.S., but you still have family, and you still laugh every day.”
Another alumni, Carmen Erdle-Ringor, 32, recently resigned from a lucrative job in the tech industry to work at OTW, the organization that helped her immensely during her youth. As a four year old, Erdle-Ringor witnessed her sister drown. Her mother, who was an addict, blamed her. She spent time in the foster care system and was homeless, as well. Although she attended 10 different schools in Marin, she didn’t graduate high school.
The five community service trips that Erdle-Ringor went on were eye-opening, yet other aspects of the program mean just as much to her. And it all keeps coming back to Curley.
“Jeannine got me a tutor so I could get my GED, and I got it,” Erdle-Ringor said. “She helped with my resume to apply for jobs. All of the resources that I found through Jeannine and this program saved my life. Now, I can take what I found and give it back to the youth.”
Valdes-Contreras, who is a marketing manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego, also sings Curley’s praises. The time that Valdes-Contreras spent with OTW and Curley helped transform her into a confident, accomplished young woman.
“Jeannine is a very beautiful, integral part of the organization,” Valdes-Contreras said. “Her passion really showed in everything that we did as a group. I became close with Jeannine, and she always made me and everyone else feel that we belonged. That’s very important in my life.”