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Beating the odds

Breana Mikus had been through at least eight high schools by the time she would have been a senior last fall.

By age 14, she and her two brothers already had been in foster care twice, taken from their parents who, Breana said, abused drugs.

"I got separated from my brothers both times," said Breana, who wished her mother could provide her with a stable home. "I wanted to be with my mom."

One day, she said, things at home became too tough, and she finally decided to leave for good.

"I was considering living on the streets in Portland," said Breana, who had grown up mostly in the Salem area. "I dropped out of every school I went to."

Instead, she bounced between foster care, shelters and friends' couches for more than two years until this spring, when she did a search online for youth shelters in Oregon.

She stumbled upon Hearts with a Mission, a Medford youth shelter that lets kids like Breana, now 17, stay for up to 120 days.

She got a bus ticket to Medford in February and arrived at the religion-based shelter, which provided more structure than Breana was used to at Portland shelters.

"People thought I was a really bad street kid," she said.

During her three months at the shelter, Breana's caseworker told her about the Maslow Project, a homeless youth resource center that could help Breana get back in school.

With help from the Maslow Project, Breana enrolled in Central Medford High School's GED prep program last spring and passed all of the exam pre-tests within her first week.

By June, she had passed all five GED tests offered at Rogue Community College and received her certificate.

Breana was one of 22 homeless students in the Medford School District monitored by the Maslow Project this year who received a high school diploma or GED.

Next month, Breana, along with several other youths who received help from the Maslow Project, will head to RCC to continue her education.

Others are entering the workforce, and a few have applied to colleges out of the area.

Of all the high school seniors monitored by Maslow this year, about 70 were able to graduate or get a GED.

"I'm just amazed at the things they've had the ability to overcome," said Fallon Stewart, high school case manager for the Maslow Project. "Being under 18 and being 100 percent responsible for yourself is a huge challenge."

The Maslow Project was able to connect last year with about 300 homeless students in the Medford School District, about 30 of them homeless high school seniors.

However, this makes only a dent in the homeless student population, which includes about 1 in 10 students in the district, the Maslow Project staff estimate.

If that estimate is accurate, 1,300 students in the district were homeless during the 2011-12 school year, with an additional 270 identified homeless children who aren't yet school-age.

The definition includes students who are couch surfing, camping and those living in unsafe environments.

The majority of the students, according to Stewart, have separated from their parents.

"Sometimes it takes a while for them to warm up to me," said Stewart, who personally case-managed about 80 students last year. "It's really hard to admit you're homeless and be put into that category."

The Maslow Project works with the Medford School District to identify homeless students and refer them for help.

On an average day, Stewart said, she can meet with dozens of students both at school and as drop-ins at the center on Monroe Street.

During the past school year, the center saw more than 5,800 walk-in visits for people looking for food, clothing and emergency aid.

For students Breana's age, the Maslow Project typically offers assistance for two years, helping the child to formulate a plan for the future.

In Breana's case, this meant getting her into the transitional living program, which offers housing assistance for students willing to prove they will work hard and take control of their future.

Breana moved into her own apartment two months ago, shortly before receiving her GED.

"It really speaks to her internal resiliency and coping skills," said Lacey Renae, a Maslow Project counselor. "Not everyone makes it."

Run with federal funding and grants, the transitional living program will help Breana pay for her apartment for up to 23 months, when she can apply to take over the lease herself.

Renae said most people don't understand the difference between a runaway who leaves a stable home by choice and a homeless child who leaves because they feel they have no other option.

"I always thought people wanted to be homeless," Breana said. "But I wasn't voluntarily homeless. I didn't choose that."

Only 1 percent of Medford's homeless youths are considered runaways, according to Maslow's statistics.

When she begins college later this summer, Breana plans to study human services, hoping to one day become a Department of Human Services worker.

"I always thought it would be cool to help people," she said.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

Breana Mikus, 17, recently earned her GED with help from the Maslow Project.