Lataja Marshall, a troubled kid from a broken home, was headed down a path of self-destruction.
“I had no outlet,” the Garfield native says, “no one to talk to.”
Now, the 20-year-old is on the road to home ownership and self-sufficiency; all she needed was a little serenity.
Marshall, and others like her, are finding help and hope at Serenity Living Transitional Home, a nonprofit organization that provides social supports and shelter to women between the ages of 18 and 23 who are at risk for homelessness.
Ashley Moorefield opened the center last March after a decade of counseling local teens at her co-ed mentoring program, Taking Youth Higher. She’d founded that organization in her backyard with help from her husband, Shawn Moorefield, in 2007.
The couple saw kids aging out of the foster care system and school-based social services, and they could see that these young adults lacked basic life skills.
“We thought, ‘What can we do?’ These kids were going back to the streets or turning to violence,” Moorefield remembers. “Eventually, we both just decided to move out of our house and started the process of opening the program in our home, moving kids from what could sometimes be a toxic environment.”
The facility, located on the border of Larimer and East Liberty, is a place of peace but not complacency. Residents must be willing to work on improving their situation.
Motivational posters hang on the walls, which are painted in calming shades of purple and blue. There are three bedrooms — two singles and one that is shared — plus a communal living space, a computer room, an eat-in kitchen and a laundry area.
An on-site food pantry ensures that no one goes hungry. But residents are encouraged to feed themselves, whether that means purchasing groceries with cash or food stamps. That focus on financial management is a piece of the puzzle. Learning how to make and maintain a budget is just one of the ways Serenity prepares residents for independent living.
Residents also benefit from cooking lessons, resume writing workshops, makeup tutorials, driver’s education classes and advice from volunteer mentors.
Marshall, a participant in the Moorefields’ Taking Youth Higher program since the age of 13, moved into the home in January. Since then, she’s learned everything from how to cut a pineapple to how to prepare her tax return. She’s also had a chance to figure out how to handle her own reactions to the stresses of life.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned about myself over the last few months is that I’m the type of person who is either all on or all off,” she admits. “I need balance. I need structure. I’ve gotten better from the time I started. I used to get frustrated and quit.”
Although residents are given up to one year to get on their feet, Marshall hopes to “graduate” early. She’s been saving up to rent an apartment and, eventually, to buy her own home. During weekly, one-on-one meetings with Moorefield, she’s studying the do’s and don’ts of signing a lease.
So far, Serenity Living Transitional Home has seen eight women come and go. The Moorefields hope to open their doors to even more young women thanks to a $14,868 Small and Mighty grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation.
Since 2016, the Small and Mighty initiative has helped smaller nonprofits with annual budgets under $600,000 to grow and thrive. This year, more than $300,000 has been awarded to 22 local organizations.
“Many of these organizations can be overshadowed by larger nonprofits that have more resources and connections in seeking financial support,” said the Foundation’s President and CEO, Maxwell King, in announcing the grants. “By dedicating a program to support smaller, community-based groups, we help more people access services and programs that will enable them to become full participants in the strong local economy.”
Moorefield, the mother of two and Serenity’s only full-time staff person, sees the grant as a blessing.
“I’m overwhelmed and excited,” she says. “My husband and I have paid all of this out-of-pocket for the first year … everything from rent to toilet paper. To get a grant, it meant that someone believed in our mission and gave us hope that people will see what we are doing and get involved.”
Serenity is in need of volunteers, including tech-savvy folks who can build databases, home maintenance experts and professionals willing to mentor residents in their respective career fields.
Community members can also help by donating money, toiletries, trash bags, paper towels and other supplies. And Serenity welcomes corporate sponsorships that can go toward an individual’s stay or a specific service.
Growing up in Homewood in a family of eight kids, Moorefield often struggled. But, through her mentor, Patricia Jones of Today’s Youth Motivating Everyone (TYME), she was able to overcome adversity and extend a helping hand to others in need.
Having seen the difference that Moorefield is making, Marshall says she’s willing to pay it forward and be a mentor as well.
“Ashley’s helped me so much,” she says. “I’d probably do anything that she asked me to do.”