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Bill Wilson Center Makes Dreams Come True for Homeless Youth

Bill Wilson Center Makes Dreams Come True for Homeless Youth

Just say “Yes!” when the White House calls and invites you to speak. That’s what Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center (BWC) in Santa Clara, said the morning of May 19 when the White House phoned and asked her to speak about BWC’s strategies for ending youth homelessness.

Harlan made the exciting announcement to the 400 attendees of the Bill Wilson Center’s 12th Annual Building Dreams Luncheon held at the Santa Clara Convention Center the same day she received the call to travel to Washington, D.C., to speak on June 3.

Treating youth and their families in the least restrictive setting–serving them in a home–is one of the guiding principles of the BWC that Harlan will share.


“A home is what young people want,” said Harlan. That is their dream.

Rather than focusing on the problems of homeless youth, the Building Dreams luncheon focused on BWC’s successes in reducing youth homelessness. Three hundred youth a year were under lock up in juvenile hall in 2008. Today the number is 100, a 200 percent reduction.

In 2009, the decades-old 132-bed county children’s shelter in San Jose was shut down. Instead, children were placed in licensed foster homes or returned to the homes of relatives and provided with appropriate social services. Under this system, one thousand youth a year have been kept off the streets.

The second phase of BWC’s plan, already underway, is to better assist the more difficult youth population to serve–homeless families with children, youth with mental health or substance abuse issues, LGBT youth and the couch surfers who are “one couch away from living on the street.”

“You can’t solve a problem unless you can measure it,” said Harlan. So BWC has already launched its plan to survey high schools and community colleges to access the number of youth who need help. BWC will spend the next nine months systematically counting these youth and will bring the numbers to the 2017 BWC Building Dreams luncheon.

“The Bill Wilson Center is a bench mark in the county and for all county systems in the U.S.,” BWC Board Vice-President Ron Ricci told luncheon attendees.

Cathey Edwards, Executive Director of Faith in Action Silicon Valley Rotating Shelter and Homeless Services Coordinator at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, volunteers with church members to bring lunch twice a month to the approximately 60 youth at the BWC drop in center in San Jose.

“The Bill Wilson Center is one of the best youth nonprofits in the country, and providing lunch is one way we can help Bill Wilson do what they do best,” said Edwards. “They stay focused on their mission, and when they expand their services, they just provide more services to youth and their families.”

Each year the Building Dreams luncheon includes a youth success story, and this year Darius Reese shared his story. Reese was placed in foster care with his grandmother in southern California from the moment he was born to a mother who was a drug addict.

Reese received a grant to attend San Jose State University, but he couldn’t afford a place to live. BWC found on-campus housing for him through its Transitory Housing Plus program for youth ages 18 – 24.

After graduation, Reese began working towards his Masters Degree at SJSU and accepted an unpaid internship in kinesiology at Stanford University, but again, he had no place to live. BWC offered him his current position as a house monitor at one of its transitional homes.

“Thank you very much for helping me–a foster youth from a drug-infested neighborhood,” said Reese. “Thanks for listening to my story about my dreams I believe I will achieve.”

“I have a few things I want to do before I retire,” said Sparky Harlan, who has been BWC’s CEO since 1983. “I want to end youth homelessness by 2020.”

To help BWC reach its Building Dreams luncheon fund-raising goal of $125 thousand–and to help Harlan attain her pre-retirement dream–text a donation to 41444 or visit the website: The confidential youth hotline for help is 1 (888) 247-7717.


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