A pair of shoes. A bag of groceries. A bike. To the naked eye, these items are trivial. But to at-risk youth, these items are the difference between surviving and thriving.
When Cathy O’Connor and her family moved to the Grand Traverse area in 2012, she learned that approximately 500 local public-school children were struggling with homelessness, a statistic that rocked her to her core.
“I couldn’t believe it,” O’Connor said. “You think everything in Traverse City is great, but you start digging a little deeper and you see there is significant population of families that are fragile.”
Motivated to help, O’Connor began looking for ways to make a difference. As sitting PTO president at Old Mission Elementary at the time and a former principal and teacher, she used her experience to connect with schools, form relationships with staff, and began fulfilling needs as they came about, including planning food and clothing drives.
“It was very informal to start; just do-gooding little things. It became this loose network of friends and parents doing things like that.”
Sadly, as her efforts were gaining momentum, tragedy struck the O’Connor family. In 2016, their 22-year-old son committed suicide following a battle with depression. As her and her family were reeling from the tragedy, their friends came to their aid.
“Our son fell through our hands in a supportive family,” she explained. “We had all the resources possible and he had everything going for him. This just made me recognize how hard it is for kids who don’t have that. This tragedy brought about a desire by so many of our friends and people we knew to do something and help.”
And in that same year, O’Connor started Step Up Northern Michigan, the nonprofit organization that formalized her efforts to help at-risk youth over the past several years.
What separates Step Up Northern Michigan from other organizations is that they have not limited themselves to supplying just food. O’Connor and her dedicated volunteers help fulfill any need a child and their family might have. Over the years, this has included providing clothing, beds, a set of tires, a bike chain, even a therapy dog.
“We have not had to say no to any request we’ve had so far. It’s such a beautiful thing.”
O’Connor attributes the organization’s ability to meet these needs to the connections she’s made and the generosity of the greater community.
“It’s all about the relationships, quite honestly,” she explained. “If a kid is in need of something, I have a list of people I can ask. And whenever I get an opportunity to speak someone about the program, they want to help.
For instance, Step Up Northern Michigan and local students held what was a simple fundraising garage sale at Double Edge Thrift Shop in Traverse City last year.
This manifested into a work study program with Traverse City High School; an opportunity to teach at-risk youth retails skills through hands-on experience. The shop even created a dedicated section, aptly named “Maverick’s Corner” after the students’ school mascot, in which the profit from the items sold is given back to their school.
“We have so much here in our community,” she said. “We always have enough to give.”
While the relationships with charitable individuals and businesses are important, it’s O’Connor’s selfless dedication to the children that remains at the heart of the organization. Despite her busy schedule, she still takes time to help children one-on-one. This can be as simple as visiting a teen at their place of work to say hi to spending a month driving a teen from agency to agency to help attain forms of identification.
“These kids have holes in their basic foundation. They’re constantly moving, and things are always changing. We want to try to eliminate barriers to getting where they want to go.”
Looking into the future, O’Connor recognizes that Step Up Northern Michigan has opportunities to grow and weighs those opportunities as they arise. But for right now, she is going to do what she does best.
“Later today, I’ll drop something off for a kid, see another kid in need, and we will figure out what we can do to help.”