Cumberlands’ Board Games Drive Brightens Lives of Homeless Youths

When homeless youth staying at Ryan’s Place, a safe haven in Barbourville, Ky., were asked what they wanted most at the shelter, they said, “We would like some games to play together.” Jessi Montgomery, the fund development manager for Ryan’s Place and a graduate of Sullivan Foundation partner school University of the Cumberlands, who was finishing her MBA through the university at the time, was stunned. She’d been discussing the shelter’s funding needs with other staff and was trying to narrow down what Ryan’s Place needed most by asking the residents themselves. She didn’t expect games to be at the top of their list.

“These young adults have nothing, yet their only request was something to share with each other,” Montgomery said. “I was floored. I was expecting a long list of building repairs, vehicles and other expensive items, but all they wanted was something to share. That evening, when I was logging into my Cumberlands MBA classes, I saw a Pats Serve article. I realized Cumberlands’ commitment to the community and reached out.”

She was immediately contacted by Dr. Jennifer Simpson, the associate dean of academic affairs at Cumberlands. The two of them began organizing a board game drive for Ryan’s Place with Provost Emily Coleman and the Office of Student Services. Cumberlands’ Department of Athletics stepped in to sponsor the drive, encouraging each sports team to bring in a board game.

In all, between 15 and 20 games—like Phase 10, Uno and Sorry!—were collected and brought to Cumberlands’ campus for Montgomery to pick up. Simpson said in an email to Montgomery that she hoped the games would “provide hours of bonding, laughter and smiles” for the young adults.

They have. Especially during social distancing mandates, the residents were grateful to have something new and fun to enjoy together to fill their time indoors. According to Montgomery, game nights “are now a frequent occurrence” at Ryan’s Place.

“Seeing our athletics department step up to help Ryan’s Place and being contacted by caring students like Jessi is a wonderful representation of our mission to lead through service,” Simpson said. “Jessi recognized that it’s not just something we say, it’s a mission we live, and we’re thankful she reached out. We got the opportunity to serve youth in our community in a way we never had before.”

Ryan’s Place was opened in 2018 by KCEOC Community Action Partnership and serves as a safe haven for homeless youth aged 18-24. It is funded by Kentucky Housing Corporation and HUD’s (Housing and Urban Development) Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program by a grant made available to Promise Zone counties.

The shelter is named in memory of Ryan White, a young man who found himself homeless several times in his life. He always trusted KCEOC (Kentucky Communities Economic Opportunity Council) in his times of need and later became an advocate for other homeless youth. Ryan, who served on the Youth Action Board throughout the grant proposal process, sadly passed away in a car accident just days after his 18th birthday, right before the youth shelter was opened. Ryan wanted other homeless youth to have a voice and a safe place to stay. KCEOC named the shelter “Ryan’s Place” and dedicated it to his memory and his mission.

The goal of Ryan’s Place is for all residents to be able to become self-sufficient. It offers an on-site case manager, employment services, life skills, and basic “adulting” lessons. Ryan’s Place follows KCEOC’s principle of offering clients a hand up, not a handout.

Jessi Montgomery graduated summa cum laude from Cumberlands in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in human services and completed her online MBA at Cumberlands in May 2020. For the past several years, Montgomery has worked in a variety of community-centered organizations and nonprofits.

This article was edited slightly from the original version appearing on the University of the Cumberlands website.

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