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Meet Mary Oliver, Iowa Homeless Youth Center’s most Consistent Volunteer

Every Monday, the IHYC staff and youth are greeted by the delightful presence of Mary Oliver. Not only are they excited for the food she delivers, but the company she brings.

For two decades, Mary has been involved with Iowa Homeless Youth Centers (IHYC), a YSS organization based in Des Moines. IHYC works with youth and young adults who are at-risk or experiencing homelessness, providing daily meals, essential supplies, emergency beds, mental health therapy, connections to resources, and supportive housing programs.

With a background in social work, Mary was introduced to IHYC when she completed quality and compliance surveys for the Department of Inspections and Appeals.

“It was a really good program. After I retired, I wanted to continue helping,” Mary explains. “One of the staff told me later, ‘You know, I really like you a whole lot better as a volunteer than as an investigator!’”

Over the years, Mary has given her time in a multitude of ways—from serving on the IHYC Community Advisory Board to being involved in the move to IHYC’s current Lighthouse and Youth Opportunity Center facilities. To this day, Mary prepares a warm meal for the youth once a week, in addition to providing food for their Halloween and Christmas parties.

Mary says her favorite part of volunteering is getting to know the young people on a personal level. However, that trust doesn’t come easy for many of the youth, who have experienced homelessness, trauma, neglect, and more.

“I think the fact that I’m the age of their grandparents—or even their great-grandparents—makes it a bit easier for them to develop trust,” Mary says. “I’ve known some of these youth for years. They’ll come for lunch and will make it a point to give me a hug and tell me about their situation.”

When Mary looks back at everything she has done with YSS and IHYC, it’s Reggie’s Sleepout that brings her the most joy. Established in honor of Reggie Kelsey—a young man who tragically passed away in Des Moines after he aged out of foster care and struggled on his own—the event raises awareness and funds for youth homelessness. Each year, hundreds of participants sleep out on the field at Drake Stadium in support of IHYC programs.

“All of my local family members have been involved in Reggie’s Sleepout at one time or another,” Mary says. “My daughter and I ran the food tent, and my granddaughter was the first one to suggest the talent show. That’s a great source of pride for me.”

Mary explains that she greatly admires the young people who come to IHYC, often not knowing how they are going to survive, much less thrive. Despite all they’ve been through, these youth are looking for help. They have not given up.

“In my career, I visited many facilities. At IHYC, I was impressed that each young person is seen as an individual; the staff believe that every person can grow and thrive,” Mary explains. “I see these young adults develop self-respect, courage, and confidence—which makes it possible for them to engage in educational and work opportunities, which leads to independent and self-supporting adults.”

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