Music Program Helps Homeless, Runaway Youth Follow their Dreams

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Kayla Avitable

Valley Youth House

Kayla Avitable, 14, performs as part of a concert series created by Valley Youth House, which serves runaway and homeless youth in Pennsylvania. Performers tell about their own lives and struggles and engage the youth in discussions.

She steps up to the microphone. She strums her guitar and sings out “Tell me why we live like this /  keep me safe inside.It's the song “We are Broken” from the band Paramore.

At 14, Kayla Avitabile is the artist-in-residence at Valley Youth House, which provides shelter and services for homeless and runaway kids through 13 offices in eastern Pennsylvania.

The eclectic alternative musician is the featured artist in the first of four Valley Youth House concerts. She’ll introduce the musicians in the upcoming concerts and she’ll meet with kids in small groups and one-on-one to talk about their music and their aspirations.

“These kids are so into music,” said Bob Robertson, vice president of Valley Youth House. Many are talented but are too shy to perform at open-mic events.

On July 21, Kayla will lead a workshop called “Open Mic Maybe” at the organization’s Philadelphia independent living center. It’s for kids who might like to perform, but don’t feel ready. She’ll also work with some of them individually.

Robertson said kids often say “I want to be a rock star” when asked what they want to do in the future. But there’s a very big gap between dreaming about something and taking actual steps toward it. Kids often have little idea of how to begin closing that gap.


Kayla Avitabile performs at Riverside Park, Easton PA.

Kayla tells them it’s like being on a sports team: You have to go to practice.

“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said. So many people are trying to get into the music business. “Exposure is very important.”

“You’re going to have to get the people skills,” she said.

Part of the process is seeking mentors, Robertson said. “You have to be vulnerable enough to allow people to help you.”

Homeless and runaway youth, however, do not have the support other young people have. Nearly half of homeless and runaway kids report that conflict at home is a major problem, according to the National Runaway Safeline (NRS). Eighty percent of runaway and homeless girls report having been sexually abused. More than half of kids in shelters and on the street report that their parents told them to leave or didn’t care that they were leaving, according to NRS.

And figures show that young people ages 12-17 are more likely than adults to be homeless, according to NRS.

Valley Youth House’s goal in the concert series is to connect kids with role models and encourage conversations between musician and audience about each others’ lives and struggles. It’s also to show how skills are acquired through interacting with other people.

Founded in 1973, Valley Youth House has a staff of nearly 400. It served more than 14,000 youth last year through its programs, which include behavioral health services. It served an additional 23,000 in partnership with other organizations at its camp facility near Allentown, Pa.

The artist-in-residence program and the concert series are funded with a grant from the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation.

Performers in the concert series, in addition to Kayla, who plays gigs in the area and opens for blues musician James Supra, are:

  • Gospel/rhythm-and-blues artist Ian Holmes (a former American Idol contestant)
  • Blues musician Steve Brosky
  • Rap/hip-hop artist Chill Moody

The artist-in-residence program is a new initiative by Valley Youth House.

“Everyone’s job is to find your passion,” Robertson said, “and your life will be richer and fuller for it.”

“It’s a really important message,” he said.