Photo: Amy Reid Michael Sanders (left) and Ronda Merrill-Parkin are two Surrey youth who have benefited from the Surrey Youth Assistance Fund, made possible by an anonymous donor through Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society.

VIDEO: Mystery donor to triple donations to Surrey youth homelessness fund

The 2017 count found 17 per cent of Surrey’s homeless population are youth

If you’re young, homeless and have no family to lean on, where do you turn?

The Surrey Youth Assistance Fund, set up by the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, is trying to fill that void .

An anonymous donor was the reason the program was created roughly a year ago. And now, that same mystery philanthropist is going to match donations, two-to-one, from now until Christmas.

The fund’s goal is simple: To help Surrey’s vulnerable and homeless youth become successful in adulthood by reducing barriers.

The 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless count found 602 homeless people in Surrey, which is a 49 per cent increase from the last count in 2014.

Of the hundreds counted in Surrey, 17 per cent were youth.

The Surrey Youth Assistance Fund is specifically earmarked for high-need emergency situations. Once funding requests are received, they’re expedited because situations are usually dire.

The fund has already dolled out more than $100,000, which has included paying for cell phone bills, baby strollers, school tuition and even first month’s rent.

See more: Video of Surrey’s tent city on 135A street goes viral

See more: Homeless count finds 49 per cent more homeless people in Surrey

Michael Sanders, 23, says the help got him off the street. Born in Yukon, Sanders said he’s lived in numerous cities in Canada.

To make money, Sanders said he has harvested morel mushrooms in B.C. forests since the age of 14. He said he uses some of those earnings to buy fishing equipment, the haul from which he would then sell to stores. But this summer, B.C.’s wildfires changed Sanders’ life forever.

“I was chased by a forest fire,” he recalled. “I almost lost my life and lost all my clothes, all my supplies I’ve had for years and years, and everything I earned this year. I was stranded.”

He made his way to Vancouver and spent about a month or two on the street.

“I was looking for a place to stay but I had no cell phone, nowhere to keep my luggage. I was stuck in a bad situation.”

While he had no trouble finding assistance and locating shelters and food kitchens, he wasn’t finding help with respect to lifting himself out of homelessness.

“I didn’t want to be homeless,” he insisted. “I wanted to get back on my feet, get a job. It seemed pointless.”

He made his way to Surrey, where he heard about the Fraser Region Aboriginal Friendship Centre Association (FRAFCA).

Sanders said they helped him with things he needed most: food and a cell phone.

“They didn’t point me anywhere, they just helped me,” he said smiling.

That help was made possible through the Youth Assistance Fund, after FRAFCA applied to the Youth Assistance Fund on his behalf.

“They gave me a cell phone, they gave me food to survive on so I could pay for my rent and everything like that,” he said. “I got myself a place to stay. I have a cell phone now, I have a job, and it’s all truly thanks to FRAFCA.

“They helped me so much.”

Sanders said he’s currently renting a room, and working at a recycling company.

“I’m living a normal life now, I’m not homeless. Things are looking better for me.”

Sanders had this to say to potential donors: “It definitely goes to the right place. It helps us young individuals that are lost. We really just need a little pick up so we can actually stand on our feet on our own.”

See also: Province not helping house Surrey’s homeless fast enough: mayor

See also: Extreme weather shelters in Surrey open early

Ronda Merrill-Parkin, 27, is another recipient of the fund.

At 31 weeks pregnant, she found herself evicted and facing homelessness.

“The centre helped me find housing, as well as help me put my stuff into storage and helped me move into the centre I have gone into. I was then able to obtain all the necessary baby items that I needed through help from the urgent need program.”

Merrill-Parkin now acts as peer support to others facing tough situations.

“It really benefits the youth because some of us don’t have support from families,” she said of the Youth Assistance Fund. “It gives us a step up, and we can move forward.”

Chelsey Grier runs the Indigenous Youth Urgent Needs Program at FRAFCA.

“The fund has done a lot for our centre,” Grier told the Now-Leader. “It’s been the first big step in growing our youth program. The fund actually secured my job to start the Indigenous Youth Urgent Needs Program. I’ve been able to work with a lot of youth and make a lot of good things happen with the fund. It’s been an amazing experience to be a part of it.”

Surrey Councillor Vera LeFranc, who works with the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society, is thrilled with the fund.

She explained when the fund was set up by the anonymous donor, it was to offer support that parents typically would.

“And things not traditionally covered by WorkBC and other organizations,” she said. “We can be really nimble.”

LeFranc praised FRAFCA for its work with youth, as well as Options Community Services Society and Pacific Community Resources Society.

“They really wrap their whole organization around a young person. It’s great to see it in action,” she said of meeting Sanders and Merrill-Parkin.

Visit surreyhomeless.ca/youth. To donate, visit vancitycommunityfoundation.ca.

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