AHO Serves the Overlooked Youth in Crisis

My name is Kayla. I’m a psychology major at Dominican University of California, and the newest intern here at Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity (AHO), a 20-year-old multi-award-winning nonprofit in Marin, whose mission is unhoused, at-risk and sex-trafficked teens and young adults ages 16 to 25. When seeking an internship, Zara Babitzke, MA, the founder, and executive director of the AHO program immediately caught my eye, because she was formerly homeless. As a former youth in crisis myself, who then went on to work with youth in crisis as I got older, continuing to work with those most vulnerable in the community is exactly why I chose to go back to school to pursue psychology. Grassroots, locally run and funded organizations like AHO are the lifeblood of a society, where the staff has all experienced being homeless.

Through both lived and anecdotal experience I’ve learned and seen how easy it can be to fall through the cracks of social services, especially when funding, training, and resources are often dependent on politics and their politicians; many of which have never been in a situation that would call for such services or see what they do. This leads to a lack of understanding of the importance these services provide, and the cracks get wider. This is where local support like AHO comes in which is run by people who have experienced firsthand the need for the services AHO provides.

I am more than excited to be a part of AHO and this process to learn as much as possible about the AHO community of at-risk, unhoused, sex-trafficked teens and young adults ages 16 to 25 Part of my role as an AHO intern will be weekly blog updates about future events and sharing with you the experience of the inner workings of AHO and its connections to AHO’s 185-member Alliance for Youth service network partners of doctors, dentists, attorneys, trauma therapists, and other professionals, businesses, faith communities and individuals that donate their time and expertise pro bono to AHO’s youth and organization. AHO has created this unique network to engage the community into the solution to prevent youth homelessness in Marin.

This week my meeting with Zara was spent discussing summer goals of outreach into alternative schools in Marin and talking over goals for my role within the mission of AHO and being a part of community meetings and events.

Come celebrate Pride Month with us at College of Marin’s Pride event on June 25th from 5pm to 8pm. We will have a booth at the event with information about the services that we can provide to those seeking assistance.

Until next time,

Happy Birthday from AHO

Hi and welcome to the first post of my blog! My name is Jessa and I am a senior Psychology major at Dominican University of California. This is my story on how I connected to Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity (AHO), Marin’s only nonprofit serving youth who are homeless or at-risk with comprehensive support and leadership opportunities, so they receive the resources a parent would typically help with and more. AHO provides leadership opportunities and the resources, emotional support, and caring they need to achieve their educational and life goals.

It was the beginning of the semester and I was scrambling to find an internship. I had roughly two weeks to get one otherwise I was going to be dropped from one of my required classes. As a second semester senior, you could imagine how stressed I became at the thought of not being able to graduate this semester and falling deeper into debt. Time was ticking. All of the organizations I emailed and called seemed to be too busy to get back to me, until I contacted Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity. My professor, LeeAnn Bartolini, PhD, connected me to the founder of AHO, Zara, who immediately got back to me and was ready to meet within the next couple of days.

Prior to our meeting I went onto the AHO website to learn more about what this nonprofit did and how they help homeless youth. I was amazed at how youth-driven the organization was especially with the success of its youth-led projects. After reading about AHO’s approach to helping homeless youth I grew excited to potentially work with them and be a part of this impact.

I met with Zara on January 29th at the Depot Cafe. As we sat drinking our coffee, or rather tea for me, she asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I told her I was still figuring that out, but I knew that I wanted to work with adolescents and young adults. Initially my plan was to become a therapist and go to graduate school right after receiving my Bachelor’s degree. At some point in my college career I decided that I wanted to wait on becoming a therapist, and focus more on the prevention of poor mental health. I became interested in the nonprofit world and working directly with youth, and as many youth as possible, in a way that was affordable but just as impactful as therapy. This was when Zara told me that this internship would be perfect.

We spent the rest of the meeting talking about AHO’s mission, new youth-led projects being developed, and AHO’s model. As I was listening to Zara speak, her passion and enthusiasm to make a difference for the homeless youth population in Marin county was recognizable. There was one thing she said that stuck with me when she was telling me about how the AHO model was not like any other model. She told me something along the lines of not using or liking the term ‘case management’ because it framed the situation and the person as a “case to be managed.” I completely agree with that statement. People are not cases to be managed. For this reason, AHO youth are paired with an adult ally coach to assist them with the goals they wish to achieve. I knew then that working with Zara and AHO would be an amazing opportunity.

Coincidentally, we met on my birthday and our meeting ended with the greatest birthday present I could’ve hoped for–  an internship! I look forward to the opportunities and growth this internship will bring me. If you’re a youth looking for assistance don’t be afraid to reach out to AHO, and if you’re someone who needs college or internship advice don’t be afraid to reach out to me.

With hope,


A Woman with Many Hats

Working in the nonprofit sector calls for being a person that wears many hats. Take Zara for example, being the Executive Director of a nonprofit requires knowledge and skills to a certain degree in marketing, fundraising, community outreach, managing programs, and so much more. I am now interning for two nonprofits and it has become apparent that you must be flexible enough to help where help is needed. I hope to start my own nonprofit someday, so being able to work directly with the founder of AHO and hear about Zara’s experience with starting a nonprofit is something I won’t be able to get anywhere else.

At my second meeting with Zara, we discussed what I could do for AHO. This resulted in an agreement to be an adult ally to youth, work as an administrative assistant, be trained as a backup/assistant web designer, and join the youth team to help with the Building Bridges program. I am being trained to be a person that wears many hats, and I cannot wait to continue learning from Zara and the rest of the AHO team.

It is exciting and a little nerve-wracking to be able to do work that actually impacts the community. This opportunity truly allows me to apply the knowledge that I learn in my classes, as well as develop skills that I might not be able to in school. I am using this internship to prepare me for whatever comes after college, and to guide me in what direction I want to go in post-graduation. If you are a college student interested in working in the nonprofit sector with relations to mental health and homelessness, I would definitely recommend checking out AHO. It is a great organization with many opportunities. Stay tuned for my next blog post!

With hope,


Advice on Juggling Life

It has been challenging to juggle school, internships, assignments, along with the rest of life such as friends, the gym, and self-care. I am currently working on several projects for AHO and feeling quite overwhelmed. There is this blog that I need to keep up with, a few administrative tasks, making connections between my university and AHO to implement the Building Bridges program, making connections between my tech-savvy cousins and AHO to create an app for the nonprofit, and being trained as an assistant web designer. I know, it’s a lot. I have been struggling to make deadlines and grew extremely anxious about not being able to handle the workload, as well as letting Zara down. However, I realized that at the end of the day I am a student first. As much as I want to be able to quickly accomplish many tasks, I can only do as much as 8 hours will allow me to. I am someone who loves to help out as much as I can, but I had to be real with myself about my abilities to keep up with these projects on top of everything else. I am fortunate that Zara is so understanding and willing to work with the demands that come with being a student.

For those that are struggling and feeling that their workload is more than they can handle, first take a deep breath. It is easy for students to disregard their own needs in order to complete work by staying up late or skipping meals. Time management is a difficult skill to master, but be realistic about what you can accomplish in the given amount of time. Speak with your supervisor and let them know realistically how much time you can give to do your projects. It is better to communicate your struggles and needs, than to silently suffer and deliver poor quality or tardy work. Don’t worry fellow students, we’re all trying to figure out the work-life balance. Stay tuned for my next blog post, but in the meantime, get your assignments done!

With hope,


Meeting the AHO Council!

Up until now I had been working closely with Zara and had yet to meet other members of AHO. Zara invited me to attend the monthly council meeting which gave me the opportunity to meet other inspiring individuals that work with the organization. There were a few people attending the meeting for the first time, so we went around and introduced ourselves. Prior to the meeting, Rico, a new AHO youth, and I helped Zara set up. It was our first time meeting each other and our first time attending the council meeting. Although we didn’t share that much about ourselves, it was empowering to hear him speak about how much AHO has helped him so far in just a couple weeks. During the meeting we went over the summary of the 2018 year-end report and discussed ways each individual could assist AHO whether it was personally or through a connection. It was amazing to hear the amount of youth that were helped during 2018, and ways that each person could help AHO grow even more to provide additional resources. Although I just met them, I left the meeting feeling excited to work with everyone there. Stay tuned to read more about my journey being an intern in the nonprofit world!

With hope,


AHO is an AH-HA

“In Marin, the youth are invisible.”

by Felicia Chavez, Ph.D, Green MBA 

Zara and Felicia Chavez

Zara and Felicia Chavez

When I initially sat down to write this blog, I had a sinking feeling. I wasn’t my usual, enthusiastic self. I paused to wonder about that. Hadn’t my meeting with Zara been uplifting? Yes, but…there was a “but.”

I realized shortly that it is the gravity of this topic that was making me feel…heavy. Not only had I been on the very edge of homelessness at times in my life–due to family challenges, and later, employment challenges–but I feel great sadness at the way that young people are nearly–or actually–dispossessed by society. Many of these individuals fall through the cracks. They are, as Zara said, “invisible.”

Homeless youth. Two words you never want to see next to each other.

Zara Babitzke’s magic is in the very act of getting “next to” the young people she and her network support. That’s why I am writing this blog on a systems thinking website. Lately I have insisted that first and foremost, systems thinking is about relationships: relationships between people, first. Zara’s program embodies this principle.

To begin with, Zara and many others who have what I call a systems thinking approach don’t necessarily use that language. So this is my overlay on her work.

Second, I’m conscious of the fact that I keep referring to Zara herself, while in fact her model is fundamentally inclusive; a network of participants, primarily the young people who have benefited from AHO (Ambassadors of Hope and Opportunity). However, the fact remains that she is the primary spokesperson for the organization she founded and shaped, so, I’ll keep talking about her.

Third, Marin County is a decidedly older population (click on the graph at right to view). Given the high numbers of people over 60, there are many services in Marin to serve this older group. However, I don’t want to gloss over the fact that many elders in this group–particularly the poor and non-white–suffer from poor quality of life. This dual injustice–both young and older people falling through the cracks–is a symptom of a society that has not quite figured out how to reliably care for our most vulnerable members.

Below I outline a few of the ways I believe Zara’s framework for supporting homeless youth lines up with systems thinking principles. Feel free to share your comments in the comment box if you have additions or different observations.

  1. The person who needs help has to ask for it. “At AHO, the first step is to call for help.” (Ref.) Zara emphasizes that she does not step in to offer supportive services unless the person in question requests help. This is perhaps a subtle, but key aspect of her program. At root this principle honors the ultimate autonomy of individuals, putting him or her in the driver’s seat. I’m challenged to articulate precisely why I feel this is a systems thinking principle, but I can say that it requires a willingness on the part of the service provider to recognize the full humanity of the other, and to not presume that you “know better” than the person you want to help.
  2. Relationship. “At the initial meeting each youth, with the support of an adult ally coach, work together to create a plan…” (Ref.) Relationship is an internal thing; something you feel. There are no magic formulas, models, or forms that can ever replace even a tiny sliver of true relationship. Systems thinking it is as much about feeling as it is about thinking, if not more. Our senses, feelings and emotions are systems that lie outside of the reach of the human mind. If we allow the mind alone to govern relationship, the arrangement is very shallow indeed. Many well-meaning service providers feel they have to cut out their personal emotions, feelings, and senses to execute their official roles. Zara runs in the opposite direction! (Here is a link to a great TED talk by another practitioner who gets to the nitty-gritty of the power of relationships to transform the social services landscape, and in dramatic, measurable ways.)
  3. Engendering autonomy and leadership. “Youth are outreach and program advisors, board members and spokespersons of their experience with community and political leaders.” (Ref.) Anyone who is exposed to the work of AHO and Zara gets the message loud and clear: youth are the leaders in their individual lives, learn leadership skills through AHO, and many later help other people who need support. AHO is a far cry from a short-term, bandage approach to a complex, collective social failing: young people without a home.
    If you missed the Dominican Town Hall event on September 25, 2017, at which Senator Mark McGuire and others, including three AHO youth recipients, share their personal stories and the AHO story, then check out the video below, or click here.

Make a cup of tea, get comfortable, and while you listen to these individuals, I hope that you will take a moment to appreciate the gifts those of us with food, shelter, and a stable home are fortunate to enjoy. And perhaps you will be moved to donate time, money, or your services to the AHO provider network, or to in some way, get involved.

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