Some high schoolers are forced into homelessness or may be at high risk of ending up on the streets because of negligent parents, abusive households, and family drug or alcohol problems. Furthermore, the ones who stay home are often lacking basic needs—food, clothing, and money for school supplies.
It seems nearly impossible that affluent places like Huntington Beach Union High School and Newport Mesa Unified School Districts could have these kinds of problems, but for Robyne Wood, it’s a fact she experiences firsthand every day.
Wood’s nonprofit, Robyne’s Nest, supports drug and alcohol free high school students in the Huntington Beach and Newport Mesa school districts who want to be productive members of society, but who don’t have the family resources to do so.
“They want a good life,” said Wood, 49, who left her home in the D.C. suburbs when she was 17 and can relate to what these children are going through. “They want to change their circumstances and I did too.”
Robyne’s Nest offers food pantries, a mental health counseling program, monetary assistance, job and resume training, life skills training—including personal wellness, physical wellness, hygiene, and personal finance—and transitional housing, among other services. Wood and another case worker are the only full time employees; the rest are all volunteers.
“This is our time to give back and change the future,” Wood said.
Since it was founded seven school years ago, Robyne’s Nest has assisted 125 students and currently works with approximately 46 people in school or who have recently graduated and need help landing on their feet.
“We try to take away all the barriers so they can focus on school,” Wood said. “Once high school is done, we try to do a balance of working on themselves, as well as trying to move forward, with schooling or a job.”
Wood found one of her students, Zane Alexander Dagget, when he was 16, recently kicked out of an abusive home where both his parents were doing drugs. Dagget had been in and out of Child Protective Services, was associating with the wrong people, and had no positive role model in his life.
“I didn’t really do much in school after fifth grade. I kind of just gave up and started doing my own thing,” Dagget said. “I started going down a not so bright path, hanging out with a lot of bad people, doing a lot of unnecessary things I shouldn’t have been doing.”
Wood quickly found a family for Dagget to live with and secured him a construction job. She helped him get into the Job Corps, a Department of Labor Program that provides education and job training for 16 to 24-year-olds. Dagget completed 160 units to get his diploma, and within a year he was out and signed up for the Marine Corps, something he had always dreamed about.
Now 22, Dagget is about to finish his enlistment, is married, paid off his car, and is ready to buy a home in Kansas, where he’ll work in chemical and biohazard cleanup. Dagget said meeting Robyne changed his life.
“After I met Robyne, it was a big turning point in my life because there was someone there that gave a damn about what I wanted for once,” Dagget said.
The three most important aspects of Robyne’s nest, according to Wood, are housing, mental health and life skills. Finding a safe place to live is one of those pressures she hopes to alleviate for children who are also trying to navigate the stress of high school.
“I’m very protective of them because they’ve already been through so much,” Wood said.
Robyne’s Nest, with the help of volunteers, first places students in transitional housing, meant to support them for up to 24 months.
Before COVID-19, a couple of families would support a handful of students at their homes. And in 2017, a supporter let Robyne’s Nest rent out their extra house at a reduced rate. When the pandemic hit, the host family program stopped, and only four kids have been left in transitional homes. The rest have found their own places, some of their rent subsidized by Robyne’s Nest.
Licensed psychologists organize weekly virtual and in-person mental health therapy sessions with students at a reduced rate to help address past trauma and abuse. Wood stipulates that students must attend those sessions to remain in the program.
Life skills classes help Robyne’s Nest students live on their own for the first time in their lives. They don’t know how to clean their apartments, budget, and cook. Personal finance is of utmost importance to Wood, because Robyne’s Nest doesn’t allow students to get assistance from federal programs like electronic benefits transfers and Section 8 housing vouchers, with the exception of Medi-Cal, which students use until they can afford their own private insurance.
She believes her experience of living on her own in high school, and past jobs ranging from accounting, insurance, retail, payroll management, and now a mother of two, has prepared her for running Robyne’s Nest.
The life skills classes have been successful, and Robyne’s Nest is planning on branching out to teaching students and adults not in the program about how to lead a successful life. Those courses would not be free, and the profit realized from that enterprise will go to funding the organization.
Wood will continue to focus on the Huntington Beach Union High School and Newport Mesa Unified School Districts, opting to focus on giving quality help to these local kids rather than adding more populous districts.
“She gives a second chance to all these kids,” Dagget said. “I could have gone to prison and no one would have ever thought of me. She gives everyone a second wind and she doesn’t look at you like a scumbag. She looks at you like a kid who was failed by their own parents.”