Good Neighbor Bert Waugh: He's All About the Kids

Bert Waugh Jr. and his wife, Susy, began taking street youth into their home in the 1970s. In 1991, Waugh founded Transitional Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides housing, outreach, and support to young people who otherwise would be living on the streets.

November 1, 2007

With its damp, temperate climate, Portland, Ore., is known as the city of roses. But Portland has another, less desirable distinction: It has one of the largest populations of homeless youth in the nation, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Fortunately, it also has Bert Waugh Jr., 64, founder of Transitional Youth, a nonprofit organization that provides housing, outreach, and support to young people who otherwise would be living on the streets.

“I’ve had a heart for kids as far back as I can remember,” says Waugh who, with his wife, Susy, began taking street youth into their home in the 1970s. “We’d get a call telling us about a child who’d been abandoned, and we couldn’t say no.”

In 1991, Waugh founded Transitional Youth. Initially, the organization raised funds to support other local agencies helping homeless youth. Today, Transitional Youth helps kids directly through an outreach center and two group homes in Portland and one in Vancouver, Wash.

The organization also has a “Home on the Range” program in which youngsters from the outreach center spend time at a working ranch near Battleground, Wash.

“A lot of these kids have had really horrific lives filled with sexual abuse, drugs, and violence. We find that after they spend some time at the ranch working outdoors and helping with the horses, it really changes their attitude and helps them look past some of the things that have happened to them. Then we can bring them back to the houses, and they can start the rest of their lives,” Waugh says.

One young man says that the group facility in Portland was his first real home in seven years. “Before I came to Transitional Youth, I was doing a lot of drugs. I lived where I could, and sometimes that meant under a bridge,” says Dane, now 26, who asked that his full name not be used. “When I found Transitional Youth, I found safety, and I also found friendship. It saved my life.”

Another young man, Josh, 23, who has since moved out of Transitional Youth’s group home in Vancouver, says, “I was on my way to being a homeless and hopeless alcoholic. Transitional Youth gave me a place to stay and helped me get sober. Staff also helped me get into trade school, and now I’ve got a job and a place of my own.” Josh now works as a welder.

Today, Transitional Youth operates on an annual budget of $475,000 raised entirely from private contributions. It has helped an estimated 600 youngsters. Waugh admits it’s a challenge to find sufficient funding to meet the organization’s needs. “We could have a dozen more houses if we had the funds,” he laments.

The organization’s three group homes can house up to six youngsters each. Some are young adults who’ve aged out of state care at age 18. Many have dropped out of school. With the guidance of houseparents, they learn to transition from a life of surviving on the streets to being part of a family where they have responsibilities and permanent relationships.

“Our commitment to these kids is to get them off the street, job-trained or educated, and able to function as successful adults,” says Waugh. “One of the girls who lived in our Portland house is now in her second year of college and on her way to becoming a hospital administrator.”

While he volunteers hundreds of hours and has donated thousands of dollars to help Transitional Youth thrive, Waugh’s most valuable contribution may well be his success in recruiting volunteers. Many of his colleagues visit the outreach center regularly to serve meals and interact with the youngsters.

“I’ve seen volunteers break down in tears describing their experiences helping these kids,” Waugh says. “One woman took her granddaughter there to see what it was like, and now they’re both regular volunteers.”

Waugh is successful at recruiting others because he’s so willing to roll up his sleeves and do whatever job needs doing.

“The first time I met him, he was flipping French toast at the shelter,” says Juri Hobbs, who’s now a houseparent at a group home in Vancouver. “A lot of people say they want to help others, but Bert actually does it. As a result, he builds trust, and you end up wanting to go through walls for him.”

“He’s a visionary,” says Gary Gorsuch, executive director of Transitional Youth. “A lot of people wouldn’t care to work with the kind of people we help because, often, their situation looks so hopeless. But Bert never gives up on them.”

As if Waugh isn’t busy enough running a business and helping homeless kids, he is also board chair of Medical Teams International, which responds to disasters around the world. His work with MTI has taken him to Africa, Mexico, and post-Katrina Louisiana. Seeing the desperate need in Northern Uganda, Waugh raised money to buy 21,000 schoolbooks for children in 10 refugee camps.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether a kid is from Uganda or Portland. Kids are the future, and helping them realize their potential is more important to me than anything else I do.”

Contact Waugh at Prudential Northwest Properties, 14945 SW Sequoia Parkway, Suite 150, Portland, OR 97224; 503/646-7826; bwaugh@pru-nw.com.

Contact Transitional Youth at the above address and phone number or www.transitionalyouth.org.

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