FARGO - For Jospelm “Jojo” Birch, landing in Fargo has been one of the best things that has happened in his life.
The 19-year-old Liberian immigrant has gone from being homeless, sleeping in a car and going weeks without a shower, to having a high school diploma, a job and an apartment, thanks to help from programs run by Fraser, Ltd.
The rail thin youth with an infectious smile knows he’s lucky.
He survived the much-grittier streets of Philadelphia, escaping a life he said threatened to ensnare him in violence, crime and prison.
In Fargo, he’s learned there is safety and people that will help him succeed.
“My life is now under control. Before it was not under control,” Jojo said Wednesday, Nov. 7, at Fraser’s Butler House on South University Drive. He has his own place there as part of the permanent supportive housing program.
“Now I can take a shower in my own apartment and watch TV and all that cool stuff. All the stuff I couldn’t do as a teenager,” Jojo said.
Butler House and the Stepping Stones Resource Center for at-risk and homeless youth - both of which have played a big part in getting Jojo on track, are some of the more recent programs for Fraser, which has been tackling some of the region’s thorniest problems since its inception 125 years ago.
Help for the vulnerable
The Fargo-based non-profit got its start as the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers in 1893, CEO and President Sandra Leyland said.
Now its aims are much broader.
There are extensive programs providing childcare for typically developing children and those with special needs, and a wide range of services to the physically and developmentally disabled - including 12 residential homes in Fargo and West Fargo.
Fraser also provides transitional and permanent supportive housing for young adults, skills training, counseling and mental health services, Leyland said.
Fraser served more than 2,500 people in the 2017-18 fiscal year.
“I think we’ve made a difference. I think we’ve had a huge impact: more lives, in more recent years than we did initially, just because we’ve expanded services. We’ve been able to reach out and provide more housing, teach more people to be independent (and) we’ve included mental health services, so that’s kind of a new thing for us,” Leyland said. “We’ve got some great therapists. It was something that was missing in the community.”
A solid foundation
Leyland has worked almost 30 years at Fraser - 25 as its executive director. She said the organization is “pretty solid” as it gets ready for the 2020s.
The organization’s board of directors recently started the Fraser Foundation, with a goal of raising $16 million in the next 10 years.
“We felt it was important. … There’s a lot of things we can do to give (program participants) a better quality of life. But if you have to stop and raise funds, it hinders your efforts,” Leyland said. “Moneywise, I think we’re going to get there.”
Fraser has an annual budget of $14 million. It relies on donations, grants and the North Dakota Legislature for funding, Leyland said. Ninety percent of every dollar raised goes to programming.
Coming soon, Fraser will move its center for at-risk youth to a 721 S. University Drive, a former ethnic grocery store building just north of Agassiz School.
The move will give students at the city’s alternative high school, Woodrow Wilson, access to Fraser programming.
“It provides a nice niche, with a lot of oversight,” Leyland said.
Involving the community
One of the biggest fundraisers for Fraser Ltd is its annual Festival of Trees, which for years has been held at the Fargodome.
This year’s event, which runs Nov. 9-30, includes about 160 trees, sponsored and decorated by a wide array of businesses and families. When it is over, the trees are given to families in need. Those families have already been determined by area social service organizations, a Fraser spokeswoman said.
On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Samantha Janda and Allison Mahlen were busy loading up the Scheels tree with ornaments, joining perhaps a dozen other people gussying up trees at the dome.
Mahlen said she wished she could see the joy of the people who received the tree.
“I would just want them to enjoy it as much as we did” decorating it, she said.
On his own at 16
Jojo immigrated to the U.S. in 2011, traveling by himself to Philadelphia, where his mother and older brother lived.
Everyone in Liberia believes America “is a little bit of heaven,” Jojo said. He was soon disabused of that notion.
“The city was just like Liberia. It was, like, the hood. My dream was broken,” Jojo said.
He said he was drawn into “the negativity” of the streets.
In 2016, he drove to Fargo in a 2002 Toyota Corolla with 250,000 miles on it.
He came for a job and to start a new life after seeing postings on Facebook by other Liberians.
“It was my big decision for my life,” JoJo said.
Jojo said he slept in his car “in winter time, and I didn’t like it very much.” Friends encouraged him to go to the Stepping Stones Resource Center to get some help getting an apartment.
Jojo said he bounced back and forth between Fargo and Philadelphia, before deciding at age 18 to call Fargo home.
Fraser arranged his housing at Butler House and he attended nearby Woodrow Wilson High School to get his diploma. He became a certified nursing assistant at a Fargo assisted living facility, and is now a certified medical assistant.
He hopes to go to college.
“I’m responsible. I have a job and I’m taking care of myself,” Jojo said.
Stepping Stones, one of the programs that helped Jojo, started in 2009, Leyland said, with the idea of being a place to help all youth.
“It’s a low-barrier program,” she said. “We wanted to give them a place to go. No judging. We don’t ask questions. We try to meet their needs. We try to get them off the streets, particularly if they’re at risk of homelessness. Meet their mental health needs. Clothing needs. Food needs.
The center basically was the start. And the idea behind that was there are a lot of kids out there that needed a place to go,” Leyland said.
Hours at Stepping Stones have been expanded. Youths struggle at adult drop-in centers or homeless shelters, she said. So they may have 20 young people sleeping overnight on makeshift beds, using the showers and laundry.
“At least it gets them off the street. It’s safe,” Leyland said. “The goal though is to get them off the street. When it’s cold, it’s cold.”
Mental health focus
Fraser has focused on mental health issues for the last decade, Leyland said.
“If there was a way to take away the stigma that surrounds people with mental health issues, I’d like to be part of that as an organization,” she said.
“As a very wise person said to me one time, you know, if you have cancer, you get treatment. You take pills. You take radiation. If you have mental health issues, why wouldn’t you take medication? Why wouldn’t you seek treatment? Why should there be shame in that when there is not shame for other health issues? That one is near and dear to me,” Leyland said.
Fraser’s Valley Hope Counseling therapists have worked with people from ages 2 to 70 who are dealing with crises, from escaping from sex trafficking, abusive relationships, poverty, or issues tied to sexuality or gender, Leyland said.
She said that throughout Fraser’s continuum of services - which may help infants from six weeks old to adults at the end of their lives - the idea is to keep the operations simple, straightforward and easy to navigate.
Leyland said she feels pride to be part of Fraser’s 125 years of service to the community.
“I’m really honored to be part of it. It’s been an absolute challenge on some days and an absolute joy on others. And I just think we were blessed in the beginning. The right foundations were laid,” she said.
“We live under a good star,” Leyland said. “We don’t have a lot of time to celebrate, but we try to keep it going.”