The Georgia Health Policy Center recently spoke to Jessica Sayers, executive director, and Halimah Ouedraogo, program director, for the Unaccompanied Student Initiative (Wyoming) about developing a network of partners to provide a safe and stable home to unaccompanied students ages 16-20 toward sustainable independence. 


To date, what has been the biggest accomplishment or win in your program?  

Jessica: One of the things I am most proud of is our team’s ability to open up our hearts and minds about something we are passionate about — to go out into the community and speak on behalf of our students on the needs that are being met by our program and the needs that we still have, so that as a community, we can serve this population that is in need. 

Halimah: What has been critical to us being able to start up quickly on day one of this grant is the buy-in that we have from staff, senior leadership, the board, and most importantly from our community — our students and the volunteers that are ready to assist us and to contribute.  


What is a tip that you would share with an organization launching a similar network?  

Halimah: Having strong monitoring and evaluation practices within organizations or programs can strongly contribute to the design of proposals or interventions. For example, at the Unaccompanied Student Initiative our approach was grounded in our needs assessment. It is something that we are constantly doing as an organization at multiple levels, and it informed the development of the proposal as well as the implementation. We also have feedback loops so that we can hear from the students and our stakeholders. Our population of unaccompanied students has changing needs and we must be in a position where we are agile and able to pivot. It can be overwhelming —we know we cannot address everything at once. But we are using a prioritization matrix and our students are letting us know when they need more support for education, health, community involvement, or another area. So, as we are making adjustments, we are doing so based on the feedback that we received, and we are making sure that our students remain front and center in what we do.  


How do you see participation in the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy’s Network Development Grant Program impacting your broader health improvement efforts?  

Halimah: We cannot do this work alone. One of our key partners is the school district, and they have been instrumental in letting us know where the need is and how many unaccompanied homeless students there are. We work with a multitude of service providers across all our counties. Another partner is the Brain Advancement Center, which focuses on mental health, but at the same time, we are making sure that we are providing comprehensive, person-centered care plans to our students leveraging wraparound services through Medicaid. We have gotten creative about how we can lean into the strengths of our community and existing businesses.  As more people learn about what we do and we work to decrease the stigma, it is becoming more of a positive conversation about how to contribute to our shared community and how we can build something together.  

Jessica: My team is doing a great job in prioritizing our action steps. We are taking the needed time to create those relationships with community members, and this takes more time and is more difficult than you would expect. This grant has allowed us to have that time to do these needed steps, which in the long term will sustain us with these community partners.  


What will your organization be doing more of or differently to emerge stronger from the pandemic? 

Halimah: Unaccompanied students are a hidden and vulnerable population. We are noticing that sometimes the system and operations are not set up in a way for this population to be able to easily receive services or navigate certain services or systems. We are having those conversations to identify where there are opportunities to fill in gaps based on our data. Sometimes the design improvements are low hanging fruit is just adding a checkbox or having pamphlets ready to make sure that no one is feeling stigmatized or not welcomed. But technology can also be incorporated to make sure that everyone is getting access to services, wherever in the state they are located. 

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