How this non-profit weaves a family of support for struggling teens in Baltimore

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Every June, there are thousands of high school students who do not receive their diplomas. For many, this isn’t due to a lack of talent or ability but simply the by-product of having to face extraordinary circumstances in their personal lives that prevent them from focusing on their studies. These students often lack supportive relationships and find themselves navigating a life of hardship alone.  

It’s these students that Sarah and Ryan Hemminger are on a mission to support through their non-profit, Thread. Their philosophy is simple: everyone – no matter their age, race, or background – needs a network of supportive relationships to help them thrive. Based in Baltimore, Thread connects diverse groups of people all over the city and places them in “families.” Each family consists of up to four adult volunteers and one academically struggling high school student. The adult volunteers commit to being there for the student in any way necessary, with tasks that range anywhere from renovating a student’s house to driving them to school.

Since its founding in 2004, the Thread community has grown from 15 students and a handful of volunteers to 527 students and alumni and over 1,600 volunteers and collaborators. Their goal is not just to make a difference in students’ lives, but also to provide a sense of community and support for the volunteers. Ultimately, Thread wants to help stitch together a new social fabric, across lines of race and class.

Freethink spoke with Sarah about the inspiration behind Thread and how this model is uniquely positioned to create new and meaningful relationships throughout Baltimore.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: This is a really unique model. Can you explain how Thread works?

Sarah: We’re currently located at four local high schools. Each high school principal gives us a list of the students who academically ranked in the bottom 25 percent of their class during the first quarter of their freshman year. And then we go and meet them and have a conversation.

The relationship model has evolved over time. A Thread Family consists of one student and a group of up to four university and community-based volunteers. We ensure that the students are receiving everything they need, but we also put just as much time and attention into the care of the adult volunteers. Each Thread Family has a Head of the Family who works with the volunteers. Their job is not to worry about the student. Their job is actually to worry about if the volunteers are doing well in their own lives. This helps ensure the consistency of adults in a child’s life.

Freethink: Where do your volunteers come from?

Sarah: We now have piloted working with three different groups: 1) students at universities in Baltimore, 2) young professionals at local corporations, and 3) retirees or empty nesters in the area.

It’s one of the most critical things we’re trying to do: create a new social fabric in Baltimore. We’re bringing people together in a permanent way across lines of race and class.

Freethink: That sounds incredibly ambitious. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered?

Sarah: We knew at the beginning that our young people weren’t broken, but we didn’t understand just how broken the systems actually are. One of the things that was difficult for me personally was when our first cohort graduated from college. We had young black men with college degrees who could not find jobs. I felt horrible because I had basically said, “If you just check all the boxes that my parents told me to check—everything’s going to work out for you.”

It wasn’t that simple. Part of the problem was their network wasn’t able to help them find jobs. We wanted to build a systematic solution to this into our model—we knew the students have to have built enough social capital through the expanded community that they can network themselves.

We make sure that there’s connectivity in different social layers by being strategic in how we place people in Thread Families. For example, one of the Thread Family volunteers may be an BGE employee, another one could be a Hopkins medical student, and another one could be an undergraduate student. This ensures that, from the beginning, the Thread student will have a diverse network for the rest of their lives.

Freethink: Does that kind of diversity and connectivity allow the Thread Families to cope with some of the more difficult issues that can arise in these circumstances? Or are there additional services that they need help connecting to?

Sarah: If you think of it like concentric circles, with the students in the center and the Thread Family around them, then there’s another group we call collaborators. Collaborators are individuals who donate pro bono expertise or funding. It’s essentially any sort of gift of in-kind services or expertise, or it could be financial. We have collaborators who provide pro bono legal, health, or housing assistance.

Freethink: Talk about Thread’s 10-year timeline for the students’ development. It seems like such a big vision. Why do you think having that stability for a long-term period is important?

Sarah: I think a 10-year time frame is important, first and foremost, because our kids are behind. Our students have often failed multiple grades coming into high school. There’s a lot of catching up to do. To truly build a life, to figure out what they’re great at, passionate about, and then to help them gain all the skills, it takes a lot of time. We want to see them all the way through.

Think about how a lot of middle-class parents launch their kids in adulthood—they help them through college and then sometimes after college kids move back in, or they help them find their first job. We want to provide that type of safety net for our students.

Freethink: How long do the volunteers stay with a student during this process?

Sarah: Volunteers don’t commit to 10 years. They commit to one year at a time, and we see it as our responsibility to provide such a valuable experience for them in terms of building community that they choose to stay on longer. The beauty of the model is we have a very, very high volunteer retention rate – greater than 75 percent – because so much is put into supporting the volunteers in their own endeavors.

Freethink: That’s remarkable. What is it that’s so compelling about Thread that it forges these long-term relationships?

Sarah: The volunteers oftentimes have more to gain than the students. When we had this conversation at the board retreat, we had one member raise his hand and say, “I haven’t really said this directly to anyone, but I’ve been sober for the last six years—and it’s because of these relationships.”

Telling that story is so important. It changes how a young person feels about themselves. It’s one thing to feel like you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps – even though I hate that phrase – but it’s a whole different thing to look at this person who you view as successful and to know that you changed their life. There’s an authenticity to it. We’re in it together. We’ve all got problems. So let’s just work on them together.

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