COBB COUNTY, Ga. - More than 100 homeless teens and young adults came together recently to celebrate a major milestone they accomplished through a nationally recognized program geared toward transforming the lives of struggling youth.
The Orange Duffel Bag Initiative, an Atlanta-based public charity, provides certified life plan coaching to homeless and foster care teens ages 13
to 25. A reunion was held at Kennesaw State University in late January for the latest group, comprised of students from across metro Atlanta, that finished ODB’s 12-week program.
“More than 80 percent of our youth have graduated high school or are on track to do so,
and several of our students are now in college, which is remarkable when you consider the graduation rates for teens in foster care and homeless youth,” said co-founder Echo Garrett.
Since ODB first started in 2010, the charity has graduated more than 300 homeless, high poverty and foster care teens from its life plan coaching program. Students are referred by partnering school
districts and word of mouth.
It’s all about encouraging students to create a vision -- similar to the one Orange Duffel Bag founder Sam Bracken had when he entered the program years ago. He was a homeless teen who carried all his possessions in an orange duffel bag, and overcame adversity to attend and graduate with honors from Georgia Tech.
Bracken, who now works for a leadership development company out of state, said he traveled miles away just to tell
young people that they can rise above their challenges, too.
“Take control of their own destiny,” said Bracken, who served as one of the guest speakers. “You can pack fear and helplessness or faith and hope."
Twenty-one-year-old Gi’Nia Stone, who was part of the program's first graduating class, says the Duffel Bag initiative, "literally saved my life.”
She graduated third in her class from Therrell School of Health Sciences and Research in southwest Atlanta. She went on to pursue a bachelor's at Agnes Scott College, where she lost a list of resources until ODB stepped in.
"I had no support system, no funds," said Stone.
She said the team at ODB, who she considers family, opened their doors to make sure she was clothed and fed.
"Someone can give you $20 and pat you on the back, but
it says something when someone opens up their home," Stone said.
The aspiring doctor encourages her peers to never lose hope and to dream big.