Baylor Program on Prosocial Behavior Spotlights an Innovative Government/Faith-Based Partnership through ‘Open Table’ Model

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    Byron Johnson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and founding director of Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion
Oct. 5, 2020

A government-funded transitional home for runaway and homeless youth joins with community-based supports from a Florida church

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-644-4155
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WACO, Texas (Oct. 5, 2020) – Runaway and homeless youth are receiving social support as they transition from a federally funded homeless shelter into the community through a unique partnership with volunteers from a nearby church through an intensive, relationship-focused model by Open Table, according to a preliminary study by Baylor University’s Program on Prosocial Behavior.

This represents the second case study evaluation of the Open Table collaboration model by Baylor scholars. The previous study focused on outcomes associated with youth aging out of foster care, single mothers and other vulnerable individuals and families in Richmond, Virginia.

The new study examines a government/faith-based collaboration between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sciences with Crosswinds Youth Services (CYS) in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Community in Melbourne, Florida, as an effort to strengthen the community connections and social capital for youth leaving CYS’ transitional housing program. This collaboration was facilitated through Open Table, a nonprofit training organization founded in 2007, which trains volunteers to come alongside families or individuals in need to support them.

The case study is published through Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion case studies.

“It is difficult today to think of a group that is more marginalized than those without a home,” said Byron Johnson, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and founding director of Baylor’s institute for Studies of Religion.

“Regrettably, research sanctioned by the federal government for addressing homelessness tends to overlook runaway and homeless youth,” he said. “We believe the intentional collaboration between Open Table and Crosswinds provides preliminary evidence confirming that efforts such as this, which draws from the human and social capital available through the faith community and elsewhere, can be successful in creating ‘transformation’ of those in homeless situations.”

“I am encouraged by the data and the growing anecdotal evidence that shows significant life transformation of at-risk single moms, runaway and homeless youths and youth aging out of foster care who engage in the intensive, relationship-focused, volunteer-based model called Open Table,” said Elizabeth Darling, commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Jon Katov, founder and CEO of Open Table, also addressed the importance of intentional, relationship-focused efforts to serve vulnerable individuals and families: “In over 15 years of development, the Open Table model has been used to provide social capital and relational assets to a wide array of populations. Our research shows, as this case study validates, that involvement in the process transforms the lives of those being served by the Table, changes the world view of the Table members about poverty and homelessness, and enhances the organizations involved.”

In contrast to the previous case study on Open Table in Richmond, this preliminary study focused on how Crosswinds’ engagement with the volunteer-based Open Table, through St. John’s, spurred changes within the organization with respect to their roles and goals for the youth they serve.

“We not only saw a transformation in the youth supported through Open Table, but we have also seen a transformation in our organization and how much more we can do for runaway and homeless youth in partnership with St. John’s and other volunteer groups in our community,” said Karen Locke, chief operating officer for CYS.

Open Table is a unique mutual support model whereby trained volunteers, identified as Table Members, come alongside a family or individuals in need, referred to as a Friend. By giving of themselves relationally, Table Members pour into the lives of Friends. Table Members commit to meeting once a week for a year with their Friend, providing support by helping them develop and implement their own plan. Table Members tap into their own social networks in support of that plan. This approach has attracted more than 3,900 volunteers through Tables that served 418 individuals and families in 29 states and districts across the United States from 2014-2019.

In this Q&A, co-authors Johnson and ISR non-resident fellow William Wubbenhorst explain the distinctive elements of Open Table they discovered through the case study development.

Q: What does Open Table have to add to the services provided through federally-funded programs like Crosswinds that serve runaway and homeless youth?

Wubbenhorst: The funding provided for program like Crosswinds, which receives grant funding from the Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) program located within the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families, is primarily for providing residential and other services to runaway youth in residence at their program, either through a short-term shelter or a longer-term transitional housing program. However, once a youth has completed their stay, there are limited resources for aftercare. Aftercare refers to providing supports in the community to which these individuals in many cases are transitioning into, as in the case of foster youths aging out of the system, or are already in the community but lacking family and friends to support them in their efforts to become more stable and financially independent.

St. John’s, through training provided by Open Table, can serve as a critical resource to support youth that are not re-unified with their parent(s) to transition into the community and achieve long-term success and economic mobility.

Q: What kind of outcomes and impact did you observe for the youth served through this Open Table partnership?

Wubbenhorst: Because there have only been five youths served at the time this case study was conducted, there was not sufficient information regarding the outcomes of the youth served. However, a sample social capital mapping exercise for one of the youth served, which involved tracking and monetizing the value of the volunteer efforts, captured an estimated 227 hours of volunteer hours invested in this youth, at a monetized value of over $12,700.

Q: What were the distinct findings from this evaluation in contrast to the previous evaluation of Open Table in Virginia?

Wubbenhorst: Perhaps the most significant finding, apart from the benefits to the runaway and homeless youth served, is the manner in which Crosswinds as an organization began to rethink what was possible for the youth they served. All too often, program like Crosswinds serve their youth well while they are under their care, but it is not always sufficient to successfully transition into a successful, financially independent, life. With the community support of volunteers through St. Johns and elsewhere in the community, CYS is confident that they will be able to serve more youth and provide for a better future through the social and relational capital of community-based volunteers.

Q: Will you do future research related directly to social support programs like Open Table?

Johnson: Yes, we plan to continue to research the Open Table program, and others like it, in order to increase awareness of the central importance of social supports and social networks as part of an overall framework for helping those most vulnerable with something more lasting than a bag of groceries or clothing or furniture. People need people, and those lacking in social capital gain friends and a sort of family with their able Members that often goes well beyond the one-year formal engagement and commitment of these volunteers.

Robert Putnam, in his best-selling book “Bowling Alone,” argues society needs to revisit new and innovative ways to rebuild America’s social capital. One can readily argue that Open Table is a direct response to Putnam’s call for renewing our commitment to be engaged, civically involved and intentionally connected to each other in reciprocal and reinforcing ways. We find evidence in this case study that Open Table is a new and promising model for replenishing and hopefully reversing the trend of America’s dwindling supply of social and relational capital.

ABOUT THE BAYLOR INSTITUTE FOR STUDIES OF RELIGION

Launched in August 2004, the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) initiates, supports and conducts research on religion, involving scholars and projects spanning the intellectual spectrum: history, psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, theology and religious studies. The institute’s mandate extends to all religions, everywhere, and throughout history, and embraces the study of religious effects on prosocial behavior, family life, population health, economic development and social conflict. For more information, visit baylorisr.org.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 18,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

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