Kylee Holland was a stay-at-home wife and mom of twin toddlers and an older child when a job opening with Sisu Youth Services popped up on her social media feed. Holland, with years of experience in mental health casework prior to staying home with her kids, has a passion for serving LGBTQ+ youth, a primary focus area of the affirming nonprofit organization, offering shelter and support to homeless youth.
“I didn’t know if I was ready for a full-time job yet, and I enjoyed being with my kids, but it was the perfect opportunity,” recalls Holland. “I see eye-to-eye with Sisu not only with [supporting] LGBTQ+ youth, but trauma-informed care and how to handle youth who have had difficult lives, layers of barriers, trauma, substance abuse or mental health challenges.”
Holland has served as Sisu’s program director for nearly two years, helping connect the youth who are staying in the shelter, those participating in drop-in services and youth newly in housing who need support with local organizations and professionals to provide everything from job readiness and life skills training to health and wellness programming and hair cuts.
The most rewarding part of Holland’s job is cheering on small victories every day as youth learn to advocate for, support and love themselves. Holland’s goal is to work herself out of a job, assisting youth until they no longer consistently need her or Sisu’s services while at the same time helping the community at large understand the importance of serving this often-forgotten group.
“I still talk to people all the time who don’t know there are youth who are homeless,” said Holland. “The unfortunate next thought is that they are bad or troubled kids. That is not the case. Youth who have trauma and barriers don’t always have attractive behavior, but that is why it’s even more important to address those needs and be a support for those youth. They are used to family members, society and agencies letting them drop through the cracks.”
Si•su (sēē’sōō) n. [< Finnish word] – Sisu can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance and bravery in the face of adversity. Sisu is the ability to sustain courage when times are tough.
Stepping up to the need
Sisu began as a mission project in 2010, collecting necessities for homeless youth. A day center to serve youth in crisis opened in 2014, which was quickly outgrown, and in 2018, the overnight shelter opened to provide services seven days a week to youth ages 15 to 22. Sixteen beds are available, and Sisu is one of the only organizations offering emergency shelter to this transitional age group.
Sisu is a low-barrier shelter, not requiring ID like many others do, and they are also LGBTQ+ affirming, with 40 to 60 percent of youth served identifying as LGBTQ+ and citing family rejection as the main reason they are facing homelessness. Staff at Sisu asks each youth for their preferred pronouns and name each day when they check in and commits to honoring those identities.
“They are lacking a secure sense of themselves because they’ve been put down for being who they are,” said Holland. “By being affirming, we give them a more secure sense of their own identity and they can go out in the world and be more confident in who they are.”
Youth receive a place to stay, clothing, hot meals and case management to connect them to metro resources. Some stay a night or two, some stay months, depending on their needs. Prior to the pandemic, Sisu also served drop-in youth who didn’t need a place to sleep but did need resources and connection.
While Sisu isn’t a residential mental health facility, Holland’s background in providing wraparound, whole-family case management for youth in trauma or with mental health challenges has served their population well in managing related behaviors within the shelter and connecting youth to services to help. Holland’s abilities to both build trusting rapport with youth and partnerships with community organizations to serve them have created a supportive environment designed to meet youth where they are, and her team regularly communicates with service providers they refer LGBTQ+ youth to to ensure they also understand and commit to offering services in an affirming manner.
Opportunities Industrialization Center and the Department of Mental Health provide life and job skill readiness training for Sisu youth, including goal setting, creating a budget and taking driver’s ed. Sisu offers monthly health fairs through Community Health Centers of Oklahoma, health and wellness programming and doctor visits with Diversity Family Health, which focuses on serving the LGBTQ+ community, as well as opportunities to learn about birth control, pregnancy, STDs and HIV testing.
While helping youth achieve housing is always an end goal, for Holland, it’s the little wins, like a teen remembering to take their medication consistently or prioritizing a good night’s sleep, that she celebrates, knowing it’s their culmination that will lead to stability.
“Especially in this field of work, successes don’t always look linear and growth doesn’t mean checking all the pretty boxes in a row,” explains Holland. “Small victories is where you know real growth is happening.”
Prior to the pandemic and becoming increasingly vital throughout, Holland and her team have worked with local organizations like Other Options to provide biweekly food package drop-offs to already housed youth who need support. In addition, her team assisted youth in accessing stimulus checks, especially those who may not have filled out taxes, had moved or simply didn’t know how to apply.
“We saw this need of youth in housing who had lost jobs at a complete standstill and not knowing what to do,” said Holland. “That’s one of the things I love, that we’ll always step up to the need.”
Even when youth who have experienced trauma or homelessness have achieved housing, it can be challenging for them to maintain it, and Holland seeks to be an ongoing resource to fill those needs.
“These youth haven’t had the parent or family to support them, tell them you can’t put a can in the microwave, explain how to set up electricity in their name or how to advocate for themselves,” said Holland. “Adulting is hard! We’re not only assisting youth get into housing but keeping them stably housed.”
Providing opportunities for fun and self-care are vital to Holland, too. Kind Cuts visits occasionally to provide hair cuts for the youth, Poetry and Chill offers weekly workshops and the youth recently enjoyed a paint-and-sip event with sparkling juice. Holland looks forward to providing more programs for housed youth, in addition to youth staying at the shelter, over the next year.
“They haven’t often in life gotten to just be kids and have fun, so it’s important for our youth to have outlets for things that are enjoyable,” said Holland.
Holland hopes to connect the youth with opportunities to serve in the community, like participating in a clean-up event through OKC Riversport and OKC Beautiful or volunteering at a local animal shelter, both experiences she has enjoyed with her own teen.
“It’s important for them to feel like they are part of the bigger picture, like they are making a difference in the community,” said Holland.
It takes a village
Holland’s most important life role is that of mom. The self-proclaimed perfectionist gains both freedom and encouragement through the support system helping raise her kids, including her ex-wife, both of their girlfriends and the kids’ grandparents. Holland and ex-wife Krysta Henry live in the same household and co-parent together.
“It’s pretty unconventional, but it works for us,” said Holland. “In separating, we didn’t want to separate our kids’ lives. They get the love of so many people in their lives.”
The ex-wives, girlfriends and kids recently vacationed together in Beaver’s Bend, they host weekly pizza nights together and they split up the chores.
“As moms, we feel like we have to do everything, and it’s really wonderful to have several adults who can each hold up pieces of the puzzle,” said Holland. “The intention was a support system for our kids, but it’s absolutely been a support system for me.”
That support system has become even more critical during the pandemic. Though Holland and her Sisu colleagues initially attempted to work from home some, the nature of their jobs running a shelter makes working remotely difficult. Holland says her younger children are handling the challenges of the pandemic more easily than her older, age 13, who is missing connection with their friends and opportunities to enjoy activities outside of the home.
Holland’s 13-year-old came out to her several years ago and has been exploring pronouns to determine what feels like a fit. Holland believes creating an atmosphere of openness in the home, starting when kids are little, helps kids feel more confident in sharing their feelings as they get older, whether that’s their gender identity or a difficult situation they’ve encountered.
“We created openness from an early age, being open to our kids to be who they are and supporting and nurturing them in any capacity,” said Holland.
This type of open, affirming living environment contrasts sharply with what many of the youth she works with at Sisu have experienced.
“It’s important to be able to acknowledge and accept whatever your child is telling you as their own truth,” said Holland. “If parents can give their children the space to explore their own identities before they are 18, that just takes one layer off the struggle young adults face as they learn to maneuver in the world.”
Holland is learning herself how and when to advocate for her child, and teaching them to advocate for themselves. In a recent email to a new art teacher in their Paseo neighborhood, Holland held her breath as she used they/them pronouns, unsure whether to out her child but also knowing the teen likely wouldn’t out themselves and wanting to create a comfortable space for them to be themselves. Holland was pleasantly surprised the teacher not only caught on but reassured her that she would do her best to use correct pronouns.
“I created an open space by being their advocate,” said Holland.
While there weren’t many resources available when Holland’s oldest was born, now there are more books representative of two mom or two dad households or celebrating LGBTQ+ youth, a fact Holland is grateful for as she sees in her home and professional lives the positive impact of normalization through representation. Reading books, having ongoing discussions and normalizing LGBTQ+ individuals within the home can help create future adults who celebrate and affirm others’ differences.
“It provides kids with a more open mindset, so as they get older and see kids and other adults that are more gender fluid or transgender, it won’t come as a shock if they have normalized the idea that everyone is different and doesn’t fit into one little box,” said Holland.
How metro families can support Sisu
Families and community members can support Sisu by providing a hot meal to shelter residents or gathering donations like bottled water, snacks or men’s and women’s underwear. For a list of current needs, visit facebook.com/SisuYouthOKC.