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“We are so deeply rooted in our community.” Briarpatch Youth Services celebrates 50 years


A small group of volunteers came together back in 1971 concerned about the welfare of the many runaways in the Madison area. They began seeking funding through collaborative partners to create a place for kids on the run to obtain appropriate shelter, counseling and referrals to assist the family in the resolution of their conflicts. With that, Briarpatch was born.

This Thursday, Briarpatch Youth Services, which offers a broad array of services to runaway, homeless, and at-risk youth and whose mission is to strengthen the lives of youth and families, will celebrate 50 years with a golden anniversary event.

“We serve around 3,000 children a year. I think when we were looking at the data, we’ve served about 50,000 children over the last 50 years. We are the only organization In Dane County that has a homeless shelter and provides services specifically for our youth experiencing homelessness,” Briarpatch CEO Gloria Reyes tells Madison365. “So that’s really unique and so important because it is a very silent community.  They are often going house to house, whoever will take them in, and that’s not always a good situation. Briarpatch is an important organization in making sure that we are investing in our youth early to change their trajectory in the future and assuring that we are paving a way for them. 

“When we invest in them, it’s an investment in our community, the City of Madison and Dane County,” she adds.

Briarpatch Youth Services has planned a casual evening for Thursday’s big celebration at the Goodman Community Center’s Brassworks Building with speakers, music and hors d’oeuvres.

Briarpatch Youth Services group picture. Photo supplied.

“We will have our board members and staff there and community supporters, partners and stakeholders. We will have an award ceremony honoring those who have supported and influenced and guided Briarpatch over the years,” Reyes says. “It’s going to be a time for reflection – where we’ve been for the last 50 years, but we will also use that time to look into the future. Where do we see Briarpatch in the next 50 years?”

Although she is relatively new to Briarpatch — Reyes was named executive director in October of 2020 – she says she has really taken a deep dive into the history of the organization as she prepared to celebrate its golden jubilee.

“I have learned a lot this past year in preparing for our 50th-anniversary event. We’ve been digging through old books and notebooks of people writing through the years,” she says. “I learned that Briarpatch started during the ‘70s around the rising number of kids who were running away from home and had nowhere to go. There were a handful of leaders in our community who said, ‘This is a real problem.’ They were taking kids in and having them stay at their own houses.”

Today, Briarpatch has programs that focus on restorative justice, street outreach, and intensive supervision. The restorative justice program focuses on providing young people who have committed a violation other options instead of going into a formal, juvenile process of receiving a ticket court process. The street outreach program puts workers in the communities and schools to engage with youth and meet their needs

“It changed over the years. The challenges in the lives of our youth have changed. It’s no longer what it was like in the early ’70s. The needs changed over the years,” Reyes says. “Briarpatch has had to evolve and change along with the needs of our youth throughout the years and we continue to do that.”

November is National Runaway Prevention Month and, with that in mind, 300 green flags were lined up on Nov. 1 along Rimrock Road, representing the 300 youth who are homeless in Dane County each night.

Reyes says that Briarpatch is excited about a recent $2.5 million Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

“It was a great opportunity for Briarpatch and we were excited about being chosen to do this work,” Reyes says. “The HUD grant assigns us some technical assistance experts who are amazing. They’ve done this in other cities and they understand best practices. This process is going to allow us to develop a system of supportive services for youth, under 18, and young adults, ages 18-24.”

The YHDP grant positions the community to take advantage of funding that Madison Mayor Rhodes-Conway has committed in the 2022 Capital Budget to develop permanent housing to serve youth aging out of the foster care system and facing the prospect of becoming homeless.

“We will be engaging with youth and other partners in our community to identify where the gaps are om supportive services,” Reyes says. “From there, we then propose projects in areas we want to invest in and we make the decision based upon the entire planning process. Then we move into the implementation phase and that’s when the projects start working.”

Reyes says Briarpatch will also be hiring a project coordinator and a youth project coordinator who will work together to plan the process and convene stakeholders and youth to identify gaps in our current system.

Throughout its 50 years, Briarpatch has developed a variety of important partnerships in the community as it stays committed to helping the youth and families of Dane County.

“Those collaborations and relationships are so important. Wherever our children are – particularly in our schools – we have established strong partnerships with Madison School District, Sun Prairie School District and Waunakee School Districts and other school districts across Dane County,” Reyes says. “That’s where most of our referrals come and that is where our kids are at. It’s so important to have those strong partnerships with school districts and other organizations throughout the city and county and other non-profit organizations. 

“We’re also an organization that is open to new ways to serve our youth based upon what we learn from hearing from our youth as far as programming and supportive services,” she adds. “We have evolved and we continue to evolve.”

Reyes says that she is looking forward to speaking with and hearing from the Briarpatch family and supportive community members at the 50th-anniversary event.

“One thing that I have learned when I first started here is that there are so many people in our community who have been here or have had some sort of assistance with Briarpatch themselves or they have brought their children to Briarpatch,” Reyes says. “I would get many calls of people, sometimes professionals in the community, who would comment to me, ‘At one point in my life I needed services from Briarpatch when I was a kid.’ We have impacted so many people’s lives over the years and it’s so great to see them now and hear their stories.

“We are so deeply rooted in our community and I love the way that we have established that trust and built relationships with the people that we collaborate with. We serve our young people. I’m really excited about the future of Briarpatch,” she adds. “We just completed our Briarpatch strategic planning and that is exciting, too. I think in the next 50 years we will have to navigate the new territory of COVID and the impact it has had on our young people. In the future, I think we will really need to invest in our staff to ensure that they are prepared to serve a much more vulnerable population than what we are accustomed to.”