Estevon Torres has completed the first weeks of his freshman year at Montana State University, a milestone representing an upward journey from where he once was.
The psychology major was the first resident of a community residential house in Whitefish for unaccompanied, homeless teens. The house is operated by the nonprofit Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana.
Making it to high school graduation was difficult for Torres to envision years ago. When he was 15 his father died, beginning a downward spiral in his mental health, which impacted his school work. He described the depression as overwhelming.
“With all the difficulties I had there was a lot of doubt in my mind,” Torres said about making it to high school graduation. The grief of the situation extended to his mother.
“My mom took care of me as long as she could before she had to uproot herself and move elsewhere,” Torres said, who was 16 at the time. “I had the option to go with her, and I had the option to stay in my hometown and continue my education at Columbia Falls High School.”
Torres had grown up in Columbia Falls since first grade and made the decision to stay. However, he had to figure out where to live. He was able to stay with a friend’s family. Even though he had a place to stay, he was homeless as defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. While the definition covers minors lacking a fixed, regular or adequate night-time residence — it encompasses youth living with adults who are not the legal guardians.
While best intentions may be there to help teens like Torres, not all families are equipped to bring in homeless youth who have usually experienced trauma in some form. After a year, Torres moved out.
“I felt like a burden to my friend’s family. They definitely tried to do their best,” Torres said.
He moved on to an inpatient behavioral health program. It was through these services that he was linked with Sparrow’s Nest, an organization whose mission is to provide safe housing and a supportive environment to unaccompanied, homeless high school students in the valley, enabling them to focus on graduation. The Whitefish home can house up to five teens. In Kalispell, a building is under renovation to become another community home and may house up to eight teens when completed.
When Torres moved into the Whitefish home in August 2016, he continued to be cloaked in the feeling of “temporariness” and that he was a burden to others. Having lived from place to place had taken its toll, Torres said.
Sparrow’s Nest eventually became a place of stability and a place where he rebuilt self-confidence.
“I started feeling like myself again. It took several months. Either I lacked the energy before or I didn’t feel confident,” Torres said, contemplating the shift in his outlook.
At school, he said his choir teacher reached out to him and offered support. Torres began catching up with his schoolwork, turning assignments in on time and sought help when needed. The support continued at the Sparrow’s Nest where he received help with school or was connected to resources.
In a short time, Torres was on target to get his high school diploma and had been accepted to several colleges.
“I was cutting it close,” Torres said. “Without Sparrow’s Nest I don’t know if I would have graduated high school. There was no foreseeable future for me.”
The first weeks of college have been a mix of emotions — anticipation, excitement and nervousness.
In the short-term Torres said, “I hope to do a lot better in my classes than I did in high school. I’m putting a lot more effort into it. In the longterm I hope to become a child psychologist or behavioral analyst.”
Sparrow’s Nest Executive Director Jerramy Dear-Ruel described Torres as an “exceptional young man” who “will go onto doing great things.”
“All of our students are incredible individuals that need a steady place to live in order to thrive,” Dear-Ruel said.
For more information or to donate call 406-309-5196 or visit www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.