Ask any social entrepreneur about what motivates them, and you’re likely to hear the word “passion.” Deborah Shore is no exception. Founder of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a sprawling 140-employee organization in Washington, D.C., Shore has spent the past 45 years providing shelter services to homeless youth. “It has become my life’s work,” she says.
While there are over 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S., few individual founders have had the sort of tenure that Shore has had. For the past four decades, she has basically witnessed American history through the lens of at-risk young people in the nation’s capital. In the 1970s, when she first started running a shelter out of a church basement in Georgetown, she tended to traumatized veterans returning home. “Lots of guys that came back from Vietnam — we didn’t use the term at that time, but who had serious PTSD issues — were the fixtures in the street community,” she says. “The traditional agencies weren’t able to respond.” She was 21. “I was the same age as many of them.”
Then came the Reagan years, when street drugs and AIDS arrived. By then, Shore had moved her shelter into a larger facility, thanks to an influx of charitable dollars. To put it mildly, Shore was not a fan of the 40th president’s administration. “It was horrible,” she says. “They were cutting as much as they could out of every program. They were cutting housing and every single drug program and opening jails [and sending people] out on the street.”
Today, in what she characterizes as a “weird and unusual time,” her agency’s shelters are now helping 250 to 300 young people a year, who struggle with everything from drug use and violence to their families’ rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identities. In the 1970s, “I thought we could end youth homelessness,” Shore says. It turns out, that was not the case.
Raised On Union Songs
Shore grew up in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a social worker mother and a chemist father who worked as activist. Her parents sang her union songs as lullabies. “Becoming involved in the work that I did was, I suppose, not all that accidental,” she says.
At the progressive Antioch College in Ohio, Shore was drawn to helping young people. “One of my first paid jobs was as a recreation counselor in a public housing project,” she recalls, working with families who had moved in from Kentucky, in central Appalachia, in search of factory jobs. As the counterculture of the 1960s morphed into the anti-war protests of the 1970s, Shore increasingly worked with kids who clashed with their families. “I saw and felt that young people in this particular point of time were a group that didn’t have a voice on their own behalf,” she says.
After graduation, she landed in Washington, where she began work as a street counselor. “It became clear to me that it would be really nice to have a place for young people to come, a drop-in center,” she says. “I was able to convince a church in Georgetown to let us use a space there.” Then, a year and a half later, fate intervened: Shore was contacted by Evangeline Bruce, a Washington socialite and diplomat’s wife, whose young daughter Sasha Bruce had been killed in a domestic situation.
“I just remember Evangeline coming in,” Shore says, with a laugh, “to the very modest circumstances that we were in at Christ Church Georgetown, and looking around and saying, ‘This is exactly the kind of place that Sasha would have loved, and I want to help you.’” The Bruce family donated funds that allowed Shore to move into a new building and open a 24-hour homeless youth shelter. “It was pretty incredible,” she says. “They really became angels for us in so many remarkable ways.”
A Champion of Change
Today, Sasha Bruce’s annual operating budget of $9.5 million — derived from contracts and grants from the government, foundations, and private individuals — funds several shelters, and a variety of health and wellness programs, and classes designed to teach life skills and job counseling to homeless youth. The organization is one of the oldest and most experienced of its kind in Washington, D.C.
For Shore, realizing the scale and scope of what she’s built keeps her motivated. She has been widely recognized for her work. In 2012, the White House named her a Champion of Change, and she has been inducted into Washington’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to civic and community development. Washingtonian Magazine named her its 2016 Washingtonian of the Year.
Yet, the day-to-day work can still be extraordinarily difficult, especially after more than 40 years. “There are sometimes days when it feels crushing, to see people who have been so abused and hurt,” she says. And it can be challenging to interact with at-risk youth, some of whom are addicts. On some days, “our staff is dealing with people who curse them out,” she says. “They’re on the front lines.”
But while Shore is starting to think about succession planning, she’s not ready to leave Sasha Bruce yet. “Even though there is so much hurt and so much rage…these young people are still available for transformational work,” she says. “It’s a very exciting and dynamic time in life. And I have always felt very inspired by that.”
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