For the last seven years, Desiree Cook has been on a mission to transform the lives of Tucson’s most vulnerable youth — those who are in foster care or experiencing homelessness.
It’s something she’s been doing through I Am You 360, the non-profit she started in 2014 that serves vulnerable youth by providing access to personal hygiene products, internships and mentoring experience, and through workshops designed to teach teens life skills and self-esteem.
For Cook, the work is deeply personal.
“I was homeless and had kids in foster care, I was heavily addicted to drugs, I went to prison and I turned my life around,” Cook says. “If I can reinvent myself and transform, these kids can too, so that’s why I have a really great relationship with them because I have lived that life.”
Now, she’s hoping to create long-term change for at-risk youth one tiny home community at a time.
“The overall vision of I Am You 360 is to empower the whole person with customization and personalization inside and out and giving them the tools to develop self-worth, self-esteem and to know that they’re somebody,” Cook says. “The end goal is for them to not only see themselves as somebody but to create generational change.”
I Am You 360’s latest initiative, the Small Home Experience, will give youth ages 18-22, who have either aged out of foster care or are experiencing homelessness, a safe place to live while they receive education, skills and training to set them on a path to success and, ultimately, home ownership.
“Our goal is to sew them back into the fabric of the community and the only way we can do that is by treating them with dignity so they can feel dignified,” Cook says.
I Am You 360 is set to break ground soon on a tiny home community which will be built in a vacant lot next to its office and hygiene dispensary on Tucson’s east side. The community will feature nine eco-friendly 400-square-foot tiny homes. A tenth unit will be used for youth to participate in meetings and workshops as part of a 42-week Life Skills Curriculum program designed by I Am You 360 and led by Cook and several other community partners. They will also be able to access mental health services on-site.
“Life skill development is huge; if you don’t have a parent or school is not teaching you how to cook, how to clean, laundry, banking, safe sex, credit, all these things that are missing to be a well-rounded adult, we must pick up those pieces and invest in our youth,” Cook says.
She was inspired to start the project a few years ago after visiting a tiny home community in Detroit and thought about how she could help fill a gap in services for youth in Tucson.
Cook says there are around 3,000 children and teens in foster care in Pima County and about 7,000 youth experiencing homelessness.
“I knew the numbers were high and I wasn’t seeing a lot of activity and life skill development being poured into the kiddos that age out of foster care or experiencing homelessness… to be honest, many of them fall through the cracks,” Cook says. “They’re still experiencing homelessness, violence, sex trafficking, incarceration.”