By Mary O’KEEFE
When honoring the spirit of St. Patrick it is only natural to look to someone who for years has been known in the Crescenta Valley community as a generous, non-judgmental person who is always welcoming to all: Mark Yeager.
Yeager has been a member of the foothill community for many years. He was pastor at Verdugo Hills Church, where the congregation has been working with kids and orphans for 35 years, starting their first of two orphanages in 1980. He was also a parent in the early ‘90s and supported the founding of Prom Plus, a supervised after prom party for CV High School seniors. He has worked with the YMCA of the Foothills with youth where he organized an outreach program where kids had a chance to win a car. And now in his continuing effort to support youth he has founded Heartstrings and Notes International, a 501(c)(3) organization that works to help kids at home and on a global platform.
“There are so many children in the world who have no song for their life. They have no hope, so our desire was to provide hope for them … restring the strings that are broken,” Yeager said of the idea for the title of Heartstrings.
The Notes came from a pen pal-type system he wants to set up with children helping children.
The organization works with homeless children, orphans and the victims of human trafficking.
“We have discovered with human trafficking victims that if you give them a friend whom they can talk to in the beginning of the rescue [process], they feel accepted by people of the world,” he said.
The organization is an NGO, a non-governmental organization, which means it is not faith-based. Yeager said by becoming an NGO more doors opened in other countries, and more children can be helped.
“The statistics are almost unreal to the average person – there is an estimated 100 million homeless kids in the world. Anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 kids die every day of malnutrition and disease in the world. Now in our day and age that is ridiculous,” he said.
Most of those statistics are based on information from various countries that have their own definition of what an orphan or street child is; whereas one country might say that if a child has a box to sleep in they are not homeless, but a child sleeping on concrete is.
“That’s why the statistics can [vary] so much,” he said.
At this point, the organization has 25 volunteers around the world who are supporting children. They focus their efforts in Los Angeles County, India and the Philippines.
“There are an estimated 78 million homeless people in India and of that 11 million are children. It is far [fewer] in the Philippines where there are an estimated 1.2 million children homeless. You think about those numbers and you think, ‘Oh my goodness! How can you even make an impact?’” he said. “We do it one child at a time.”
And that is Yeager’s approach to the seemingly insurmountable problem of child homelessness, disease and human trafficking – tackle it one child at a time.
His organization has started to set up a safe house in the center of India and will do the same in the Philippines. Like St. Patrick’s approach to Christianity, he is not forcing kids to get help, he is simply offering them a safe place.
St. Patrick used to invite people into a compound, a safe house, where they could have a meal, talk to friends and educate themselves. Yeager’s approach is similar.
“The purpose is to create a relationship with the street children,” he said.
The children who are on the street will not just walk into a place and ask to be rescued. They normally have someone they must report back to; sometimes it is a family member or some adult member of a syndicate. The safe house will allow the kids to come in, get some food, clothing, shoes and if they want to shower they will be able to as well.
“We will have educational programs,” he added.
The hope is once the children get used to a safe environment they will want to stay, learn and grow in that environment.
To that point, Yeager and his volunteers, including his wife Corinna who is from the Philippines, helped raise money to build a bakery that became a micro business in India. Through that business they have employed homeless children and have raised funds to help buy food for more children in need.
Yeager said even he is surprised at how Heartstrings has grown in just a year and that growth would not have happened without the support of other like-minded organizations that include World International and, in the states, Ascencia, Oasis, the Dream Center and Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission.
Here at home, Yeager and his volunteers have worked with those on Skid Row and with teens on the streets of Hollywood.
“There are 7,000 to 8,000 teenagers living on the streets in Los Angeles every night,” he said.
And echoing L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell, many of the kids that end up victims of human trafficking are from the child welfare system.
“It is estimated that there are only 350 beds available to teenagers every night,” he said. “So you find there are teenagers who are trafficking themselves. They are trading sex for food, for money and for a place to sleep. It is heartbreaking.”
He said that many believe a “white guy about 45 in a van” approaches victims of human trafficking
“But the number one recruiter now of teens in the U.S. is a woman in her late teens. She will most likely have a boyfriend who will turn her out to make friends with someone. It always starts out as a friendship, a place where the child victim can belong,” he said.
But soon that trust is turned into something dangerous, and the victim feels he or she is alone with no recourse.
Yeager agreed with McDonnell that the best way to fight the issue of human trafficking is through education.
When asked what the public can do, Yeager said the most important thing is to help people educate themselves and spread the word. He will go to any organization to speak on the subject and to talk about the facts vs. fiction of the issue.
He and his wife will be leaving for the Philippines on Friday and, as always, they will be battling the issue one child at a time.
To donate to Heartstrings, visit www.heartstringsnotes.com. There are opportunities to support specific programs in specific areas or to just make a general donation. To mail a donation, make checks payable to Heartstrings, P.O. Box 584, Tujunga, CA 91042. For information, contact (818) 353-6500.
One hundred percent of the funds donated by individuals go toward children. Everyone on staff is a volunteer. Any administrative costs are funded through corporate donations.