Above: A colorful mural graces the front fence of the Owl’s Nest Youth Services program.
Great horned owls leave the comfort of their nests at just a few weeks old. Fiercely independent birds, they rely on others for a time, but find their own way to adulthood while still too young to fly.
That sounds familiar to Louise Williams, who has spent her career supporting young people and others who are facing trauma, incarceration, or other challenges. Williams is the founder and executive director of Owl’s Nest Youth Services in Portland, one of the newest residential programs serving youth committed to Oregon Youth Authority (OYA).
Owl’s Nest provides transitional housing, community resources, treatment, and support specifically focused on young people of color.
Williams and Owl’s Nest aim to thoroughly understand and reflect what it is like to be a person of color in Portland and work to make youth feel more comfortable and connected, despite the struggles they are facing.
Serving youth of color and other historically marginalized youth with culturally responsive programs has long been a challenge for OYA due to a lack of community programs that provide services specifically for youth of color.
Sometimes youth are screened out of community programs because of the offenses they committed or their history. Another challenge is finding ways for youth to learn how to be young adults in the community, especially in their own community, when the programs that offer them a spot are hundreds of miles away from their homes.
With its location in Multnomah County, Owl’s Nest will provide an important new option for youth of color in the Portland area and a big step forward in OYA’s continued efforts to support and increase programs that serve youth of color equitably. In Multnomah County, nearly ¾ of youth committed to OYA’s custody are youth of color and more than 50% are Black.
“This is the kind of service that can be the difference-maker for the right kid at the right time,” says Gunnar Browning, field supervisor at OYA’s Multnomah office. “Youth will be able to use the treatment and skills they gain in this program and use them right at home, without having to go far away.
“When youth get what they need from a program, that helps them with all aspects of their supervision and transition back to the community. It’s all about putting the puzzle pieces together.”
Williams comes from a family of social workers, nurses, and educators. She has dedicated her life to supporting people who face unique challenges. She’s been a community therapist, case worker, community liaison, social worker, and currently works as a therapist for men incarcerated at the Oregon Department of Corrections.
There, she says she connects her professional skills as a social worker and therapist with personal parenting skills to create a circle of trust and security so her clients can feel safe to grow and thrive.
Williams lost her own house in the 2008 financial crisis, so she understands what it’s like to start from scratch. She has extensive experience working with young people and families facing tough situations and skillfully navigates interpersonal dynamics, trauma, and boundaries that youth need to be successful.
“As a young person, it can be really hard to connect with someone you can trust,” Williams says. “This age group looks at the outside, at least at first. I have teenagers and they keep me jazzy so I’m not walking in here as Captain Fancypants, with heels on, because it’s important to relate and connect with the youth I’m trying to help.
“I enjoy being able to connect with [young people], and to give them an opportunity to connect with me. With real words, not professional jargon. I want them to be able to open up. I might be the first person they are sharing [with] or talking to honestly.”
Owl’s Nest will provide more than just a safe place for youth to roost. It will be a place for them to grow roots and gain independence, with clear boundaries and expectations, Williams says.
Laura Ward, Diversion Specialist with OYA, supported Owl’s Nest through the rigorous vetting and approval process. “Louise’s vision is so clear of what she is bringing to the table,” Ward says. “She has full-circle experience. Many of the youth we hope to place with Owl’s Nest will greatly benefit from a program that understands their specific needs.”
Williams is already thinking ahead to expand what Owl’s Nest will offer — especially for youth who thrive in the main program. The non-profit purchased a tiny house, the first of nearly a dozen she hopes will fill the property. The tiny house is completely self-sustaining, offering truly independent living for youth who earn this spot. It has a kitchen, sleeping loft, composting toilet, solar panels, and a water tank.
The goal is to offer youth multiple steps where they can increase their independence and move towards self-sufficiency.
“There is time and space to grow,” Williams says. “You are where you live.”