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In the months before she gave birth, 22-year-old Krystal Thomas found herself homeless, jobless and increasingly desperate.

“I slept in cars, I slept on park benches, I slept everywhere,” recalled Thomas, now 23.

And then she found the angel who changed her life.

“I don’t know where I’d be without Ms. Michelle,” Thomas said. “She’s my backbone.”

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Michelle Mitchell-Brannon, 41, is a case-specialist for the Atlantic Street Center who directs the Seattle charity’s Teens As Parents Program (TAPP).

For five years, Mitchell-Brannon has run the program for young parents that teaches parenting and life skills, offers counseling, finds housing and provides hot meals, diapers, clothing and other essentials on a shoestring, amid an ever-expanding need.

“I’m over capacity,” she said, “but I’m not going to turn anyone away.”

In recent years, that has meant reaching into her own pocket to cover costs ranging from baby formula to housing placement fees. It’s a small price to pay, Mitchell-Brannon said, for the “privilege and honor” of helping young, at-risk parents to right themselves.

“With all of my clients, there’s a barrier,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “What we try to do is identify what that barrier is, and then we overcome it. If that means paying $300 or $400 for rent — or whatever it is — we’re going to meet that need. And, if I don’t have it in our budget, we’ll find a way.”

Meeting the needs of Thomas involved a different kind of investment: the kind paid in tears and late-night meetings. The outlay eventually paid off by gaining the young woman’s trust and identifying her deeper troubles.

Growing up fast

Since age 14, Thomas largely has been on her own. While in middle school, a rift with her mother and stepfather sent Thomas to live with her grandmother in a Seattle home for seniors. From there, she bounced between homes and schools, and survived an abusive relationship, she said.

Legally emancipated from her mother at age 16, Thomas quit high school, moved into a Renton apartment, earned a general education diploma and completed a college-level, medical administrative assistants program. She gained work at an optometry clinic and took an externship at a hospital.

“I was doing well,” she said.

Then, a severe black eye changed everything. With her face bruised and swollen, Thomas failed to show up to work for days.

“I lost everything,” she said. “My job, my apartment, my car, everything.”

She stopped making monthly payments for a rented TV and other home furnishings. When she didn’t return the property, Thomas eventually was arrested and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor property-tampering charge.

Thomas said she found refuge in a new relationship. Soon, she was pregnant. But before long, the baby’s father was behind bars and out of the picture, she said.

Homeless and pregnant, Thomas had no direction when a girlfriend suggested she attend TAPP’s group counseling.

The weekly meetings — for parents up to 24 years of age — provided a hot meal before the young parents tell each other their stories.

“I came to a first meeting and I just broke down,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ”

Thomas was quick to bond with Mitchell-Brannon, who shares her own life story with new members to help break the ice.

Abandoned in infancy by drug-addicted parents, Mitchell-Brannon gave birth to twins at age 14, before her young family went into foster care. She later buried a third child, lost to sudden infant death syndrome.

“I know a lot about what these young parents are going through,” said the married mother of four boys, ranging from 9 to 27.

Thomas soon opened up to the social worker.

“One night, Krystal and I were hanging out at an all-night Starbucks because she didn’t have anywhere to go,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “ … And that’s when we got deep into things.”

Eventually, the talk turned to “being a victor, not a victim,” Mitchell-Brannon said.

“You need to value yourself, and you need to know your self-worth,” she added. “And that’s definitely what we teach in this program.”

Helping people in need identify — and then overcome — their problems always has been at the root of one of Seattle’s oldest charities.

Century of service

Founded in 1910, the Atlantic Street Center initially was known as “The Settlement House,” providing shelter to an influx of Italian immigrants locating to Seattle’s Rainier Valley. Soon, it offered medical assistance, educational training and social aid.

Now one of the area’s premier nonprofits serving youth, the agency provides academic, youth development, early literacy, mental health and family support services to more than 3,000 children and their families each year.

“Our overall goal is to support our clients so that they can be successful for life in general,” said Executive Director Edith Elion. “We’re constantly teaching them there is life beyond where they are.”

The agency’s roughly $3 million annual budget covers employment for 35 full-time staff members and 20 part-timers, as well as supports dozens of programs. About 75 percent of the budget is government-supported, with the rest from individual and corporate donations.

Among the agency’s biggest needs is funding for teen-parenting resources, Elion said. Such demand reflects a growing need in the areas most served by the agency: South Seattle and Southeast King County. A recent study found the teen birthrate in South King County is 13 percent — four times higher than the national average of 3 percent.

“Many of these young parents are unstably housed,” Elion added. “Getting their housing stable is the first step we try to do.”

Through her own life experience as a teen mother — and prompted by an altruistic grandmother who opened her doors to homeless women — Mitchell-Brannon “found her niche” in running TAPP, Elion said.

“But we don’t have enough for that program,” she said.

Last year, Mitchell-Brannon directly aided at least 73 young parents through TAPP, primarily operating on $39,659 from the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department. The grant covered Mitchell-Brannon’s salary and the program’s insurance costs.

“We rely heavily on donations for most everything else,” Mitchell-Brannon said.

The program, which includes three days of service each week at Rainier Beach’s South Lake alternative high school, has forged partnerships.

West Side Baby, a local children’s charity, recently donated 10,000 diapers. Bellevue First United Methodist Church gave money for baby formula. Goodwill Industries and others have gifted clothes for The Baby Shoppe, a free, secondhand store run out of the Atlantic Street Family Center in Columbia City.

Finding the means to cover TAPP’s resources is always challenging.

“But it changes lives,” Mitchell-Brannon said.

Just ask Krystal Thomas.

New home

Five days before Thomas gave birth to her daughter, Beautiful-Londyn, Mitchell-Brannon found a Kent apartment manager willing to take a chance on a homeless mom with two prior evictions.

“It took a week straight of phone calls for three hours a day,” Mitchell-Brannon said.

With a place to finally call home, Thomas focused on bringing a child into the world. And there to witness the delivery was Mitchell-Brannon.

In the six months since, Thomas has used TAPP for a variety of resources, including free baby items, group counseling and resume- and job interview-preparation. Thomas now works as an administrative assistant for University of Washington Medicine, and she’s paying restitution for the property-tampering charge.

“Now the sky is the limit,” Mitchell-Brannon said. “Nothing can stop her.”

Thomas also credits TAPP with helping strengthen her relationship with her mother. As one of the oldest members of the program’s group counseling meeting, Thomas has taken to mentoring younger members.

“Don’t be scared to ask for help,” Thomas advised. “That was my problem. I just thought I could do it all myself. But with this program, the help’s here for them.”

Lewis Kamb: or (206) 464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb

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