At 18, Allen Dayer found himself living in his car and imagining a future where he had to beg for money on the side of the freeway. It’s a time he refers to as his “rock bottom.”

Growing up in Glendale, Dayer was surrounded by poverty, drugs, gangs and crime. His parents both worked but in low-wage jobs that kept the family of five living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Dayer always knew he wanted more from life. He aspired to achieve the American dream of owning a nice home, raising a family, traveling and living the good life. He knew that falling to the temptations of drugs and gangs was not the way to attain it.

After graduating from high school, Dayer enrolled at Glendale Community College. His mother had told him that as long as he continued his education, he could live at home at no cost.

“But being an 18-year-old male with more freedom,” Dayer recalls, “I started partying and getting into the wrong crowd. I dropped out of GCC after my first semester.”

That’s when he found himself living in his car and facing a bleak future.

“My mom kept her word and said ‘If you’re not going to work or go to school, you’re going to have to leave,’” Dayer says. “That was probably the best thing my mom ever did for me, in reality.

“I might not have liked it at the time, but I respected it was her house, and I left. Then I was homeless.”

Fortunately, Dayer soon discovered the Y-Achievers program. Today, at 26, he holds a bachelor’s degree and is working toward a master’s, works full time as a high school testing coordinator, is married and hopes to start a family soon

Academic, Career and Life Success

Y-Achievers is a program for “opportunity youth,” defined as young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. As such, they are disconnected from the people, institutions and experiences that would help them successfully transition to adulthood.

This disconnection is costly to the youth themselves and to society as a whole. It’s been estimated that only 1 percent of opportunity youth will ever earn an associate’s degree or higher. They are more likely than their educated or employed peers to rely on government programs on an ongoing basis.

Through Y-Achievers, Valley of the Sun YMCA offers a variety of programs and services to help these youth achieve academic, career and life success. Each youth is paired with a case manager who helps him set career goals and navigate a path to achieve them.

Dayer initially joined the program after his girlfriend told him he could get free gas cards. She had registered for Y-Achievers after learning about the program from Dayer’s mom.

“I went in thinking I’m just going to get some gas cards, if I’m being completely honest,” Dayer says. “I thought, ‘I’ll fill out whatever paperwork they want me to fill out and get my gas cards.’”

“I enrolled in the program and was paired up with a case manager who was just amazing,” he recalls. “We developed a great relationship. I quickly learned I was able to get a lot more from the program than just gas cards.”

Y-Achievers also helped Dayer buy a uniform for a security guard job and provided assistance with apartment rent. He and his then-girlfriend, now-bride, Janet, got an apartment next to Glendale Community College and decided to go back to school.

They continued to receive help from Y-Achievers to pay for books and supplies. Dayer also took advantage of other training opportunities through the program, ranging from forklift operating to gardening.

“It would have been a lot more difficult to get back on my feet if it wasn’t for those little things,” Dayer says. “Like, $100 for a uniform? $300 each for books? That was a huge help for me.

“The biggest thing, though, was the helpfulness throughout the process,” adds Dayer. “The case managers were really great at motivating us and keeping us accountable and checking up on us, making sure we were doing OK in school.”

Juggling a million things

After earning their associate degrees, Dayer and his girlfriend enrolled in Northern Arizona University’s online program in social work. They graduated with honors two years later.

Before graduating, they both completed internships at the Watts Family Maryvale YMCA. Dayer continues to work there part time as an outreach specialist for Y-Achievers. That is, when he is not working at his full-time job or on his master’s degree or his graduate internship with the City of Glendale Crisis Response Team.

Long-term, Dayer wants to start his own nonprofit organization to help others from a similar background avoid the “rock bottom” he experienced. But that dream may have to wait a little while.

“I’m kind of juggling a million things,” Dayer says. “Starting a nonprofit is one of the things I’d like to focus on directly after graduating. However, I also would like to start a family, and I’m thinking about continuing school and getting another master’s degree, in public administration. An MPA would help me out with the business part of the nonprofit and just being a more well-rounded individual.”

While Dayer’s exact future plans may be up in the air, it seems certain that his days of homelessness are far behind him.