“America’s Next Leaders 2015” is an Equal Voice News special series that highlights young people who are making a difference in their communities.
By Alex Ashley
On the surface, Crystal Sahler’s upbringing wasn’t extraordinary: She went to school. She played with friends at the park. She built snowmen.
Then in 2008, when Crystal was only 17, her mother unexpectedly passed away from a brain aneurism, leaving her grieving, homeless and alone on the streets of Joliet, Illinois.
A year later, through a homeless shelter in Chicago, Crystal found out about the H.E.L.L.O. Homeless Youth Activism Group, a weekly, youth-led gathering where homeless and formerly homeless young people discuss, share and advocate on issues affecting their lives. She had lived on Chicago’s streets during the bitter winter, where she found community with others who lacked permanent housing. She swiftly became one of H.E.L.L.O.’s strongest advocates.
She lent her voice to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless speakers bureau and traveled to the suburbs to help people understand the issue of youth homelessness in suburban areas. Her work afforded her the opportunity to meet state lawmakers to successfully advocate for an increase in money for homeless youth programs.
The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness also asked her to appear as an expert on a national panel on youth homelessness.
Crystal is no longer homeless, but she continues to fight for a better life for youth faced with a life on the streets. “She truly believes that children and youth should not have to face the struggles and challenges she has overcome,” says Ed Shurna, executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
She has saved her Shriver Award to support her dream of going to college to study social work and community organizing.
“A co-speaker once said, ‘We turn our pain into power,’” Crystal relates. “It is so true….We have a chance to change someone’s life.”
“I was speaking to a group of students from a middle school, and after I was done, a young girl came up to me crying, saying she didn’t want to end up homeless and that she needed to change her ways. In that moment, I knew what I was doing felt right and I needed to keep going.”