Two dads from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, are determined to make sure LGBTQ teenagers have roofs over their heads.
Meet Brad and Nick Schlaikowski, the co-founders of Courage MKE, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to homeless LGBTQ youth.
In 2015, Brad had the idea to host a fundraiser to support displaced lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth. Courage MKE was born shortly thereafter, and in June 2019, the organization opened its doors to the Courage House, the first-ever licensed group home for LGBTQ youth in Wisconsin.
Less than a month after opening, Courage House welcomed its first child. It is now currently home to five, the maximum amount it can accommodate. Beyond it being a place to sleep, residents have access to on-site therapy and receive assistance with healthcare, life skills and family reunification.
It was after fostering their first teenager, Annette, that the Schlaikowskis discovered the staggering amount of homelessness in the LGBTQ youth community.
Annette was kicked out of her parent's home for identifying as a lesbian and didn't feel welcome at the women's shelter she fled to.
"Until we became foster parents, we had no idea how many kids in Milwaukee were not sleeping at their parents' homes every night," Brad told TODAY, adding that most are couch surfing, staying at friends' homes and sleeping behind dumpsters or in alleys.
"I want them to know that there's a door they can knock on and get a hot meal and a shower and a soft pillow to sleep on," he said. "I can't fathom sleeping behind a dumpster when it's negative 20 degrees outside."
A study from the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago in 2017 reported, “LGBTQ+ teens have a 120% higher risk of homelessness compared to heterosexual or cisgender teens."
Together, the couple has four kids — three from Brad's previous marriage — and Ivy, whose adoption became official 454 days after being fostered by the Schlaikowskis in 2016.
"Bringing these children into our house taught them that everyone needs to be, and deserves to be, loved. And they've accepted them as siblings when they're there," Brad said.
Opening the home was not without its challenges. Brad and Nick, who both held full-time jobs during the 18-month renovation, relied on volunteers and were often slowed by zoning board approvals.
However, the project gained much support from community and corporate sponsors along the way.
"We're really fortunate to have so many amazing people and community leaders that are very passionate about what we're doing and have been doing fundraisers for us throughout the year," Nick said.
"Courage is more than just a house ... It's more that we're a movement and creating a really, really awesome dialogue in our city and making that change."
Courage MKE's biggest fundraiser is their annual gala. In 2018, they surpassed their goal and raised more than $70,000.
"We're strengthening the community by doing our best to send really awesome, powerful adults into the world that otherwise probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to do that," Nick said. "We're just kind of, like, pushing it forward and hopefully creating really strong leaders that are gonna take over and make the world better."