As his 30-year career in the Navy drew to a close, Lieutenant Commander Rick Koca’s thoughts turned to his next calling. The former scoutmaster had already spent time volunteering at a shelter that helped homeless teens in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Shocked by the number of street kids, and compelled by the need to connect with these vulnerable children “who were afraid to ask for help,” Koca founded StandUp For Kids in 1990. A year later he retired from the Navy and devoted himself to growing the charity into a national program.
“I knew from the beginning that the problem was national in scope,” says Koca, 66. "Most of these kids come from troubled homes, where they were abused or neglected. It’s difficult to believe that we live in a society that lets children live and die on the streets. But they are out there. They are living under bridges and eating out of dumpsters. They are being raped."
Within his first year of retirement, Koca had opened programs in Denver; Norfolk, Virginia; and Seattle. Today, StandUp For Kids operates in 39 cities, with some 2,500 volunteers. Although affiliated with charter high schools and other support programs, at its core the program provides street outreach. Counselors seek out homeless kids—communicating with them and finding out what they need, and providing everything from a sympathetic ear to toothbrushes to clean underwear.
“What we do really helps. You see kids get off the streets,” says Koca. “And this work provides me with meaning and purpose.”