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T.H.U.G. Life helps homeless teens start anew

(From left) T.H.U.G. Life success story Jake, Devon (a T.H.U.G. Life board member), Garrett and Sara Rank, pause for a moment while readying their home for the Thanksgiving holiday. (Photo by Sarah Young)

What do you think of when you think of home? The scent of dinner cooking in the air? Loved ones and friends in a cozy house, all together? Or do you think of sleeping in a car, or moving from couch to couch every few nights?

“Couch-surfing,” sleeping in cars and wondering where they’re going to sleep from one night to the next is a reality for many teens in the Somerset, Osceola and Stillwater area, Sara Rank said.

“It was kind of a shock to us there were so many homeless teens in Osceola, Somerset and Stillwater,” Rank said. “Somebody needed to do something.”

Rank is the founder and executive director of T.H.U.G. Life, an organization working toward gaining nonprofit status dedicated to helping homeless teens and youth with no family in the St. Croix Valley.

Based in Somerset, T.H.U.G. Life helps provide teens with the basic necessities of daily living, clothing, financial help, rides to appointments, finding places to live, staying in school and furthering their education.

Rank said the idea came to her when she and her kids were at a youth leadership conference in Iowa with their church. One of the speakers was Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales. He spoke of paying attention when there’s an idea in your head that won’t go away, Rank said.

The conference they attended wasn’t in the best of areas, Rank said. A gun conference was going on across the street from the group’s hotel, and her son thought it was funny to yell “Thug life!” at people as they passed.

On the way home, she couldn’t stop thinking about the plight of homeless teens, which she was aware of because of her son Devon. The term “thug life” also was on replay in her head.

T.H.U.G. Life stands for Truly Humble Under God and is now the logo for the organization’s clothing line. Rank said if kids thought the term was cool, why not turn it into a positive thing?

The money raised from the clothing line goes toward the organization Rank thought up driving home from that conference in 2012.

“We have to understand that they’re (teens) not always where we expect them to be in life,” Rank said. “We wanted to be more than those people in the background handing out a check.”

The group is waiting to hear from the government on their nonprofit status application. Rank said they expect to hear any day, and were told the delay was due to the government shutdown.

Rank said they raise money through the clothing line, bake sales, online and real garage sales and word of mouth donations. Many people give toiletries, clothing or school supplies.

According to Rank, who works at the St. Croix Prep Academy in Stillwater and for Courage Kenny St. Croix, she started out by meeting with high school counselors to see if they knew of any teens in need of help.

“Somerset was absolutely thrilled,” Rank said. “They were having to send some kids to Menomonie to a program there. We have helped 52 teens from November of last year to June of 2013 in three counties.”

Rank said she is contacted by the teens themselves for help, by friends of teens, school counselors or anonymous calls.

Most of the teens are not living in their family home and sleep on friends’ couches, sneak into people’s houses or cars at night, or are housed by friends’ parents temporarily. Some even sleep in parks, Rank said.

Sometimes it’s due to parents being in jail, parents’ drug use or by choice if a living situation is terrible, Rank said.

“Many times it’s really through no fault of their own,” Rank said. “The parents may be unable to be there for them at that moment.”

A teen’s story

Jake is a teenager who lives with Rank and her two sons. Another teen named Taylor lives with them too. Jake and Taylor were homeless, until Rank took them in. They had planned on living in a car.

Rank’s son Devon knew Jake and ran into him at a funeral of a mutual friend who committed suicide, Rank said. When he learned Jake was homeless, he asked his mom if Jake could live with them. Rank did not hesitate.

“Through my own personal experiences, I know how tough it can be,” Rank said. “In some form or another, I’ve been through things in my own life. It was all worth it. There was a meaning for all the struggle.”

Jake, who has lived with Rank for two months, said it was rocky at first.

“We were used to living on our own, with no rules, no curfews,” Jake said. “But Sara nagged on us and we’re working again.”

Jake works at Wild Mountain in Taylors Falls, Minn. and Taylor works at Trollhaugen Outdoor Recreation Area in Dresser.

Jake plans to start college at WITC-New Richmond in January for IT web design and credits Rank for pushing him. He would like to one day be a high school hurdles track coach, he said. He is also grateful to Rank for allowing his American bulldog puppy to live with them. As the family works on Thanksgiving preparations, he calls her “Mom.”

Future plans

Rank, who admits to “dreaming big,” hopes to one day open a “T.H.U.G. Farm,” where teens can live and work with animals while finishing their education. Rank, who works with a special needs riding program, gives riding lessons, pet sits and boards dogs, thinks kids learn a lot from caring for animals.

“Especially for the unwanted animals, that may be in the same situation they’re in,” Rank said.

Rank and the five-member board of T.H.U.G. Life plan to continue raising money and collecting donations in the hopes of buying a farm and finding a site for a second hand store where teens can “shop” for free and others for a small cost.

They also hope to plan an annual gala ball where the teens will be recognized for their accomplishments.

For more information on how to help, donate, or to buy clothing, visit, check out their Facebook page at T.H.U.G. LIfe Ministry or call Rank at 651-246-1323.

Sarah Nigbor

Sarah J. Nigbor serves as a regional editor for RiverTown Multimedia, a position she began in April 2017. She joined RiverTown Multimedia in October 2013 as a news reporter for the New Richmond News, before being appointed editor of the Pierce County Herald in Febraury 2015. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Spanish and French in 2001. She completed a minor in journalism in 2004. 

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