When Gini Mazman ’85 left high school, she had good SAT scores but lacked the financial resources and family stability that would have made four-year college seem possible.
“I felt like community college was my only option,” she explained. “But when I went to take the entrance exams there to figure out what level of classes I would be placed in, it wasn’t challenging for me at all. I couldn’t picture myself there.”
Gini hadn’t applied to Salem State. It was August and classes were scheduled to start in a few short weeks. But she called and made an appointment with a Salem State admissions counselor anyway.
“I convinced that admissions counselor to allow me to enroll right then and there,” she recalled. “I told him that I had no money, and he walked me through what Salem State could do in terms of financial aid. I was able to figure it out, and I started classes the next month.”
That experience was a life-changing lesson. Gini realized that if she could passionately and effectively advocate for herself (or someone else), doors would open.
“Doors opened for me at Salem State,” she said.
Stepping Off a Career Path
After earning her bachelor’s degree and later completing an MBA at Northeastern, Gini built an 18-year career in finance and business operations.
“I had a successful career, but over time I found that I wanted to do work that felt more meaningful to me.”
At first, she wasn’t sure how to create that meaning in her work. She started to explore her options by volunteering and joining the boards for agencies whose missions resonated with her.
“I found myself gravitating toward organizations that supported at-risk youth and food instability,” she said. “I started with some grant-writing for these organizations, and then once the money started to come in, I wanted to be involved in the operations.”
Harkening back to the pivotal moment when she enrolled at Salem State, Gini knew that advocating for other young people who don’t have a voice would be a meaningful use of her skills and passion.
In 2012, Gini founded The Haven Project.
The Power of Advocacy
There are more than 4,000 homeless public high school students in Massachusetts, and experts project that six times this number have already dropped out of school. This sobering statistic is published on the homepage for The Haven Project, the organization Gini founded that was the first (and is still the only) organization on Boston’s North Shore that is solely dedicated to helping 17- to 24-year-olds who are housing unstable.
“Despite all the available resources and support from the state, young people are still vulnerable once they reach a certain age,” Gini explained. “Either their resources are cut or they choose to remove themselves from the system once they’re legally able. Over 18 years old, these young people are eligible for adult services, but that’s often not an appropriate solution. Being in an adult shelter can be traumatic for a young person. They have different opportunities and obstacles than older homeless individuals. I saw a need for services to intervene at this critical juncture and prevent them from taking on added obstacles such as an unwanted pregnancy, drug use, or criminal activity.”
There are tremendous opportunities for young people, especially in this geographic area, Gini pointed out. There are many educational resources and training programs, but there are gaps in getting young people to access those resources – especially if their basic needs aren’t being met.
Gini founded The Haven Project to equip and empower homeless unaccompanied youth to be successful and reach their potential. The organization provides age-appropriate services to a growing, vulnerable population of 17- to 24-year-old homeless young adults, including help with basic needs, online learning, educational support, job training and job acquisition, stable living options, and opportunities to build community and life skills.
“Our role is to advocate for young people, many of whom are in dangerous, life-threatening situations,” Gini explained “They’re often not in a good place and open to influence from people who would take advantage of them. The Haven Project can have a long-term impact; we are helping to prevent chronically-homeless adults. This is important work.”
The Haven Project has developed a strong reputation and relationships throughout most North Shore communities. The organization has community drop-in centers in addition to its main location in Lynn, and runs the Land of a Thousand Hills coffee shop in Lynn that provides paid job training and career development opportunities. Up next for The Haven Project is to build 24 units of supportive housing for low-income youth.
“This is my life's work,” Gini explained. “Giving struggling young people the opportunities and skills to rewrite their own life stories."
The Haven Project continues to grow each year, helping more and more young people on the North Shore. The experience has taught Gini a lot, including: “There’s going to be a lot of things that you don’t know. Get the education yourself or surround yourself with other people who have the expertise and can be part of your team. You don’t need to know it all.”
Gini maintains a close relationship with Salem State and recruits students from campus to help run The Haven Project. SSU social work student Fredy Hincapie ’21 serves as the organization’s social enterprise manager, and interns from the university’s Masters of Social Work program help support the community drop-in centers.
People often think that college is a straight line to a career. But Gini sees higher education more as an opportunity to learn what resources are available and how to work with other people.
“It’s about how to communicate, work with other people, exercise critical thinking, look at a problem from a broad perspective, and pose questions that will lead you to an answer that’s helpful.”
Learn more about The Haven Project at havenproject.net.