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Story highlights

Mariuma Ben Yosef encountered homelessness early in life, at just 14

After finding stability, she welcomed homeless teens into her home for meals

Her generosity turned into an organization that has helped 46,000 youth so far

Editor’s Note: Nominate a CNN Hero now.

(CNN) —  

When she was 14 years old, Mariuma Ben Yosef ran away from home.

On and off for nearly two years, she lived on the streets of Boston. She slept on benches and survived on food she found in the garbage.

CNN Hero Mariuma Ben Yosef
PHOTO: Laura Klairmont, CNN
CNN Hero Mariuma Ben Yosef

“Being homeless as a teenager, you understand that nobody can protect you,” she said. “You have to protect yourself.”

Ultimately, Ben Yosef got her life on track. She moved back to Israel, where she had lived as a child, attended boarding school and later served in the military. When she became pregnant at 20, the prospect of motherhood brought her life into focus.

“I didn’t have a home or a family, and that was in my soul,” she said. “I wanted to help other kids like me.”

She started by serving weekly dinners to homeless youth. Before she knew it, she was giving them a place to stay.

“I couldn’t say no to the ones that didn’t have anywhere to go after dinner,” she said. “So, I opened my home for (them).”

Today, her organization, the Shanti House, has grown into a sprawling two-campus facility – with locations in Tel Aviv and the Negev region – that has helped more than 46,000 young people.

Named for the Sanskrit word for peace and tranquility, the group provides temporary housing and long-term support for homeless and at-risk youth ages 14 to 21.

“My goal is that every child that comes through this door will feel at home … where they can finally let out a sigh of relief, feel secure, and most importantly, be happy,” Ben Yosef said.

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Ben Yosef about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: The young people you work with – what’s it like to be in their shoes?

Mariuma Ben Yosef: (They) don’t have a home. They are children that are coming from juvenile court, some are referred to by social workers and others are coming from the streets of Israel. Many have experienced sex abuse, violence and neglect. A lot of the kids I work with have been victimized by their parents or other members of their family; the very people that are supposed to give them comfort are causing them to suffer.

When you live in the streets, you’re always on guard. You hear footsteps at night, and you don’t know if it’s someone who will want to rape you or harm you in some way. You are on survival mode all the time, and that is very hard. Not only do you have no roof over your head, no food, no bed, you really have nothing. It’s always lonely; you feel that you have no roots and nowhere to go. These circumstances make you hate yourself and the world. You have to develop your own roots to survive; you have to be very strong because you have nobody.

02:42 - Source: CNN
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CNN: How have your personal experiences shaped your approach to the work?

Ben Yosef: When I first started this work, a girl who came to live at the Shanti House told me about a brutal rape she went through. I am a rape survivor as well but had never spoken about it with anyone. There were many painful experiences I had growing up that I had blocked out of my mind. I just kept moving and moving. But in this situation with this girl, I knew that I could provide comfort by sharing my story with her, so I did.

That was the first time I expressed my pain to somebody else. That’s when I understood that I survived all these difficult situations so that I could help others, and I realized that this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.

People say that I’m saving these children, but really, they’re the ones saving me. They’ve saved my soul and helped me to feel whole again. I feel alive because of them.

Ben Yosef (center) hugs two participants who have received Shanti House's services.
PHOTO: Laura Klairmont, CNN
Ben Yosef (center) hugs two participants who have received Shanti House's services.

CNN: What’s it like to work with such a diverse array of youth?

Ben Yosef: We serve children that come from all over Israel. We welcome everybody, regardless of religion, race or sexual orientation. We accept you as you are – as a human being.

What makes the Shanti House so unique is that regardless of where they came from, all the kids come together to help one another. It’s amazing to see everyone in one room. You have Ethiopians, Jews, Russians, Arabs, all living together, co-existing peacefully. There are no politics here. We are a family.

We provide these children not only with a bed, food, therapies, medical care, and education, we also provide them with love, security and all the emotional needs of someone who is missing a family. We give them everything they need to survive and succeed.

I’m so proud of each and every one of my kids because they chose life and not a path of self-destruction in the streets. I think they are the real heroes.

Want to get involved? Check out the Shanti House website and see how to help.

To donate to Shanti House, click the CrowdRise widget below.