What is person-first language, and why do we use it at Covey?

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May 27, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Eagle-eyed readers of our blog and social media pages may have noticed that we use the phrase “youth experiencing homelessness” rather than “homeless youth” — what’s up with that?

When reading or hearing “youth experiencing homelessness,” it sounds clunky and awkward compared to the sleeker “homeless youth.” It costs more space on a page and doubles the characters in a Tweet. So why do we insist on using this phrase? 

Person-first language.

At Covenant House Alaska, we make the deliberate choice to use “person-first language” when discussing the youth we serve, be it in person or our communications. This style of language avoids assigning labels to people to describe them, instead choosing to prioritize the person first and present details about them as a trait of that person. 

For example, in the phrase “youth experiencing homelessness,” the word “youth” leads, and their experience of homelessness comes across to the reader as a part of that youth’s larger identity. Other person-first phrases we often use at Covey include “youth experiencing trafficking” and “youth with disabilities.” 

Advocates have long maintained that person-first language humanizes the individual or group it describes by presenting details about them as a part of their larger identity. Labels, on the other hand, can subconsciously boil a person down to only what that label describes. 

In fact, research now shows that using person-first language can encourage more tolerant attitudes towards the people it describes compared to when simple labels are used. 

It’s a small change, but it goes a long way in emphasizing the autonomy and resilience of the young people we are privileged to serve at Covenant House Alaska. 

History of person-first language.

While it seems new-fangled, the use of person-first language has been around for nearly half a century in the US. 

The use of person-first language in the US was pioneered in the early 1970s by disability activists seeking to move away from label-centric language to prevent one’s disability from dominating their identity.

Their grassroots efforts snowballed into a 1974 conference in Salem, Oregon, that aimed to organize these activists into a cohesive movement. It was at this conference that attendees coined the phrase “people first” and launched a larger campaign to advocate for such language under this banner. 

At around the same time, Black activist groups also began introducing person-first phrases into their language. Historians point to 1977 as the earliest use of person-first phrases like “women of color.”  

While these phrases were intended to emphasize Black solidarity rather than personal autonomy at the time of their usage and were supplanted by terms like “African American” in the late 20th century, the Black community’s use of person-first phrases nonetheless helped popularize this language among activist groups. 

Around the turn of the millennium, people-first language began to spread beyond its original circles into the parlance of other activist groups that advocate for oft-stereotyped groups, including gender and ethnic minorities.

With the 21st-century surge of person-first language, such phrasing has re-entered the lexicon of Black activists via terms like “person of color” or “BIPOC.”

Academia has also embraced person-first language, with most academic journals now requiring their contributors to use this phrasing.

Now, person-first language has spread beyond its original activist spaces and into mainstream speaking and writing practices, including ours at Covenant House Alaska and across the network of organizations that provide services to the unhoused.

Why does this language matter?

Moving away from simple labels and using person-first language is a small but important way to encourage empathy between people with different backgrounds. This makes it an essential tool as we work in the field of youth homelessness. 

The human urge to label others doesn’t necessarily come from a place of malice. Psychologists see it as our brain’s attempt to simplify the complex world around us into something easier for us to understand. 

Yet, this can have the unintended consequences of defining people based on, and thus emphasizing, their differences

Categorical labels like “the homeless” or “homeless people” implies that people experiencing homelessness are fundamentally different from people who are housed — a separate class of people who will permanently be without shelter. This puts distance between these two groups and can discourage people from taking action on this issue.

While this may sound extreme, studies on person-first language demonstrate this link. 

In a 2016 study, researchers gave two groups of participants an exam measuring their tolerance of people with mental illnesses. One group received an exam written with people-first phrasing (“people with mental illnesses”) while the other received an exam with categorical phrasing (“the mentally ill”). 

The participants who received the people-first exam exhibited significantly more tolerable attitudes than those with the categorical exam towards people with mental illnesses. These findings were consistent when these exams were given to young adults, older adults and even professional disability counselors. 

Person-first language at Covenant House Alaska.

With its advocacy-steeped history and lab-proven effects, we at Covenant House Alaska strive to use this language to affirm the personhood of our youth, encourage their acceptance in our community, and inspire activism within our readers. 

Our principle of unconditional love compels us to do everything we can to serve those in our care with the dignity they deserve, even if it is something as small as being a little more careful in how we talk. 

If it uplifts our youth, we will do it  — even if it means it’s more difficult to Tweet. 

Volunteer Spotlight: Heidi and Mike Valantas

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May 20, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

One of the greatest perks of Covenant House Alaska is getting to see exceptional people rise up to do exceptional things. But when the husband-and-wife duo Heidi and Mike Valantas come in to volunteer, we get to see not just one, but two of such people!

While Heidi and Mike have a long history of volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, they currently serve as the house mentors for MACK House, our transitional living program for minors. Their teamwork, resourcefulness and boundless compassion have ingrained them in the hearts of the young people who reside there.

Heidi said that the simple act of just being there for these young Alaskans can sometimes be the most meaningful.

“For some of these young people,” said Heidi, “to have a person in their life that’s not being paid to be there and genuinely cares about them, I think that that’s a huge thing that people can do.”

It is a blessing to have Heidi and Mike as part of our Covey family. Their work at MACK House exemplifies our principle of unconditional love and brings joy to some of Alaska’s most deserving young people. 

Retired from work, but not from service.

After the two of them coincidentally moved to Alaska as teenagers, Heidi and Mike met while attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The college sweethearts tied the knot and built a life in the great state of Alaska, with Heidi working as a teacher and Mike as a physician.

According to Heidi, her favorite parts of teaching foreshadowed her involvement at Covenant House Alaska.

“There were a lot of things that I liked about being a teacher, especially working with young people and helping them find their way and being involved with their growth,” said Heidi. “It was just a natural progression to Covenant House.” 

One fateful winter, they received an invitation to Covenant House Alaska’s Fire & Ice Ball. Impelled by our mission and the community’s need, they decided to get involved at Covey. 

Heidi joined the Fire & Ice committee to organize the same event that inspired her and joined our mentor program. Mike started volunteering to do odd jobs around our various facilities. 

When the duo was able to retire in 2020, they decided to use their newfound free time to increase their involvement at Covenant House Alaska.

Mike said that while they may have retired, they still felt the same drive to serve others that motivated them in their careers. 

“I still felt the need to help people and take care of people,” said Mike. “I felt like this was the perfect way to continue to serve and give back.” 

Mainstays of MACK House.

Now, the couple serves as the official house mentors at MACK House. At least once a week, Heidi and Mike spend hours visiting with the young people staying there or working on projects to spruce up the building. 

Together, the two have organized volleyball, cornhole and other games with our youth, led cooking nights, decorated for Christmas and Easter, and worked on other various projects and forms of upkeep to make the house feel, as Mike puts it, “more homey.” 

“We just started poking around and finding different ways that we could help out!” said Heidi.

Mike said that enjoys how the role encourages the two of them to work as a team and lean into their individual talents to succeed at such a variety of tasks.

“She’s better with people,” said Mike, “and I’m more of a worker.”

Through these activities, Heidi and Mike have built meaningful relationships and shared tender moments with our youth. In an instance that Mike said was “hard to put into words,” the pair and a young woman decorated a Christmas tree using ornaments that belonged to Mike’s mother. 

“The young lady we decorated the tree with, she really got into it,” said Heidi. “It was neat to have that moment with her — I thought that was a really special moment.” 

For the duo, these indelible experiences are part of what makes their volunteer work at MACK House such a fulfilling experience. 

“I think you get way more out of it than what you put into it,” said Mike.

Closer to the community and each other. 

By spending time at MACK House, Heidi and Mike have felt their connection to their community mature like a fine wine. 

The pair said that they catch tiny glimpses of the effect their volunteering has on our youth. Be it in a quiet word of encouragement from a young person, or how another emerges from a sulk when they’re invited to help cook a meal, these small clues to the difference they’re making keep Heidi and Mike riveted to our mission.

“Even though you don’t feel like you’re doing much,” said Mike, “I think it does make more of an impact than you can appreciate at times.”

On a more personal level, the couple said that volunteering together has been a meaningful bonding experience as husband and wife. 

“It brings us closer together because we have a common goal to help others,” said Mike, “and we’re supporting that by volunteering.”

Volunteer today!

We are so thankful for Heidi and Mike’s incredible contributions to MACK House and our mission of ending the experience of youth homelessness in Alaska. This goal is only achievable with the support of volunteers like them, and we are always looking for Alaskans who want to get involved! 

Heidi strongly recommended mentoring at Covenant House Alaska but stressed that the organization can find an opportunity for anyone interested in volunteering. 

“There are so many different things that you can do, whatever your time or talents,” said Heidi. If you would like more information about volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, visit the Volunteer page on our website here.

Volunteer Spotlight Hayley Chronkhite

Volunteer Spotlight: Hayley Cronkhite

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Apr. 20, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

With this month’s Volunteer Spotlight falling within National Volunteer Week, we want to celebrate our volunteer Hayley Cronkhite, who was Covenant House Alaska’s honoree at Anchorage’s Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. 

For over two years, Hayley has opened up the Art Room at our Youth Engagement Center for our youth every Wednesday. Her dedication to connecting with and improving the mental health of our young people through art earned her recognition from the Municipality of Anchorage and multiple community service organizations at the 2022 Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. 

For Hayley, the joys of sharing art’s healing nature with our youth have kept her coming back week after week.

“That’s always a happy moment for me, taking a break,” said Hayley. “To be able to give the youth that sense of normalcy, or just a moment of it, when they might not have that otherwise is all I can ask for.” 

We are so thankful for Hayley and her restorative work with our youth. She is beyond deserving of the recognition she’s earned from our community and is a beloved member of our Covenant House Alaska family. 

Silver lining of a pandemic-sized cloud.

Like so many others, the COVID-19 pandemic made big changes to Hayley’s life. However, it was also what led her to volunteer at Covenant House Alaska. 

Originally from North Pole, Hayley had been living in Anchorage since 2006 and working for Orthopedic Physicians Alaska when the pandemic hit. 

Her organization paused its surgeries to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, they began working with the city to run COVID-19 screening across town at sites like the Sullivan Arena and Covenant House Alaska. 

Hayley said that the first time she stepped into our downtown Youth Engagement Center to work a day of testing, she was awestruck by the painted-door murals we have on display. 

“They were just so gorgeous,” she said, “and I was like, ‘I wanna be a part of that!’”

On her way out, she stopped at our front desk and filled out a volunteer interest form on the spot. And as soon as the pandemic allowed it, Hayley was back in the YEC and running the Art Room. 

Making room for art.

As a volunteer, Hayley organizes activities in our Art Room for our youth every Wednesday. Be it through a guided project or an afternoon of open painting, her volunteering always gives our young people a chance to have fun and express themselves through art.

“It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, it doesn’t have to be a Picasso,” said Hayley, “but sometimes I get one, and I’m like, ‘Woah, where did that come from?!’” 

Many of Hayley’s guided activities let our young people try a technique or medium that they have never attempted before, like experimenting with different oil paints or using tiles for a canvas. 

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to see a young person be really excited to try something new,” said Hayley. 

Whatever the specific project, Hayley’s activities always give our youth a healthy outlet for their emotions. 

“Some people can’t always express in words how they’re feeling,” said Hayley. “Whether it be through mixed media or painting or photography, sometimes it’s easier for people to express themselves through art.”

For many of our young people, these activities in the Art Room have been an important source of healing as they transition out of homelessness. Their creations are further proof to Hayley of the therapeutic power of art. 

“They might not even be able to explain what it means, but if they’re able to put it down on paper, sometimes it helps,” said Hayley. “I think that in itself is a really great way of helping and learning and growing.”

Drawn together. 

Hayley said that she did not expect to form such a strong bond between her and our young people through her volunteering. 

“I can guarantee you that the youth will surprise you,” said Hayley. “They surprise me every time I come in, whether it is opening the door for me, or asking how I’m doing, or asking how the project last week turned out — you know, little things.” 

One youth with whom Hayley has been drawing and painting for over two years recently moved out of our YEC and into our Rights of Passage transitional housing program. Hayley described this departure with the same emotion that a parent might describe their child leaving for college. 

“I found out last Wednesday,” said Hayley, “and I was crying because I was so happy but also so sad!” 

To Hayley, all of these relationships are what give volunteering at Covenant House Alaska a feeling like no other. 

“Just to have a connection with everybody has been a great experience, to walk into a place and just feel happy and safe — it’s just a good vibe.”

From paints to plates. 

In recognition of her incredible volunteer career, Hayley was Covenant House Alaska’s honoree at the 2022 Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon, an annual celebration of Anchorage’s volunteers thrown by the Municipality of Anchorage, Bridge Builders, Serve Alaska and JustServe. 

The organizers awarded volunteers who give their time to the Red Cross, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Alaska, the Special Olympics, Covenant House Alaska and similar organizations for their altruism and contributions to our community. 

Hayley said that being included as a member of such an impressive cohort was a true honor.

“It was great to see the different organizations that are giving back to Anchorage and this community, making a difference that is really needed!” she said.

For us at Covenant House Alaska, we could not be happier that Hayley received such recognition. Her restless work has changed the lives of so many of our young people, bringing color and light into a place of darkness. 

Volunteer today! 

Covenant House Alaska is always looking for new volunteers to join our team! Whatever your passions or interests, there is certainly a way that they can uplift our youth. 

Hayley said that anyone on the fence about volunteering should consider not just how you will impact our youth, but how our youth will impact you! 

“I think coming in and spending a little time with them will make your day so much brighter,” said Hayley, “because it makes my Wednesday great every week!”
If you would like more information about volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, visit the Volunteer page on our website here.

Hayley was recognized by the sponsors listed on the program at the 2022 Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon.

Volunteer Spotlight: Activities with Amelia

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Mar. 24, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Our volunteers breathe joy into Covenant House Alaska, and no one exemplifies this better than Amelia Jeffries, whose weekly activity series remains highly anticipated and thoroughly loved by our youth. 

After Amelia moved from Australia and began volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, her weekly “Activities with Amelia” has become a welcome mainstay at our Youth Engagement Center. Through rock climbing, pickup basketball, bingo and more, Amelia has fostered a true connection with our young people and her new home. 

According to Amelia, she catches herself having just as much of a blast participating in the activities as the Covey youth! 

“It’s been a two-way street,” said Amelia, “because not only are they having fun, but I’m having fun!” 

Thanks to Amelia and her fellow volunteers, our young people have the chance to enjoy wholesome fun and make everlasting memories. Her work is visible to all of us in the smiles on our youths’ faces after Activities with Amelia. 

From down under to the far north

Hailing from Perth, Australia, Amelia moved to Anchorage in May 2021 with her husband. While her VISA barred her from working in the US, she still wanted to find a way to contribute to her new community. 

“I was living in this place and taking advantage of all it had to offer,” said Amelia, “but I wanted to figure out a way where I could be involved and not just take from the community but give back in a way.”

She decided that the best way to do so was to start volunteering regularly. So, Amelia asked her friends and family about volunteer opportunities in Anchorage.

Thankfully for us, they pointed Amelia towards Covenant House Alaska. She did some research online and discovered that we were looking for a volunteer to run recreational activities at our downtown Youth Engagement Center. 

“It seemed like something that I could do every week to get to know the youth and feel like I was a part of the Anchorage community somehow,” recalled Amelia. 

Activities with Amelia

Now with an impressive six-month tenure of weekly volunteering under her belt, Activities with Amelia has become an institution at the YEC.

Week after week, our young people get the chance to put everything else aside and just play, thanks to Amelia. She has organized activities that range from the standard schoolyard fare, like basketball and frisbee games, to the adventurous and outrageous, like rock climbing, bingo and even karaoke!

“I was pretty nervous at a point there, doing karaoke,” said Amelia, “but the youth were surprisingly confident. I don’t think that I would have had that confidence at that age!”

At the onset of her volunteering, Amelia said that she was moved by the kindness of our youth and how excited they were to spend time with her. Emotion broke into her voice as she said that she was “thankful that all the youth that I’ve been involved with have been very welcoming.” 

Now, after a half-year of activities, these strong first impressions have blossomed into a strong relationship with many of our young people. Such mutual trust has enabled Amelia to have many meaningful interactions with our youth, like when one young person felt comfortable enough to help her learn to play frisbee. 

“His technique and his skill were really good, and he was able to teach me how to improve,” said Amelia. “I think that was a really good thing for him to do because he was able to feel happy and confident about his own skills and then kind of show them off to me.”

A connection to Anchorage and herself

For Amelia, her volunteer work has proved to be the communal experience with Anchorage that she hoped it would. She described feeling better ingrained in her new city from her experience and learning from our youth about the wonders of Alaska. 

“When they’re talking about their lives and Anchorage, I’m obviously new to Anchorage so I’ve been learning lots about Alaska — people going fishing and things like that,” said Amelia. 

However, Amelia also said that volunteering at Covenant House Alaska has had a personal effect on her as well. Overcoming her trepidations to volunteer in a new country has emboldened Amelia with newfound confidence amidst a period in her life of dramatic change. 

“America and Australia are very similar, but I had never pushed myself to be in situations over here that I maybe wasn’t 100% comfortable with,” said Amelia. “Being able to push yourself and put yourself in a situation that you don’t experience every day can really grow you as a person.”

Between our youth and staff, we are so gracious to have Amelia as part of our team at Covenant House Alaska. We know that our young people will love whatever the activity may be if it’s with Amelia. 

Volunteer today!

We are always on the lookout for driven volunteers who are passionate about ending the experience of youth homelessness in Alaska. There are always a plethora of ways to get involved at Covenant House Alaska based on your available time and set of talents. 

Amelia said that anyone on the fence about volunteering should not overlook how much they could get out of such an experience.

“I think a lot of people look at volunteering as just the volunteer giving their time and themselves to the volunteer experience,” said Amelia, “but it’s also all about what you’re gaining from that experience.” 
If you would like more information about volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, visit the Volunteer page on our website here.

Volunteer Spotlight: Tanna’s Career Journey

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Feb. 24, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Covenant House Alaska is an organization designed to uplift everyone under its roof. This is why many members of our team, like Tanna Lee, have risen from volunteering to working at Covey through our career opportunities. 

After volunteering to give back to a nonprofit that once came to her aid, Tanna decided to transition into full-time employment at Covenant House Alaska as an overnight staff member at Rights of Passage. Her work throughout her time at Covey has impacted our youth and staff alike, and we couldn’t be happier that she has decided to come aboard. 

Tanna said that after her volunteer experience awoke a passion within her, she had to make it a bigger part of her life. 

“I remember telling myself ‘Hey, you’ve been here for two hours going on three hours, it’s time to go home, this is just volunteer work, not your job,’” said Tanna. “So, I found myself wanting it to be my job!”

Our pursuit of ending the experience of youth homelessness in Alaska is emboldened by Tanna’s relentless engagement with our mission, and that of all of our volunteers as well. 

Coming back to Covenant House Alaska

Covenant House Alaska held a special place in Tanna’s heart, as she accessed its services for a time during her teen years. 

“When I had no friends, when I had no guidance, when I felt lost, I felt like Covenant House was part of my adolescent years that helped me out,” said Tanna. 

Now as an adult, Tanna said that she was looking for a way to give back to an organization and a community that helped set her up for a successful future. So, she decided to volunteer with our Maintenance Team and bring her cleaning experience and knowledge imparted by her “neat-freak” dad to Covenant House Alaska.

No job was too tough for Tanna. With the team, she took on cluttered gym closets, hallways of faded paint, mud tracked into entryway floors — and even dirty toilets. 

“I know it’s considered a dirty job to a lot of people, like ‘Ew, a toilet, ugh!’” said Tanna. “But I didn’t want the youth or the workers to have to come to a facility with dust and grime. I just wanted everyone to experience a clean facility.” 

Tanna took pride in doing work that anyone in our space could appreciate with a simple glance. 

“I wanted there to be a before and after,” said Tanna. “I wanted someone to walk into the Navigation Center or the gym and go ‘Oh wow, this looks really good.’ I just wanted that wow factor, kinda like magic.” 

Volunteer to career

As Tanna kept coming in to volunteer, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wanted to make Covenant House Alaska a bigger part of her life.

“I just found myself wanting to be a part of it,” said Tanna. “The more I volunteered, the more I kept telling myself, ‘Man, I wish I could do more!’” 

So, Tanna decided to pursue a career at Covenant House Alaska. She applied for an opening with our Relief Staff, a choice she said required courage. 

“I wanted to take that leap of faith,” said Tanna. “I wanted to let go of every doubt I had.”

Tanna of course got the position and quickly proved herself to be an essential part of the team through her trademark industriousness. Very quickly, she moved from a part-time relief staffer up to her current position as overnight staff at our Rights of Passage facility. 

Loving, learning and working at Covenant House Alaska

Now as an employee, Tanna says that she finds her job to be a fulfilling way to serve her community, make genuine connections with young and ambitious Alaskans, and grow as a person herself. 

Tanna said that she often draws from her own history with Covenant House Alaska to help guide her in her work, which she says encourages pointed self-reflection. 

“I’ve learned to embrace my experience and embrace the experience of learning things as I go,” said Tanna.

According to Tanna, one of the most rewarding facets of her position is being able to interact with and learn from the young people Covenant House Alaska serves.

“They’re smarter than I was at their age,” said Tanna, “and I thought I was all that and a bag of chips!”

Without Tanna and our large cohort of volunteers-turned-staff-members, Covenant House Alaska would not have anywhere near the capacity to serve Anchorage in the way we do. We are far beyond thankful for Tanna and the contributions of all of our volunteers and staff to our shared mission of ending the experience of youth homelessness. 

Join our team!

Covenant House Alaska is always on the lookout for compassionate, driven individuals to join up with us, either as a volunteer or member of our staff.

For those on the fence about getting involved, Tanna said that they ought to trust whatever notion is pushing them towards serving our community’s youth. 

“If you’re already thinking about it, that means your heart’s in the right place,” said Tanna. “If your head is not, just go for it!”

Covenant House Alaska is recruiting candidates for both direct care and administrative positions. To browse our job openings, click here.

If you would like more information about volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, visit the Volunteer page on our website here

CEO Alison Kear’s 25 Years at Covenant House Alaska

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Feb. 5, 2022

Our fearless leader has been at Covenant House Alaska for 25 years! To celebrate, we sat down with Alison to talk about her incredible career, and what the future holds for CHA. We invite you to keep reading for a deeper dive into her accomplishments and stories on how the community has rallied around CHA over the years. Congratulations, Alison!

Q: Alison, first we’d like to say, cheers to 25 years! Has the time gone fast?

A: Well, you know what they say, “the days are long but the years are short.” That accurately depicts my time here for a myriad of reasons. There have been days where the excitement of construction and progress have made time fly! And other days, unthinkable tragedies, one after another – yeah, those days are long. But then I turned around and it’s been 25 years! I could have never imagined that my life would be filled with so much purpose. I wouldn’t change it for anything. 

Q: How did you become interested in Covenant House Alaska?

A: I was up here on a three-year contract with a hospital. It wasn’t my intention to stay in Alaska or to even work at a nonprofit. But during this time I was doing some serious soul searching, and my good friend Deirdre (Phayer) Cronin convinced me to volunteer at Covenant House Alaska. The rest is history. 

Q: What have been the biggest changes that you have seen?

A: Hands down, the biggest change I have seen is the transformation from an organization that primarily offers emergency shelter services to an organization that takes a holistic approach that sets our youth up for long-term success. We went from being a shelter to weather a storm, to an organization that partners with other organizations in order to provide comprehensive mental health services, education and career support to transitional living accommodations — soon to include long-term living arrangements with Bridge to Success!  

Q: How have you seen the community change?

A: I have definitely seen a shift in the community as far as how we view our young people. I’m proud to say that the stigma of a “runaway” youth has shifted towards understanding that the young people seeking our help are escaping truly horrific circumstances at no fault of their own. We are viewing our young people as resilient, smart, and capable youth who just need a little help. 

When I first started, 90% of our funding came from out of state – mostly from our parent organization Covenant House International and other states looking to help. It brings me to tears to say that today, 90% of our funding comes from the beautiful people of Alaska. The community has stepped up and taken control of the situation at hand. Together, we are actively working to end the experience of youth homelessness in Alaska. 

Q: Are the youth that we serve different than they were 25 years ago?

A: Our youth have always been capable. They have always been worth it. They have been and always will be our future leaders. That consistency has kept me going for 25 years. I will say that the age we are serving has changed. Back then we were seeing a lot of really young kids walk through our doors. Today, the majority of our youth span 18-24 years old.

And what we know now through science and research, is that the brain is still developing through the early 20s. Young adults still need our safety net of support. I honestly hate that our young people have to be so resilient – that they have to run through thorns. That being said, I’ve never met so many resilient people in my life. It’s our honor to be in this space. 

Q: How has your understanding of youth homelessness changed over time?

A: My biggest growth is simply that we aren’t the experts on what young people need, they are the experts. If we just listen, the young people in our lives will tell us everything we need to know! We just need to be willing to hear them and understand that it may look different from our own experiences. As soon as we made this change, that’s when we as a team really started moving the needle and seeing young people flourish. 

Q: Do you have a transformation story that sticks out over the years?

A: Brian. Hands down, a young person named Brian. He was here when I first started, and his experiences have spanned my whole career. He had severe challenges but continued to hit milestones despite them. Not that it was all roses, because success isn’t linear. I was there when he graduated high school, I was the emergency contact when he was in the hospital, and I was there when he opened his college acceptance letter (still hanging in my office!). Everyone needs a safe place to be themselves, in their highs and their lows. And Brian taught me that even in those lows, it’s our job to love unconditionally. He’s a grown man now, and we haven’t had contact in a few years, but I hope he is well. 

Alison Kear 25 Years

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?  

A: The realization that we can’t do this alone and the implementation of the youth engagement model. This included finding community partners that aligned with our mission and infusing them  into our space in order to provide well-rounded services. It takes a village to raise a child, and what an incredible support system we have within our community partners. 

Q: What does the next 25 years look like?

Wow, I would just say that if God gives me 25 more years then it will be in the service of young people. For you board members reading, you will have to retire me. I want to look at systems, I want to bulldoze a path for young people toward success. A path that is so strong, that it escapes no one. 

That being said, I have always said that I want us to become an education and employment center that offers housing, and we have made movements in that direction. I am more than hopeful for the future of Alaska’s young people. Stay tuned! 

Q: You certainly haven’t done this alone. Anyone you would like to thank?

There is so much to say. But to everyone – from our longtime investors, donors and volunteers to the incredible team here at CHA – thank you. You have my heart and my most sincere gratitude. And I would be remiss if I didn’t take the chance to publicly thank Cathy Rasmuson, Rasmuson Foundation, and Carol Gore, Cook Inlet Housing Authority. These two powerhouse women have had a large impact on my career and have been there every step of the way. 

Q: It was announced that Covenant House International President Kevin Ryan is set to retire in 2023. How has he impacted your career?

A: Kevin Ryan has been my boss for 13 years now. Prior, it was Sister Mary Rose. What a privilege to span those two careers. Sister Mary Rose stepped in when we needed her and preserved the structure of the organization with dignity; then, Kevin Ryan took over and brought soul to our mission.

He pulled the young people out of the shadows and lifted them into the light, allowing us to celebrate them for who they are, just as they are. He walks a path of acceptance, vulnerability and respect. I have taken many cues from his revolutionary leadership, and the young people of Alaska are better for it. He will absolutely be missed, but I am confident that we will continue to take steps toward a better future with our next era of leadership. 

Thank you, Alison!

Help us celebrate and thank Alison! $25 for 25 years. Write it in the notes on coveycares.org !

CEO Alison Kear breaks the ground at the construction site of our new Bridge to Success program.

Volunteer Spotlight Passage House Mentor

Volunteer Spotlight: Mentor Melissa Lampert

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Jan. 25, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

In honor of National Mentoring Month, we want to spotlight the volunteer work of Melissa Lampert, a mentor at Passage House. 

Melissa’s mentor work at Covenant House Alaska stands as a testament to the impact a caring adult can have on a young Alaskan. Over her four-year tenure as a mentor, she has given five young women a guiding hand to hold as they began the journey of motherhood. 

Looking back on her service, Melissa believes the relationships she’s had with these women have made a difference in both of their lives. 

“I feel truly that there are times where I get to help them,” said Melissa, “and they’re helping me too in ways that they probably don’t even realize.”

We are beyond thankful for Melissa and the work of all of our mentors. They model the tenacious compassion and unconditional love that are the bedrock of our values at Covenant House Alaska. 

Becoming a mentor

As an Alaskan native, Melissa had long been aware of Covenant House Alaska but decided to get involved after a chance encounter at her old job. 

While working one day at communications firm Northwest Strategies, a co-worker asked Melissa to proofread a brochure they were writing. Fatefully, this brochure was advertising Covenant House Alaska’s mentorship program, and her co-worker must have done a great job — Melissa was sold!

“This brochure was working before they even started handing it out!” she said. 

Melissa then applied and was accepted to mentor new or expecting mothers residing at our Passage House facility downtown. In the years since she has become a mainstay to the program and a trusted role model to many of its participants.

Fun and fulfilling service

Under the purview of our mentorship program, Melissa has forged a strong bond with each of her mentees through activities big and small. 

Sometimes, her outings with her mentee consist of great Alaskan adventures, like taking a trip to the Wildlife Conservation Center, scarf painting, attending a self-defense class, visiting the Anchorage Zoo and riding on a trolley tour of Anchorage. 

Other times, they may be quiet yet intimate projects at Passage House, such as Christmas cookie decorating, throwing a baby shower or cooking a warming meal. 

Melissa said that these experiences have brought her closer to the women at Passage House. 

“It’s fun to do the activities, but also to see the activities through the girls’ eyes,” said Melissa. “It’s just different, their perspective and their insight.”

Life-long and life-changing relationships

The relationships Melissa has built through mentoring have stood the test of time and given her valuable perspective on her local community. 

Melissa said that spending time with these young mothers has shown her their undeniable resiliency and love for their children. 

“They just really fight for their kids,” said Melissa. “They’re just like any other mom, they really care about their kiddos and want to give them the best experience that they can have.”

And even though Melissa has mentored five women since entering the program, she is still in close contact with her first mentee, who graduated from our Passage House program and is now Melissa’s neighbor. Just a few weekends ago, this young woman invited Melissa and her husband to attend her child’s third birthday party. 

“It’s so cool just to watch her little one grow up,” said Melissa. 

Become a mentor today!

Our mission at Covenant House Alaska depends on mentors like Melissa, and we could not be more appreciative of their service. And we are searching for more!

According to Melissa, if you have the time to dedicate to the program, mentoring is a fulfilling and effective way to give back to the community. 

“We could all benefit from a good mentor, right?” said Melissa. “At any stage of your life or career, we could all use a good mentor.”

If you would like to apply to be a mentor at Covenant House Alaska or get more information on our program, visit the Mentor page on our website by clicking here.

If you would like to find other ways to volunteer at Covenant House Alaska, visit the Volunteer page on our website here.

How you can improve Alaska’s beleaguered human trafficking laws

Jessica Bowers Awareness Leave a Comment

Jan. 21, 2022

By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Working to end human trafficking in Alaska is central to our mission at Covenant House Alaska. Yet, this will likely remain an uphill battle for as long as our laws remain in their current state.

Alaska’s human trafficking laws fail to address the breadth of trafficking crimes committed against children while lacking the nuance to ensure justice and support for survivors. With laws that experts consider to be the worst of any US state, our representatives must make sweeping changes if we are to rid our state of human trafficking.

While our state government is beginning to take meaningful steps to correct these grave errors, Alaskans need to remain engaged with human trafficking issues long after Human Trafficking Awareness Month is over to demand its diligence and follow-through.

Right now, the facts are grim. Yet, the truth about human trafficking in Alaska is that it is a solvable problem if we commit to ending this blight as a community. 

Defining terms: “Commercial sexual exploitation of children”

Many of Alaska’s deficiencies in its human trafficking laws arise from the specifics of its language. Thus, an awareness of human trafficking requires understanding a few technical terms that often guide the implementation and determine the effectiveness of these laws. 

The first term that we need to define is the “commercial sexual exploitation of children,” or CSEC. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention defines CSEC as a “range of crimes and activities involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person or in exchange for anything of value … given or received by any person.” 

Activists and experts advocate for the use of this term instead of phrases like “child prostitution” or “child sex trafficking” because it does a better job of including the full range of sexual crimes committed against children, while other such terms often refer to individual crimes. 

For example, CSEC’s definition specifies that any sexual abuse of a child “in exchange for anything of value” qualifies as CSEC. Thus, this term covers the common yet overlooked practice of criminals offering children things other than money, like a place to stay or drugs, in exchange for sexual acts. 

While this term is favored for its catch-all nature, specific crimes that constitute CSEC include child sex trafficking, the production or distribution of child pornography, sex tourism, early marriage and many others. 

Defining terms: “Human trafficking”

Similarly, understanding what the term “human trafficking” does and does not mean is crucial to understanding these laws. 

Defined by the Department of Justice, “human trafficking” refers to any “crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” This term is sometimes used interchangeably with “trafficking in persons (TIP).”

While “human trafficking” is often mistakenly used as a synonym for sex trafficking, this definition and revisions to US federal anti-trafficking laws clarify there are two main dimensions of human trafficking: labor trafficking and sex trafficking. 

Labor trafficking refers to the use of coercion to get someone to perform labor or a service. One common example is someone threatening another person with violence to pressure them into running drugs. 

Similarly, sex trafficking refers to a person coercing someone else into committing a commercial sex act. However, under federal law, in any circumstance in which the person committing the sex act is under 18, it constitutes human trafficking regardless of if the perpetrator coerces or forces the minor into the act. Alaskan law extends this threshold to anyone under 20.

So, all of the crimes under the umbrella of CSEC are also under the larger umbrella of human trafficking. At the same time, human trafficking does not refer solely to CSEC or sex trafficking, as it also includes labor trafficking. 

One common misconception about human trafficking is that it requires someone to transport another person across a state or international border. This is not the case. Under the law, human trafficking can take place entirely within the confines of the same state or even the same city block. 

Addressing the breadth and depth of human trafficking

What these terms illustrate, and why it is important to understand their nuances, is how wide the scope of human trafficking is and how many individual crimes fall under it. 

If we are to rid Alaska of human trafficking, our laws need to be carefully written to accommodate the breadth and depth of this issue. This demands a linguistic balancing act of using language that is at times inclusive enough to catch all instances of human trafficking and precise enough to administer justice to its specific infractions at others. 

This is a difficult task for lawmakers. Legislating in this way requires subject-matter expertise that many legislators, who are responsible for passing laws on a wide variety of topics, may not have while affording little room for error. 

By this token, a state’s failure to pass airtight anti-trafficking laws does not mean its politicians are indifferent or even weak on this issue. However, it does mean that there are identifiable and consequential holes in its ability to prosecute traffickers and protect survivors. 

Alaska’s current, and failing, human trafficking laws

By any and all measures, Alaska’s anti-trafficking laws fail to protect its youth from sexual exploitation. 

The expert nonprofit Shared Hope International placed Alaska last on its 2021 ranking of every state’s child sex trafficking laws. Our state failed to meet each of Shared Hope’s six criteria for effective legislation, which measured everything from the clarity of a state’s laws to its ability to guarantee justice and care for victims. 

Some of these failings stem from a lack of specific language differentiating CSEC from other crimes. This often results in disastrous unintended consequences.

In one egregious example, the way Alaska’s “Prostitution” statutes are written makes them apply equally to minors and adults. As a result, victims of child sex trafficking may end up facing criminal charges, thousands of dollars in fines, or even jail time if they are alleged to have violated these laws. 

By a similar token, Alaska’s courtroom protections for minors are written in a way that fails to extend them to victims of CSEC. While Alaska offers children under 16 the option to testify via closed-circuit television in cases of “Offenses Against the Person,” CSEC cases are classified as “Offenses Against Public Health and Decency.” Thus, minors may have no choice but to endure the trauma of facing their trafficker in court. 

Other shortcomings are due to the language of Alaska’s laws failing to capture the broad range of crimes that can constitute CSEC and human trafficking. This creates loopholes that may prevent prosecutors from holding traffickers to account or victims from accessing life-saving resources. 

For example, Alaska’s human trafficking laws lack a penalty scheme for business entities that profit from trafficking. Alaska does have a catch-all law that charges any individual who assists a trafficker in their crimes with a felony, but the absence of such a law specific to business entities may limit the state’s ability to hold them accountable and hinder trafficking investigations. 

Furthermore, the law only binds Alaska to connect victims to child welfare services when their trafficker is a “person responsible for the child’s welfare.” This means that in cases where a survivor’s trafficker is not their parent or guardian, the state may not be required to provide them with such help.

Finally, Alaskan law does not mandate training on the identification and intervention in child sex trafficking for its Office of Children’s Services employees, state employees in general, law enforcement officers, judges or teachers. 

While this does not mean that these individuals do not undergo any such training, and in fact federal law mandates it for OCS employees, codifying this requirement in state law ensures such a commitment and establishes an important measure of accountability. 

Hope for improvement

While Alaska’s anti-human trafficking laws are pockmarked with undeniable holes, politicians are beginning to take notice and take the first steps towards action.

Last month, Governor Mike Dunleavy announced his “People First Initiative,” a series of legislation and executive actions aimed to improve public safety in Alaska. One of the issue areas that this project promises to address is the shortcomings of Alaska’s labor and sex trafficking laws. 

As part of this initiative, Governor Dunleavy created the Governor’s Council on Human and Sex Trafficking via administrative order on Dec. 14. The order created a 15-member advisory board tasked with delivering a report to the governor recommending improvements to Alaska’s anti-trafficking laws and victim services by Sept. 30. 

Additionally, the governor plans to shore up these laws by passing a broad crime bill that both patches up Alaska’s trafficking laws and makes other changes to the penal code, according to a press release

At press time, a draft of this bill is not available to the public. However, the governor’s office will likely wait until the council finishes its report before writing the bill so that it may incorporate their recommendations. 

With this blitz of serious action, there just might be cause for hope that Alaska is on a path towards justice and recovery for its human trafficking survivors. 

Awareness prompts action

If this piece has demonstrated nothing else, it is that human trafficking legislation exists in a world of nuance and tact. As a result, we want to be very careful and very clear with what we want to call upon our readers to do. 

All we want to ask is that you remain aware of the state of human trafficking in Alaska and continue to educate yourself and others about this heinous crime. 

While we applaud Governor Dunleavy’s creation of the advisory council, it would be irresponsible to encourage support of this crime bill before we know its specifics. However, remaining passionate and informed on this issue is the best way to keep pressure on our representatives and ensure their steadfastness in the fight against human trafficking. If you would like to read more about Covenant House Alaska’s anti-trafficking work, click here. If you are interested in volunteering at Covenant House Alaska, click here.

Volunteer Spotlight: A Special Volunteer from Santa’s Workshop

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12/24/21

By Mariam Mayanja — Covenant House Alaska Volunteer Writer

When you hear the words “Christmas Committee,” your imagination easily takes you to Santa’s workshop. A place run of jolly elves with joyous names like Kandi. However, Kandi doesn’t run Santa’s workshop but leads the Covenant House Alaska Christmas Committee.

Kandi Hernandez is originally from Texas and moved to Alaska four years ago following her husband’s military placement with their four children. As a mother and interior designer, it can be hard to balance all the obligations that come with work, family and volunteering. Hernandez feels committing to serve, especially around this time of the year, is important.

“No matter where you go, you [should] get involved in your community,” said Hernandez on why she volunteers.

Getting involved at CHA

Prior to the pandemic, Hernandez got involved with her community through volunteering with her church or children’s school. However, 2020 changed how folks look at engagement. In late fall 2020, she started seeking opportunities to volunteer.

Hernandez found volunteer opportunities with Covenant House Alaska last year in an internet search. “It was just totally a fluke, honestly,” said Hernandez. “I was reading about Covenant House, and I love that Covenant House reaches out to meeting like the basic needs of the youth. I just connected with those simple kindnesses.”

Shortly after learning the mission, she started volunteering to wrap presents for Christmas 2020 with her teenage son. This experience was remarkably positive for her and her family, so much so that she kept an eye on future volunteer opportunities for Christmas 2021.

Santa’s #1 helper

When an opportunity arose to lead the Christmas Committee, she jumped for it.

Volunteering with the committee has helped Hernandez use her gifts for organizing and planning in new ways.

“I know some people get like really bogged down by things like spreadsheets or being organized, [but] that almost always rejuvenates me,” said Hernandez. “I think that [volunteering] grows me in that way. God gives us these gifts, and it doesn’t have to just be in this one lane that we can use them.”

As one of the people entering the youth residents’ wish lists into the Covenant House Alaska gift registry, she often sees requests for things for their homes. With her background as an interior designer, Hernandez understands that people want their space to “feel special to us and to reflect who we are,” and enjoys being part of giving that gift.

Kandi and the Christmas Committee led the charge on wrapping gifts for our youth.

One day, when Hernandez looks back at Christmas 2021, she will remember wrapping 300 socks with her husband and four children while her littlest put bows and ribbons on each package in the Covenant House Alaska multi-purpose room. She’ll look back and remember seeing the presents that were requested getting wrapped.

“I know teenagers, and I know that they’re going to be excited when they get this,” said Hernandez. “I could just imagine a kid opening [it] up and smiling because it was something that they wanted.”

Thank you, volunteers!

We offer our holly-jolliest of thanks to Kandi Hernandez and all of our volunteers who have contributed their time and talents to Covenant House Alaska this yuletide season. Because of you and your elf-like work ethic, it feels like the North Pole has been moved just a little farther south this year.

If you are interested in joining Covenant House Alaska’s Christmas Committee next year or finding another way to volunteer, visit the volunteer page of our website for more information.

Kandi and her family pose for a photo amidst gift wrapping.
GCI sent a strong team to our 2021 Candlelight Vigil and Sleepout event!

Cornerstone Donor Spotlight: GCI

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12/17/21

By Sam Buisman — Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer

Every day, Covenant House Alaska is humbled to partner with GCI, who has furthered our mission and bolstered our Alaskan community through its devoted service and charitable giving. 

For well over a decade, GCI has given Covenant House Alaska bountiful gifts of money and time that have proven instrumental to our mission of ending the experience of youth homelessness. The capacity and quality of the services we provide for our young people are reflections of GCI’s generosity in this partnership. 

As GCI Chief Marketing Officer Kate Slyker puts it, our work together brings our community one step closer to guaranteeing every young Alaskan the future they deserve. 

“Every homeless youth has the right to a home and food, guidance and education, and the right to be loved,” said Slyker. “Covenant House offers crucial support in their journey to become healthy, self-sufficient members of our community.” 

Reliable service across Alaska

For GCI, service has been an indelible tenant of its mission across its 42-year history.

The company has invested more than $3 billion into building Alaska’s telecommunications network, connecting people and businesses in well over 200 communities spanning the entirety of our state. Despite the massive range of their coverage, GCI has not sacrificed quality for quantity, as they recently launched the US’s northernmost true standards-based 5G NR service in Anchorage. 

Yet, what service means at GCI extends beyond their formal operations and into a philosophy of giving back to Alaskan communities. In the past five years alone, GCI has given over $10 million in the form of cash, grants, scholarships and products to organizations across Alaska. 

Furthermore, GCI provides each of its employees with 16 hours of paid leave for volunteering. As a result, thousands of GCI employees have been able to give their time and talents to food banks, shelter facilities, youth sports teams and other causes in the communities where they live and work.

GCI and Covenant House Alaska

We are incredibly thankful for GCI’s choice to support Covenant House Alaska with its abundant giving and conviction in our shared mission of ending the experience of youth homelessness. 

“GCI is proud to support all of the life-changing work being done each and every day at Covenant House Alaska,” said GCI Chief Customer Experience Officer Maureen Moore.

As one of our Cornerstone Partners, GCI’s financial support of Covenant House Alaska fuels the fundamentals of our care. From the hot meals we feed our young people to the beds that they sleep in, there is no aspect of our care that GCI’s generosity doesn’t touch. 

Additionally, GCI routinely and enthusiastically participates in our annual fundraising events. We can always count on a strong GCI showing for our Sleep Out. This year’s event certainly wasn’t easy! At negative 15 temperatures and clear skies, GCI team members Roberto Mendez and Blake Pierce spent the night outside, in solidarity with youth experiencing homelessness. Collectively, GCI raised a whopping $14,750. GCI is also a regular attendee at our Fire and Ice Ball and a contributor to the event’s silent auction.

“We are thankful for the support of local businesses, like GCI, in our efforts to shine a light on this crisis and raise funds so we can provide Alaskans with a safe, warm place to sleep,” said Covenant House Alaska CEO Alison Kear. 

Between all of these activities, GCI’s support of Covenant House Alaska is essential to the work we do to empower Alaska’s most vulnerable young people.

“Calling” bingo: GCI’s Adopt-a-Day

At Covenant House Alaska, we provide the necessary services for our young people. In turn, we rely heavily on our community partners and volunteers to facilitate the extracurricular activities that make life more interesting! In December, GCI sponsored an entire day of operations at Covenant House Alaska through our Adopt-a-Day program. But, as always, GCI went above and beyond the call of duty and organized an afternoon of fun activities for our youth!

GCI sponsored a thrilling game of bingo on their Adopt-a-Day!
Thanks to GCI, our youth and staff were treated to Serrano’s for lunch!

First, GCI got Anchorage’s own Serrano’s Mexican Grill to cater lunch. The savory and spicy scents of chicken tacos and pico de gallo wafted through our Youth Engagement Center, proving irresistible to the nostrils. 

Then for some mid-meal entertainment, GCI sponsored a classic game of bingo for our youth! For prizes, GCI provided an array of tech gadgets that are certainly in high demand, such as wireless speakers and earbuds. Our young people held onto every letter and number the caller announced, blotting their sheets with glee!

Thanks to GCI, a snowy Wednesday turned into a winter carnival of games, prizes and food that our youth will never forget. 

Ringing in the holiday season

On top of everything else GCI gives to Covenant House Alaska, they donate to us a warehouse’s worth of tech products to be given as Christmas presents!

Every December, these gifts from GCI make our young people feel loved and treasured during what can be a difficult time for those experiencing homelessness. The joy on the face of a young person unwrapping one of these presents is only rivaled by that in the hearts of our staff.

We won’t give away what is waiting in our youths’ stockings from GCI this year, just in case any of them might be reading, but we are beyond thankful for their gift, and we know our young people will love it!

Thank you, GCI!

What GCI demonstrates is a true devotion to uplifting all Alaskans. We could not be more honored to work alongside them in pursuit of this noble goal. 

If your organization would like to know more about partnering with Covenant House Alaska, please contact Chief Development Officer Joe Hemphill at jhemphill@covenanthouseak.org.