Volunteer Spotlight: Mentor Mary Michaelsen

Kendalyn Mckisick Events, Mentor 1 Comment

Mary and her mentee, Zee, making mac&cheese at Rights of Passage.

It was Christmas time of 2018 when Mary first came into Covenant House Alaska’s Youth Engagement Center. It was an Adopt-A-Day event with her company, Wells Fargo; they served lunch and played fun games with youth and staff. During this event, Mary was able to sit down and talk with the youth as well as the staff. She learned about some of CHA’s other programs and volunteer opportunities—one being the mentorship program at Rights of Passage. It was shortly after that event she submitted a mentor application. She began her mentorship in March of 2019.

When asked why she wanted to become a Rights of Passage mentor, she replied, “I have 2 little sisters, one is 13 and the other is 22, who still live back in the Midwest. I’m still really close with them and teach them a lot of things young people need to know and I’m always there if they need to talk. When I realized that the young people at Covenant House and ROP are lacking that relationship, it made me want to step in; all kids need—and should have—that relationship.” Rights of Passage mentors commit to 2 years of service in that role, in which they attend monthly group outings with ROP residents and staff while also consistently supporting an individual youth they are matched with. Part of the support that mentors are expected to provide to their mentee is sharing knowledge and expertise with youth, that will give them applicable skills as they transition to independent living. As a financial education expert, Mary was able to give her mentee tips on money management—everything from credit establishment, investing, and budgeting. Mary’s engagement in her work and love for her community has recently gained her the honor of becoming part of the 2020 class of Top 40 Under 40; this group of individuals are recognized as the top professionals in the state who have demonstrated not only excellence in their field but a deep commitment to their community. 

Mary’s mentee, Zee, recently moved out on her own and is living alone in her own apartment—Zee says it feels really great to be able to have her own place and make it her own. During the time they spent together over the past year, Mary was able to see Zee through some great milestones: Because Zee’s favorite food is wings, Mary took her out to celebrate her birthday at Wing Stop; it was Zee’s first time going to Wing Stop and now she LOVES going there. Mary was also able witness Zee’s excitement and to wish her and her family congratulations when Zee’s sister gave birth to a healthy baby. Another favorite moment of Mary’s was actually one of the first times she and Zee had ever hung out. She went with Zee to an art gallery downtown to help her hang her art up for a First Friday event, “Zee is such an amazing artist. She was very excited to finally be able to show her work in a gallery. It was just so nice to be there and see her in that environment. The gallery owners were so impressed and pleased with how much work and care she had put into it.”

So far in her mentorship experience, she has appreciated the activities facilitated by Rights of Passage staff because they are a great way for mentors to really get to know the youth, “they have had quite a bit of fun stuff that I’ve been able to go to. Just to name a few, they’ve had a retreat, a camping trip, and actually, my very first activity was an outing to Dave & Busters. It didn’t even feel like I was volunteering because it was just so much fun. We even broke into teams and competed. It brought me back to being a kid. It just felt like I was hanging out.” Another thing that Mary really appreciated throughout the year were the classes that Covenant House Alaska hosted to learn more about at-risk youth. Mary took a day off work to attend an all-day class for volunteers and staff on Youth Mental Health and First-Aid. She loved it because she learned a lot of helpful information, but also because she got to hear the perspectives of people who work with the youth every day, “seeing everyone who works at Covenant House and how passionate they are is amazing. Just being able to be a part of that is very rewarding for me.”

Mary has just recently completed her first year as a mentor and is looking forward to her second year. In reflection, she says, “Being a mentor requires me to put myself out there while also letting it be on the youth’s time. It takes time to build those relationships; sometimes mentors may not even be paired with a youth for the first year or so, just depending on whether or not they click with anyone. I’m glad I was matched with a youth quickly. Overall, I feel like I’m still pretty new and there’s a lot more to be involved with. There’s a deeper level of engagement that can be done.” Emily Weimer, an ROP staff, is impressed by Mary’s ability to connect with youth and appreciates the influence she has had, “Mary is very outgoing and open. She encouraged one young lady to go outside who had never really gone out before. She also showed her mentee, who was ensconced in street culture, that there was much more to Alaska than that. Mary has a creative heart and a strong spirit. She has shown tremendous follow-through that has made a great impression on youth.”

How to Tend the Garden When You Can’t Volunteer.

Kendalyn Mckisick Events, Volunteer Stories Leave a Comment

With the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to our community, we know that many people  feel compelled to help in any way they can to flatten the curve and to assist people who need it most right now. It has been amazing to see the quick response of people in our community—and across the nation—stepping up to help in any way they can. Many others are still searching for ways to help while maintaining safety.

Here are some things you can do to support us and other organizations in safe, effective ways:

  1. Ask 10 friends to like us on Facebook or follow us on Instagram @covenanthouseak.

2. Participate in our “Happiness Is…” project on Instagram stories.

3. Share your favorite Covenant House Alaska story/memory with us by  direct message on Facebook or by email: development@covenanthouseak.org (subject line:  FAVORITE STORY)

4. Read some stories on our blog page and then leave thoughtful questions or comments.

5. Arrange a food delivery by contacting development@covenanthouseak.org.

6. Learn about other organizations in our community helping to serve others, like Food Bank of Alaska, Beans Café, Brother Francis Shelter, AWAIC, Seeds of Change, St. Francis House Food Pantry, Downtown Soup Kitchen Hope Center, and Grow North Farm.

7. Draw an image of spring or hope and share it with us on social media by tagging @covenanthouseak

8. Write notes of encouragement to our youth and staff. Mail them to: Covenant House Alaska, Attention: Carlette Mack, 755 A St. Anchorage, Alaska 99501

9. Shop our wish list on Amazon 

10. Go to www.coveycares.org to make a donation online.

We feel so blessed to be part of a community that invests so much care in our youth and in other organizations who share our values. To us, happiness is serving Anchorage’s most vulnerable population—especially during this difficult and uncertain time when we don’t know what tomorrow holds.

Volunteer Spotlight: Cultivating the Mind with Bhante Suyama

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Bhante has lived in Anchorage for two years now, where all of his time is spent volunteering. He reaches out to organizations throughout the community who could potentially benefit from participating in guided meditation. On Tuesdays, he volunteers at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center; there, he teaches a class called “Evolved Thinking”. Earlier this month, he began teaching meditation at Anchorage Pioneer House.

Bhante began volunteering at Rights of Passage (ROP) in June of 2019 offering guided meditation on Thursday evenings. For many of the ROP youth, this has been their introduction to meditation. Eric Ditzler, ROP evening staff, attends the mediation sessions with youth and comments, “over the past 10 months, I have really seen a difference in the way youth behave. They are calmer and seem to think more clearly about issues they are facing. The youth look forward to meditation every week”.

When asked about his experience interacting with ROP youth, he said:

“The youth are not unlike the youth who would come to temple in Sri Lanka. What I see in their eyes is a desire to help themselves and they are looking for something to guide them. What I teach is not so much a religious foundation or spiritual one, but my task is to encourage them. Whatever happens in their life, I’m there for them. Some of them like to ask me questions and several of them are there weekly when they can be. In my practice we have a saying, “gradual training, gradual progress.” I just want to inspire and encourage them to develop their own path through life. “Find time for me” is something I always tell the kids—we are so conditioned in this world, from the moment we are born to come out of our selves. I encourage the youth to just find time for themselves, whether it be through silent reflection at the end of the day, journaling, or going for a walk.”

Bhante is very appreciative of being able to provide tools that the youth can take and utilize in their daily lives and finds it very rewarding. He believes firmly in the saying “do your best and without expectation.” He says he has a lot of optimism for the youth’s futures because, even though they are in a difficult time of their lives, it’s a great age to show support and provide a positive outlet and relationship.

About Bhante

Bhante was raised in Illinois, where he attended a Buddhist temple. After years of practice, Bhante began his monkhood, moving to Sri Lanka to practice and become a monk. He moved into monastic life 7 years ago, “I made meditation practice part of my daily life and then eventually everything in my life formed around the meditation. It was a very slow process that sort of revealed itself over time.”

When Bhante isn’t guiding others through meditation, he likes to journal. He says it is a way for him to see his evolution and how he changes—to see his impermanence—and reminds him to be open to change and new things. He is interested in astrophysics and cosmos and loves learning about science, astronomy, and history. To do so, he checks a lot of books out from the library on the subjects. He also enjoys visiting local arts shows to see the talent in Anchorage.

COVID-19 Update from Covenant House Alaska

Kendalyn Mckisick Impact Updates 5 Comments

At Covenant House Alaska, our commitment to our mission is only increased during uncertain times such as these.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about the unique risks that youth experiencing homelessness are facing right now:

-Every young person who walks through our doors, simply by nature of needing to be here, has already experienced trauma. Uncertainty like what we are all dealing with right now exacerbates this for them.

-Sleeping outside or in crowded shelters makes youth more vulnerable to infections like flu, colds and other serious health conditions.

-Young people need a consistent, nutritious diet to help them stay healthy, which is unavailable to youth experiencing homelessness.

-Our youth are, after all, still young and still growing. That means physically, psychologically, emotionally, and cognitively, it is very important to mitigate the kinds of traumatic experiences that can complicate this crucial growth.

What we’re doing:


-We are monitoring the research and recommendations from the CDC, Covenant House International, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Prevention, and our local and state governments.

-We are maintaining a stock of emergency supplies (we Alaskans know about earthquakes, after all) that will last several weeks including food, linens, hand sanitizers, cleaning materials, medicines, and more.

-In addition to our regular cleaning processes, we are making sure our staff communicate best practices on handwashing, ‘covering your cough’ and keeping our space as clean as possible to youth on a daily basis.

-We will rely on our own staff to continue essential services.

-We have offered training for our administrative staff, who do not have direct care experience, so that if necessary they are able and comfortable to step in and support our frontline coworkers.

-Our Emergency Plan includes remote work where possible, minimal staffing (essential personnel only), and cancellation of all work travel, whether international or domestic.

-We have revised our youth intake process to include recommended screening questions to better determine exposure.

-If a youth presents with symptoms or has been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed or is symptomatic, they will be isolated while our staff follows the direction of local healthcare partners.

-Just as importantly, we are going to maintain good spirits for our youth who are feeling so uncertain. We are fortunate to have a number of characters among our staff, including our Senior Program Officer who has now recorded six (quite silly) cover songs originally by artists from The Police to Nirvana on good handwashing and self-quarantining practices.

What YOU can do:

We love our volunteers, and visitors from our community who drop off donations. But, for the time being, our policy is that only staff enter the building, with the exception of a few volunteer activities that are already slated. We are not on-boarding any new volunteers at this time, and we ask that donations, including soup, not be brought to our programs.

However, we do still need your support and there are still items our youth need on a daily basis. If you would like to support us during these uncertain times, you can make a cash donation here on our website, or find our Amazon Wishlist here and order items to be delivered to us.

We are so grateful to our community for supporting us so we can support our youth, most especially when times are scary for them and uncertain for all of us. Thank you for everything. Be safe, Alaska!

A Letter from our Executive Director, Alison Kear

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To our Covenant House Alaska family, donors, and supporters,

We are thinking of you and your loved ones, and all who have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the still-unfolding ramifications our communities are facing in response.

Like other agencies around the country, Covenant House Alaska is taking steps to help prevent the spread of the virus while doing everything we can to support the health, safety and well-being of our youth, staff, and volunteers.

We are asking that our community members not visit our programs at this time and, in lieu of tangible donation items you might typically bring, consider a cash donation instead or a purchase from our Amazon Wishlist that can be sent directly to our shelter.

Our dedication to serving youth experiencing homelessness is only reinforced by these unprecedented circumstances. The best wisdom I have heard so far is that we should take this opportunity to slow way down, take care of ourselves and each other (from a distance, in many cases) and above all, to practice calm and kindness. When we come out the other side of this, it will be with a new perspective–a new appreciation for our support systems, families and all the people who love us.

Many youth come to Covenant House Alaska precisely because these support systems are not present in their lives. Our mission and privilege is to be there for them, as we know they will someday be there for others. Due to school and work closures, many of our youth are feeling a sense of uncertainty that’s extra scary for a young person who has had little control or routine in their early lives. We are doing our best to be a source of consistency and strength and your support means more now than ever in allowing our direct care staff to keep our youth safe and healthy.

Be good to one another, and thank you for always holding our youth in your hearts.

Alison Kear

Tend To The Garden You Can Touch

Kendalyn Mckisick Events 1 Comment

Janet Weiss receiving the Trautner Award for Philanthropic Service.

Cornerstone Sponsor Spotlight

BP is a company that strives to enrich the communities in which they operate. Behind this well-known company are individuals who commit to this goal and invest care in tending their communities. BP began operating in Alaska 60 years ago, and their commitment is visible throughout the state.

Did you know that BP has invested over $1 million in the youth at Covenant House Alaska? Janet Weiss, BP Alaska President, cares so much about the future of Anchorage’s youth that she once shaved her head to raise money for Covenant House Alaska. For the past 7 years, Janet has served as a CHA board member and has been an active and essential supporter of the organization’s mission. Janet has run donation drives, encouraged service of her family and friends, served meals to staff and youth on Christmas morning, hosted fundraising dinners, and slept outside in the cold (3 times!) as a Sleep Out: Executive Edition Champion. Her persistent support and creativity earned her the Trautner Award for Philanthropic Service at the 2020 Covenant House Alaska Fire & Ice Ball.

We are also grateful to several other individuals and groups who have volunteered from BP. One of the most notable and current is Amy McKenzie, who is a Rights of Passage mentor. As a mentor, she commits to providing a positive and healthy adult mentorship to a youth for a minimum of two years. Youth in this program are learning to live independently in order to transition to their own apartments where they support themselves. Not only does Amy serve in this mentor role, she also makes herself available for other needs. She always agrees to help in any way she can, and with absolute enthusiasm.

These contributions are huge to the work done at Covenant House Alaska and to the hundreds of youth who use CHA’s services. From building the BP energy center, to recognizing outstanding teachers and students through education awards, the contributions BP makes to multiple organizations and individuals are essential to creating the colorful, vibrant, and strong communities here in the state that we call home.

If your organization is interested in learning more about partnering with Covenant House Alaska or becoming a Cornerstone Sponsor, please contact development@covenanthouseak.org.

how to donate to Covenant House Alaska.

Kendalyn Mckisick Events 1 Comment

Following are answers to questions that we are asked about donations on a regular basis. We want to provide answers to all of our frequently asked questions in one place for quick and easy access. The answers will shed light on the donation process here at Covey:

Where do I drop off my donation items?

At our main building at 755 A Street. The entrance is in the alley. Bring your items in through both sets of double doors. Our staff will provide you with a donation receipt at the front desk.

Please put new items in a separate bag and indicate those items to staff.

What time of day can I bring in donations?

You can bring in donations any time—we are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Someone will always be at the front desk.

What type of clothing items can I bring in to donate that would be useful to CHA youth?

Hoodies (zip up and pullover styles), sweat pants, plain t-shirts, leggings, pajamas, sweaters, and practical footwear like sneakers or black shoes. During colder months, we need items like scarves, gloves, coats, snow boots, and thermal under garments. All clothing items need to be new or gently used and freshly laundered. We cannot accept worn out, stained or unwashed items.

NOTE: When deciding what clothing to bring, keep in mind that many of our youth are walking or taking the bus everywhere they need to go, so certain items are less practical including high heels, open toed shoes, etc. They could use ankle high or knee high boots or sneakers. As well, many of our youth are getting their first jobs ever, often in the service industry, so we frequently have asks for black pants or skirts, black long sleeve button-up shirts, and comfortable black shoes.

Do you need undergarments?

YES PLEASE! New undergarments only including panties, boxers/briefs, bras, and socks.

What is your most needed item?

Year round it is sweat pants, T-shirts, and underwear! In winter it is soup and hats.

I’m selling my storage shed—can I bring everything in it to CHA?

NO. Please be selective when choosing items to bring to our shelter. We do not have extra storage and not everything you find in your storage shed will be useful to us. We recommend sorting through your items and bringing what is outlined here: https://covenanthouseak.org/support-us/#give-stuff .

You may choose to donate your items that don’t fall into those guidelines to Goodwill or another charity of your choice that your items might benefit. You may consider calling Big Brothers Big Sisters to pick up items for your residence if you are unable to transport them. Be sure to check what they are able to take.

Can I bring in home decor items?

NO. Thank you.

Can I bring in books, CDs or DVDs?

NO. Please take all of these items to Title Wave Booksellers and then donate your credit earned to Covenant House Alaska’s account.

Can you pick up my items?

NO. We are not able to pick up your items. You may consider calling Big Brothers Big Sisters to pick up items for your residence if you are unable to transport them. Be sure to check what they are able to take.

I’m cleaning out my bathroom cabinets and found a bunch of half used hair products. Can you use them?

NO. Only bring in NEW hygiene products. Items we take all the time: new full sized and trial sized lotion, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, hair ties, nail clippers, nail polish, and chap stick.

Can you use baby clothes?

YES. These clothes can be used at Passage House, our program for pregnant and parenting mothers.

NOTE: we are not able to accept or store large baby items like cribs, car seats, and changing tables.

Can I do a donation drive for Covenant House Alaska?

YES. You are welcome to run a donation drive at your school, church, office, or with friends. If you would like to discuss your ideas for a donation drive further, contact the Development Team at development@covenanthouseak.org

Can I donate non-perishable food items?

YES. Cans of soup, canned vegetables, fresh produce, cereals, unopened packaged and sealed snacks are acceptable food items to donate.

Can I donate soup that I’ve cooked at home?

YES. It must be frozen.

What is the best way to transport soup that I’ve made at home to Covenant House Alaska?

Fill gallon sized Ziploc bags with soup that have been cooled to room temperature and freeze overnight in order to transport easily and mess-free. This also allows us to easily warm it up.

NOTE: Please do not bring soup in a container that you wish to have returned.

Can I bring in my old wallet, backpack, or purse?

YES! If it is still fully functional and in good condition (no holes or tears), we will take it. We also take new wallets, backpacks, and purses to use for birthdays and Christmas gifts.

Can I donate a bike?

YES but ONLY in late spring/early summer and ONLY if the bike is fully functional and ride-ready at the time of donation.

Do you take linens and towels?

YES. New or gently used and freshly laundered twin sized, fitted and regular sheets. We also take bath towels and washcloths.

NOTE: even youth who are not in residence at Covey are able to come in for a hot shower and/or nap in our drop in center.

Am I able to fulfill a single youth’s Christmas needs during the holiday season?

YES. You can adopt as many Christmas lists as you would like. To adopt a Christmas list, contact the Development Team development@covenanthouseak.org

Are you able to use bus passes?

YES! Many of our youth rely on the bus to get to school or to their jobs. The passes are important to maintaining day to day life.

Can I donate gift cards?

YES! We accept gift cards to Target, Walmart, fast food restaurants, fandango or Cinemark movie vouchers, and VISA gift cards.

Can I still donate if I am not able to physically come to the shelter?

YES! You can shop our Amazon Wish list and get things delivered to our shelter. Our wish list is here: https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/59NOGBFRB0QJ/ref=cm_go_nav_hz (we have a summer, fall, and winter wish list, navigate to the season you wish to purchase for)

You can also see what items we need from viewing the wish list and then order from a cheaper vendor; we have previously had someone order the items from Walmart.com for this reason. Just type in our address for delivery (755 A St, Anchorage AK, 99501) and address it to Covenant House Development Team.

Can I donate larger item of great value?

Please contact the Development Team to discuss the item and if it can be used to benefit CHA youth! development@covenanthouseak.org

For all further questions regarding donations, call 907-272-1255 and ask for the Development Team.

The Impact of Love, Part 2

Kendalyn Mckisick Events 2 Comments

Continued from ‘The Impact of Love, Part 1’…

“You do not want Mildred” my peers would say. Mildred is composed, self-assured, and responsible—this terrified me. She would see right through me and my anger that I would use to push away others, or my moody silent treatment that meant stay away from me; Mildred could see through it.  

The  first meeting I had with her that I still remember to this day was we were sitting in the office and she was reviewing my file from my previous visits and she took a deep breath and said “Amanda, what is it that you want?”  Nobody had ever asked me what I wanted before. I would tell them what I wanted but they didn’t listen.  Until that moment, I never felt like anyone had paused from their own agenda to ask about my thoughts.

Immediately, Mildred initiated a plan of action with me. I started the new Independent Living Program O3 (On Our Own) – today it is Rights of Passage. I was one of the first youth to participate in the program. She warned me that things might be tough and it would take time. My last intake at Covenant House I stayed 16 months.  I woke up at 5-5:15 am to catch the first bus #7 all the way to Dimond High School, this is 45-50 minute ride from downtown and then I would catch it after school, go to work and come back to CH and repeat.

Mildred communicated with all of my family, even my dad. He was not very nice to her, but Mildred is not one to let that get in her way.  She protected me. The biggest challenge we faced was achieving my goal of becoming emancipated. The first request was denied, but Mildred was able to find an attorney to represent my case pro-bono and we were in court maybe 15 minutes and I left as an emancipated 16 year old adult.

When I reflect on this today, I can’t believe this was my story. I can’t believe that this woman devoted her time and energy to me and to my goals. She was there to help me move into my first apartment, she was there when I graduated from high school, when I was hospitalized from a car accident she came, when my own father did not (he called Mildred instead). Even when I made poor choices that she may have not agreed with, she was there and she still cared. 

I lost touch with Mildred and CHA—life happened: I went to school and had a successful business as an esthetician and I became a parent to my now 10 year old daughter. Today I am filled with love, I have a career, and for the past 3 years I have worked for the State of Alaska with Senior & Disabilities Services. I work to assure that providers in the state of AK are qualified to care for some of the more vulnerable people of Alaska. My significant other and I are celebrating seven years together, and this past September we purchased our first home. We stay busy with all those new projects that come with being a homeowner.

Unconditional Love is the foundation of CHA’s Mission and Unconditional Love is what I received there. I thought I had lost that when I lost my mother, but CHA surrounded me with support, resources, and unconditional love. My experience there changed my course in life and made an enormous impact on who I am today as an adult and also as a parent. At CHA, I learned that service to others is an incredible agent of healing. One individual can make all the difference. I want to personally thank Mildred for making the difference in my life.

I ask myself now, “How did Mildred do it?” and ponder the questions of how can one person have that much love for others? why me?  How can I ever tell her how grateful I am she was there and how grateful I am that there is Covenant House?

Though Mildred doesn’t live in Anchorage anymore, Mildred and Amanda did reconnect, in November: unconditional love has a way of finding people you care about when you least expect it—

Back in November, Amanda’s best friend Sarah attended our annual Candlelight Vigil. She overheard the name Mildred, and knowing the impact Mildred had on Amanda’s life, she approached her and expressed Amanda’s feelings of appreciation and desire to reconnect with her. Both Mildred and Amanda attended the Fire & Ice Ball last month, and that is where they saw each other again for the first time after so many years, embracing through tears. The photo you see above is a Amanda (right), Mildred (left) and Dierdre Cronin, COO of Covenant House International (middle), at the ball.

Amanda represents the investment of every donor, the hard work and care of each CHA staff member, and the mission of CHA. Unconditional love is something that all children deserve, and when they don’t experience it from their parents, we always extend it to them, no matter what.

The Impact of Love, Part 1

Kendalyn Mckisick Events 4 Comments

Amanda Geisdorf, a past youth who walked through our doors 24 years ago, shared her story with us recently. She took a deep breath and told us the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we say “she shared her story with us”, what we really mean is “with bravery and love in her heart, she told her story to a huge room full of hundreds of people during the Fire & Ice Ball”. That bravery and willingness to share all came down to one thing: unconditional love. Read her story below, in her own words.

Twenty-four years ago I walked through Covenant House’s doors. Only 2 years before that moment, I was living the middle-class-white-picket-fenced-house dream. I was attending a small private Christian school, my family went to church every Sunday, and my parents always showed me love. I never would have imagined how fast my life would change.

One day I heard my parents arguing—nothing crazy—my dad announced, as if he had an audience, that he was moving out and he left. My mom went into despair and almost overnight was hospitalized. This was the beginning of a revolving door of the places I would stay throughout Anchorage.  

My mother was finally given a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. When the disease progressed, she went into hospice care and I went to live permanently with my dad. Despite this life changing event that my mom was going through, my dad showed no sympathy or compassion towards the situation. He told me she was faking her illness to get him to come back. To say he was still angry with her is an understatement.  His anger with her was so strong that he isolated me from her.  My mom suffered alone, without me, and he used me to hurt her.

Living with my dad was difficult; we fought constantly. He made it clear that he never wanted children and that I was a burden. There was emotional, verbal and physical abuse. He would neglect me, leaving me at his apartment alone for entire weekends while he was enjoying the single life. This is when I began to run away—I was 12. 

For the next four years, life was a revolving door of dad’s house, friends’ couches, and when I was old enough, Covenant House Alaska (CHA). One day I caught the bus to the hospice to visit my mom. It had been a while, too long. That day, I needed her and she needed me. Even though she was unable to speak or move, I knew she was there.

Only an hour later, I was in a fight with my dad about my whereabouts. During the argument he receives a phone call and he says to me, “your moms dead”. That was it. There was no support, love, or empathy from him. He was cruel and cold. I did not understand why. I was 13 years old when she died and I quickly bottled that sadness and turned it into anger. It did not take much for my dad to eventually refuse to speak to me and want nothing to do with me. When I arrived at CHA, I was welcomed by staff and I settled in with the structure and expectations.  When you are a repeater, you wonder “who will be my case worker?” This is an important piece of your stay. Your case worker is the one that decides if you can have late curfew or not and as a teenager that is EVERYTHING.”….

To be continued in our next blog post on Monday.

Proof That Anything Is Possible—Meet Our Friend, Chuol

Aurora Ford Impact Updates 2 Comments

Our Grant and Communications Writer got a chance to go visit Chuol, one of our program graduates, at his newly purchased house and to help tell his story.

I’d heard a lot about Chuol from my co-workers here at Covenant House Alaska before I ever met him—the ones who’ve known him since he first enrolled in our Rights of Passage program (ROP) and came to live at the Dena’ina House two years ago. I was curious about the young Sudanese immigrant whose name brings waves of warmth and pride across the faces of even my toughest friends.

They all spoke of his unshakable patience, his amazing work ethic, his humility, his refusal to say an unkind word about anyone, for any reason. I tagged along with Heidi Huppert, Covey’s Director of Housing, to go visit Chuol at his new house—the one he just closed on at the ripe old age of 22.

There are Tibetan prayer flags hanging over the front gate to his yard, and inside is impeccably clean, with artwork of African landscapes and simple furnishings. Chuol greeted us in a crisp, blue button-down shirt and slacks, as he was preparing to leave for work once we were done talking. He is soft-spoken and shy, but also confident and determined. It took all of five minutes for me to recognize his depth of kindness, his good soul, and wisdom far beyond his years.

“When I was a little kid,” Chuol told me, “I was playing in the river in South Sudan, where I was born, and I was bitten by a snake. My leg had to be amputated below the knee.” This was part of the reason he went to boarding school in Nairobi when he was five years old, as it was a facility and a city in which he had a better shot at an education and could get around more easily on a prosthesis. “When I finished high school in 2016, I couldn’t go home to Sudan because of the conflict going on there. My Kenyan teachers told me I should go to the U.S.”

Heidi asked Chuol about the two 8×10 framed photos sitting on the coffee table in the middle of the room, of a small village made up of seven or eight wide, cone-shaped grass huts and a few dozen cows. As he talked, the significance of their placement became clear—not on a wall, or elsewise situated around the living room where one might normally place photos of that size, but as the very centerpiece of his first home.

“These pictures are from a woman who came from South Sudan where my family lives, she brought them to me. She met my mom,” he said, looking down for a moment at his hands. “It’s been almost 17 years since I saw her and my sisters.”

Chuol wasn’t able to go back to Sudan at all before immigrating to Alaska given the severity of the on-going war there and, until recently, as there is no mail or phone service in the rural area where he was born, he was not sure that his mother or sisters were alive. The woman who brought him the photos also brought him his first news that his family is alive and well.

“It’s a long journey and I don’t know when can happen,” he says, “but, I will make a way to see them.”

“When I first came to Anchorage through a Catholic Social Services refugee program,” he tells us, “I moved into a house with other refugees and lived there for 8 months, but then my roommates moved out of the state and I was on my own. My boss at NineStar, where I worked then, told me about Covenant House and helped me do an application for the ROP program, and I was accepted and moved in on May 31st 2017. I liked ROP right away. Because of boarding school, I was used to living with lots of kids, so that wasn’t hard for me.”

Chuol started applying for jobs right away after moving into ROP. He doesn’t have a car, but got a bicycle through the program and found not one, but two jobs, which he still has, at Walmart and at Fire Island Bakery. He saved every penny he possibly could over the course of his time at ROP, and was very careful with his spending. Heidi told me Chuol use to hand wash his clothes and then hang them to dry so that he didn’t have to use quarters to do laundry.

One day, she was reviewing his bank statements—a requirement at ROP, where you have to be actively employed or job hunting, and paying a proportionate amount of rent each month as practice for independent living. When she saw the total Chuol had accumulated in his savings account she thought, “Oh wow, this kid is going to buy a house!”

Turns out, she was right. “A Cook Inlet Housing program helped me to buy this house,” he says. “Once I saved a certain amount of money, which I had to do over a length of time—6 months—to show that I was able to maintain my savings, they matched it with enough money to cover the closing costs.”

Eileen Wright, Chuol’s Permanency Navigator through Covenant House’s Housing Program took him to every appointment and signing during the home loan process, which is an overwhelming ordeal for anyone of any age.

“I am very proud,” Chuol said, smiling shyly. “Everyone at ROP helped me to do this. They helped me find programs that I qualified for, and one of my caseworker’s friends helped me with the real estate process. I don’t think without Heidi, Eileen, ROP and my mentor I would have been able to do this, and to be where I am today,” Chuol says. “I just want other young people who are struggling to know, you don’t have to give up. There are places that will help you.”

At the same time he was closing on the house, he was also finishing his GED and English classes, while working both his jobs. “It was really hard. I failed the English test three times before I finally passed, and there were times when I was studying that I was really frustrated, but I always went back to the drawing board. Jen [an ROP Caseworker] helped me a lot. I would just tell myself not to give up. And that’s what I would say to other young people who become homeless—I would tell them that they shouldn’t feel like homelessness is the end of their lives, that they shouldn’t lose hope. You always have hope, as long as you’re still alive, as long as you’re working toward something. I never felt hopeless. I just stayed busy, and was patient. You just have to take things step by step. ”

When we asked what he would say to people who might think he’s too young to be a homeowner already, he told us, “I wouldn’t agree with them. It doesn’t matter how old you are. I work hard, why would I pay rent until I’m 30? I like working—to me it’s a privilege, and I feel like this is my time to do everything I can, while I’m still young. I just hope my story will inspire people.”

Chuol is going to do big things, of that we are sure. Each step he is taking in his life now is toward his larger goal, of being able to help others the way people in our community stepped up to help him. “I’m going to college to study politics, to learn how the government functions so that I can do human rights work someday. English is my third language, and I speak Arabic and Swahili, so I can help people to talk.”

“I like living by myself, though it is a big change, I want to plant a garden, and grow sunflowers by my front door. But I’ll be back to ROP to visit a lot. I still call it home. I like to make dinner and hang out with the other kids there. At ‘home’, we all come from different backgrounds, different families, I like that. And I love Alaska! I would say it’s my favorite place. I love the snow and I’ve made myself a family here. Also, there are very few bugs, and no snakes!”