An End in Sight: Covenant House Alaska’s Trafficking Victim Assistance & Prevention Plan

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Sex trafficking is an all too common and prevalent problem that takes place every day in our communities. Every day at Covenant House Alaska, we are encountering young people who have either become a victim of trafficking crimes, or they have at least come into contact with people who are, or have been, involved in trafficking.

“Human trafficking is undoubtedly one of the most horrific crimes and is unfortunately happening in all corners of the state. It’s the second fastest growing crime on Alaska soil—happening in plain sight.”

–       Senator Lisa Murkowski

In December of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded Covenant House Alaska with two grants totaling $950,000. These grants were given to enhance the capabilities of local efforts to reduce crime and victimization, protect children, and promote public safety. We have been working for years with trafficking survivors and spreading awareness on the issue to others throughout Anchorage. After attending several national conferences and learning about how trafficking happens throughout Alaska, we have put a plan in place in order to directly assist minor victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

“This funding from the Department of Justice is important news for Covenant House Alaska as we continue working to help victims of sex trafficking. One of our highest priorities is to ensure that Alaska’s children are free from sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. This grant will help us continue to meet these priorities well into the future and we are grateful to the Department of Justice and all who were involved in securing this grant. We are not alone in this fight. We look forward to continuing our work alongside Priceless, the Alaska Native Justice Center, and the Alaska Congressional Delegation to ensure that Alaska’s children are safe, protected, and empowered to reach their full potential.”

–       Alison E. Kear, Chief Executive Officer of Covenant House Alaska

The grants will fund two projects:

1)     Anchorage Minor Victims of Trafficking Service Coordination Project

$500,000 over 3 years

This project continues the work of the Anchorage Domestic Victims of Human Trafficking project funded by the federal Administration for Children & Families, which served 122 trafficking victims in 2018. The target population for this project is minors, though they can continue to receive services through the program after their 18th birthday. The project includes hiring a Trafficking Navigator—a Permanency Navigator trained to specifically work with trafficking victims—to provide relationship-based case management and continue community coordination and referrals for victims. The project will also include partner organizations who will provide case management services to clients.

2)   Covenant House Alaska Trafficking Navigator Project

       $450,000 over 3 years

This project will serve an estimated 20 victims of trafficking per year (a total of 60 over the grant period). Included in this project will be hiring and training a separate Trafficking Navigator who will focus on minors but is not restricted to only working with minors, partnering with Priceless to adapt their existing mentorship program into an age-appropriate program for minors, and recruiting and training about 120 mentors over the grant period. Each youth will be assigned a Trafficking Navigator and 2-person mentor team.

The navigator is critical to our success in managing victim relationships and our ability to help people in this situation. The Trafficking Navigator will be able to direct specialized interventions for them including appropriate safe housing, support from victim’s services, legal help, assistance with legal documents, relocation support, mental health and substance abuse coordination and someone to help support them if they choose to report to law enforcement. Of course, if a child is under 18, we must legally report their case. In addition to the direct care we will be providing trafficking victims, we will be providing education for the youth, staff and community, which is so important to preventing more instances of trafficking. We have also formalized a system for identifying those who are vulnerable to becoming trafficked as well as tracking identified victims and survivors.

“Although Covenant House Alaska has been working with young people experiencing trafficking for many years, this program is going to allow us to formalize and create structure, standards, and directed approaches to assisting these youth. The general navigator model is one in which young people are assisted by us walking beside them to get their ID’s, go to the doctor, go to job interviews, etc. This is imperative when working with someone who has been traumatized by a trafficker. It is not enough for traditional case management models to plan and expect the person to perform and navigate systems by themselves.”

–      Senior Program Officer, Covenant House Alaska

Moving forward, we will be working on legislation that will support our work in the assistance of trafficking victims. In changing laws to better help victims of these types of crimes, we hope to remove persecutory practices and address the stigma of perceived “prostitution”. While we do this important and necessary work to improve the safety of children in our state, we must remain true to our mission of helping ALL young people who are experiencing homelessness, not only young people who are victims of human trafficking. We have known for a long time our youth are sought out by traffickers because of their vulnerabilities, and now we will have tools to empower youth and prevent them from falling into the traps of traffickers.

Photo of David Westlake

Finding the Present with David Westlake

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Meditation practice at Covenant House Alaska, led by yoga and meditation instructor David Westlake, helps our direct care staff to stay centered in the moments when it matters most.

David Westlake, co-owner & co-founder of Turiyah Yoga, has made a huge impact on Covenant House Alaska (CHA) and the Anchorage community. Turiyah provides services to people who are incarcerated, and to those experiencing trauma, and also works to bring mediation tools to companies and their employees. We are the first organization who hired David to teach our staff consistently. Now, Turiyah is also providing services to the Rasmuson Foundation, McLaughlin Youth Center, Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and others.

For 9 months now, he has been a very regular and familiar face in our Youth Engagement Center. Two times a week, he provides meditation sessions for program and office staff, who have learned invaluable tools to help them manage the stress and heartache that often comes with our line of work, and also how to tune into the present moment. These tools enable our staff to better respond to difficult situations, which happen so often when you work with youth who are in crisis. In the near future, we hope to extend relaxation classes to our youth!

During David’s 20s and 30s, he worked in several mental health facilities as floor staff, which gives him great insight into the type of work we do. He even worked at Covenant House for a short while when it was still located where Williwaw is now. After several years in social work, he began doing yoga. He dived deep into his personal yoga and meditation practice during that time, and he began his journey in teaching yoga and meditation. “I started to realize that when I was doing the social work, I often felt hindered by my mind, my desires—my own story. I never felt still. I began to see that I was taking things out on my loved ones and was being passive-aggressive towards my coworkers”. Eventually, he reevaluated his life and thought, “the whole 9-5 job for profit just never really appealed to me. I always wanted meaning and experience; I wanted to feel like I was making a difference. So I started teaching yoga and meditation full time.”

David found himself living a yoga teacher’s dream, he was able to travel and take his studio on the road. He was living a comfortable lifestyle. But he found himself not fulfilled, and identified what was missing from his life. That thing was service. He shifted gears, and that was the moment Turiyah sprouted. Through Turiyah, David works with a very wide range of people—people who are in various levels of stress and/or trauma from a variety of backgrounds. He has about 10 teachers who teach at different programs.

At Covenant House, David began teaching meditation as a volunteer. When we saw how effective his presence was, we hired him to continue to provide consistent meditative tools to our staff. We saw that meditation and restorative yoga helped reconnect individuals to a source of joy and self; broken people have found themselves feeling strong again. David testifies, “the gift of yoga is that it opens you to the possibilities in life. Yoga has helped me reach acceptance and learn how to breathe; everyone can benefit from those two things, and I want to help people reach that. It is so important to break the stereotypes of what yoga and yogis look like, or what they should look like. It’s my goal to show people that yoga and meditation are for everyone.”

Volunteer group serving the monthly birthday dinner at the Youth Engagement Center

The Gift of Service: volunteer group celebrates youth birthdays

Kendalyn Mckisick Events, Volunteer Stories Leave a Comment

The second Saturday of each month, you will find this small band of volunteers singing happy birthday and celebrating with Covenant House Alaska youth and staff.  This group has been graciously giving back to the community by giving time and in-kind donations to CHA youth. Their long-time volunteerism is so inspiring.

We want to share their story:

This group of seven families has a long history of serving together.  It all started several years ago when they attended the same church and formed a home group where their families would gather every other week for prayer, fellowship, and Bible study.  They also would help care for each other’s needs and care for the community through a service project that they all worked on together.  One of their first service projects was coming to clean here at CHA.  It was a family affair.  As the adults cleaned in the main building, the children of the group helped sort clothes and other donations in another building to honor CHA’s policy regarding volunteers under the age of 18.  The group took a hiatus for a few years, but eventually began meeting again.  After re-organizing, the group decided to begin serving together again at CHA by helping youth celebrate birthdays.  They have been here ever since.

Once a month for the past three years they have volunteered at the Youth Engagement Center at 755 A Street. Leading up to the second Saturday of each month, the group organizes and coordinates a plan around a birthday meal and celebration. Each person in the group signs up for a component of the dinner. They have 6 different menus that they cycle through.

Having a large group to get together to do something like this is great because we get to spend time with each other, work on something meaningful together, and share the cost and time commitment of everything.                                                                  

-group volunteer

Each month, they purchase food for a dinner, prepare the meal, and serve the meal at dinner time. They also provide a big birthday cake and, with help of our program staff, acknowledge all of the youth who have birthdays happening that month. Additionally, they bring the youth birthday presents and hand those out while everyone enjoys cake. The gifts are either goodie bags full of snacks & essentials or gift cards to places like Walmart and Starbucks. The group has continued this tradition with a team effort and great consistency.

Being part of a community [my church group] that does something together to support and give back to another community is my favorite aspect about what we do at Covenant House. I really enjoy being part of a collective group of individuals who are all looking to accomplish the same goal.                                                                                                

-group volunteer

The CHA youth look forward to the second Saturday of the month because of what the volunteer group offers; it really brightens their day. CHA program staff and kitchen staff are very thankful to have the help in supporting the youth, and everyone at CHA is motivated to see a group in the community care so much. One program staff who is here for every birthday celebration comments, “birthdays are days that can be very tough on teens in general, so you can only imagine how tough they can be on the teens who live here and are going through trauma and the hardest times of their lives. It’s really fantastic to have support in supporting them; the extra display of love and care from a big group in the community who is volunteering their time and effort really means everything to the youth.”

Jim Miller, one of the group members, states,

“we don’t get to know the youth very well, but it still feels extremely good to know that our time here makes a difference—that it lifts their spirits. To see them happy and enjoying what we’re doing is a blessing to us. Everyone feels blessed when they leave. Seeing the youth cheer other kids on who are receiving presents and turning a year older is just really so cool.”

LaShell: A Transformation Story

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LaShell Traylor has been volunteering at Covenant House Alaska for two years. She is currently the lead underwriter at Umialik Insurance Company of Anchorage, but 28 years ago, she was a youth at Covenant House Alaska. She shared her compelling transformation story with us and now we want to share it with you. Her story is one example of the struggles that youth in Alaska continue to face and it reinforces the reasons why we do what we do. 

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15 was my first trip to Covenant House. Yeah at 15, my mom kicked me out…it was just really weird. I think it’s probably because she was using drugs and alcohol at the time. It was seriously just the weirdest thing… 

I didn’t grow up with my mom. When I was living with my mom as a child, I experienced abuse—sexual abuse, abandonment —just a very toxic family life. So my mom sent me away to live with my aunt in the village of Aniak, Alaska. I lived there for 10 years. I came back here to Anchorage when I was 12, thinking I was coming to Anchorage for a visit. But I ended up staying here.  Nobody told me I was staying until I was packing to go back home. My mom’s boyfriend at the time, said “you’re not going anywhere, you’re staying here,” so until that moment, no one had told me I was staying in Anchorage. My other mom (my aunt) and my cousins who were like my sisters — that’s all I knew.  I didn’t get a chance to take my memorabilia, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my family or friends or anything.  

Three years later, when I was 15, my mom kicked me out at night in the dead of winter while I was asleep on the couch. She was packing my stuff in big black garbage bags and throwing them down the apartment stairs. I was so confused, as this was just out of the blue.  My mom’s new boyfriend, whom I couldn’t stand, convinced my mom to call the cops and tell them I was a runaway. I’m not sure how they found me… I had gone to a friend’s house with two other people I knew who also got kicked out. I swear it was like they both got kicked out on the same exact day—crazy! But anyway, the cops showed up. And I remember, the cop said to me that I could either go back home with my mom or he could take me to Covenant House. So I waved to my mom, got in the cop car, and made it clear I wasn’t ever coming back. I’ve been on my own ever since. 

I stayed at Covenant House for the full three-week stint and then I stayed wherever I could — and then I came back to Covenant House shortly after I turned 19, right before I was about to have my son. That was in 1994. In those days, the only way you could be considered for housing was to actually be considered homeless, which meant you had to be staying at a shelter or have the person you were staying with write a letter saying you were staying on their couch or something. I got my housing appointment two and a half weeks into my stay at Covenant House. And since then, I just made my own way because I had to.  

When I had my son at 19, I knew I needed to make a change. I was unemployed so I got assistance, I got housing with the help of Covenant House.  I did everything I needed to do to get a roof over our heads. You just can’t keep staying with people.  My son, O’shea, was two years old when Covenant House’s “Passage House” program (for pregnant teens) started. If it were in existence when I had him, I think I would have taken full advantage of those services. I’m so envious of kids nowadays—they’re very fortunate to have the services CHA offers now.  

I started in the insurance industry in 1998 as an $8/hour file clerk at Alaska National Insurance. This was my first real job. I knew it would be my opportunity to plant my feet and grow. I’m not a college person — I don’t think it’s for everyone. And being a single mom with a four-year-old, I needed to get to work, get the bills paid. I’ve done a lot of things, from McDonalds to working at the DMV, and a handful of temp jobs. Eventually, at Alaska National Insurance, I worked my way up to a Worker’s Compensation Expert. And then, after learning about Umialik and the changes the company was going through, I applied for the position of Assigned Risk Compensation Underwriter. Being half Yup’ik, it’s especially nice to work for this company. I’m coming up on my 14th year this year. And I love what I do.  

My son is 25 now and lives on his own with a roommate here in Anchorage. At 19, he got his private pilot’s license and now he is working to become a pilot for a commercial airline. Who knew? You know, he was fascinated with planes ever since he was little; I never would have thought that he would want to fly them. When he told me at 17 that’s what he wanted to do, I didn’t want to crush his dreams. You know, it was my own selfish insecurities and fears, but I just bit the bullet and said, “OK let’s look into it” and he was all over it. I taught him at a very young age that it’s all about your choices and the people you surround yourself with. The minute you sense trouble, find the nearest person, phone, or business and just get out of there. He stays out of trouble. Although his father and I are not together, we still have a very good relationship.  

Now, I’ve been volunteering at CHA for two years. I started out with the peer group at Covenant House and I am now a mentor for the Passage House.  It’s been so awesome and look forward to a lasting relationship after my two-year commitment.   

Also, Umialik Insurance Company (my employer) does a Christmas drive every year for CHA, along with a money donation. We partner up with another company, Alaska Tire & Rubber.

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Gena Graves and Kathy Mund are the managers at Passage House. When asked about LaShell, Gena only had good things to say, and Kathy agrees: “LaShell’s presence at Passage House is empowering to the young women and children in their care. She is extremely patient and positive, flexible and understanding. Because of her life experience, she approaches our youth with empathy. She has been paired with some of our more difficult young women, but she is always able to meet them where they are and have a successful relationship with them. In addition to being a great mentor, LaShell is a friend of CHA and is very engaged in the agency’s efforts. She does whatever she can do to help and always signs up to volunteer at events.”

Interested in becoming a mentor to a young person in one of our programs or know someone who would be? Complete our mentor application here: https://covenanthouseak.org/mentor-volunteer-form/

Zoryna (Zee) Lealai speaks on a panel about youth homelessness and social change

Raising Our Voices: A Look Inside the Youth Voice Summit

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The very first Youth Voice Summit took place May 30th, 2019, from 10am-5pm at Covenant House Alaska. The event, planned and organized by the Youth Task Force (YTF), was intended to inform the community about the problems and hurdles homeless Anchorage youth face.

The YTF  is a diverse group of youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness and who share their voices, commitment, time and talents to achieve a shared vision with the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project (YHDP): to make the youth and young adult homeless experience rare and brief, and when it does occur, it is a one-time occurrence.

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The morning began with a panel where 5 youth shared their most difficult struggles and what their most important goal currently is. Each of their experiences is unique and their passions within creating social change vary. Their personal experiences include a range of struggles as well as victories. Some deal with mental health issues, substance abuse, LGBTQ matters, maintaining healthy social habits and relationships, family traumas, and the stigmas of homelessness. Some are currently still experiencing homelessness while others have found housing and jobs they have maintained.

YTF was formed when certain youth realized there was a real need for youth representation in the decision-making process concerning programs and services provided for people in their position. These youth organized and formed the YTF, which became a platform for them to be included in serious, meaningful community discussions & decisions pertaining to future & current programs provided to homeless youth and youth who are in the foster care system.

At the summit, these individuals joined their voices in hopes to demonstrate dedication and commitment to creating programs and services that more effectively serve them and so many others like them. They were willing and ready to share the darkest areas of their lives for the greater good. There were organizations represented throughout the audience, including Choosing Our Roots and Rasmuson Foundation, who were ready to hear their stories.

Amy Kelley, a member of the Youth Task Force Steering Committee, sat on stage eager to share her experience during the morning’s introductory panel discussion. She exclaimed, “I’m ready to get raw! Like I’m ready to dig deep and really TALK about some REAL issues” urging the audience not to be shy with their questions. One of the audience members asked in response, “what exactly do you mean by “get raw”?” Amy responded with immediacy, “if I’m not crying and you’re not crying with me, then we aren’t getting raw enough!”

Through tears, one member shared that she had just woken up the previous morning to the sound of tents being cut—tents belonging to people she knew. And then the cops came for her tent. Their homes were being destroyed and all they could do was stand there and watch it happen. She informed us that law enforcement will hold a certain amount of your belongings for up to 3 months, but they will only hold items for you once; each time thereafter, it’s thrown out.

The fiery passion these youth all share for creating change in their community is special. They are willing to bare everything and share their personal stories all to benefit the lives of others and change the experiences of youth homelessness. What they shared and discussed, in a room full of people representing various community organizations, took serious courage. They showed up with answers, explanations, and their own personal expertise on youth advocacy, sex trafficking, and trauma informed care. The information sessions were a combination of presentation and group discussion, where serious issues and ideas were shared to create plans of action for further development of the Youth Task Force in the Anchorage community.  

The next Youth Voice Summit is scheduled for July 31st. Do you want to become a part of the movement? Register now!

You Are Not Alone!

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Highlighting the 2019 Women’s Leadership Conference: Mission I’m Possible!

Gena Graves leads a budgeting session at the 2019 Women’s Leadership Conference

Gena Graves began coordinating the Women’s Leadership Conference 20 years ago as a way to stay connected with former Passage House residents and to reach out to new potential residents. When Gena first began working at Passage House, she was a young mother herself, with a 1 year-old and a 3 year-old. She says the job combined her two favorite roles: professionally helping people and motherhood. Each year, when she begins to plan the conference, she asks questions of previous attendees and current residents about what they want to learn, do, or experience. She then tries to remember how she learned those things as a mom and brainstorms ways to teach those things in a fun way.

Her intention is to structure the conference as if it is a professional or community conference with hopes that having a positive experience there will cultivate a desire to attend future conference that interest them in their own communities, but “the most important thing this event does for the young women who attend is show them that they are not alone in their difficult experiences of motherhood. Motherhood can be isolating, but it can also bring others together through a shared experience. Because they are mothers, they almost always put their children first and their own needs and dreams get lost in the process. I want them to be able to, if only for a few days, dream and do something for themselves that is both fun and empowering. And in the process, hopefully they make some friends and find a support group as well.”

A couple of weeks ago, 30 young mothers came together at Covenant House Alaska to attend a conference and unlock their endless potential. They networked, gained further life skills, and enjoyed time together. The mission of the conference was to empower and encourage young mothers through building their confidence. Read about one young woman’s experience below:

The first morning of the conference we received our program, conference shirts, and a pair of sunglasses at the check-in table. There was a breakfast bar with big fluffy waffles, warm bacon, fresh fruit, whipped cream, coffee & orange juice. Calm, uplifting music played in the background as we enjoyed our breakfast and chatted with those next to us. Each table was minimally decorated with a beautiful glass vase and a single Bird of Paradise flower.

To break the ice, we went around the room and shared our names, how we became involved with Covenant House Alaska, and our current life mission. Everyone was a little nervous, including me, but that quickly changed. Some of the ladies were from Passage House, some from Crossroads (a high school for parenting and pregnant mothers), and some were Passage House alumni. Our missions ranged from providing the best lives for our children, to becoming financially stable, to becoming debt free. The conference spoke to each woman’s mission, providing practical resources and advice, encouraging and empowering us to complete our personal goals.

Day 1: after introductions, we did crafts—each person got a plain white picture frame, chose from a variety of phrases printed in various fonts, such as “You are my sunshine” and “Moms are like buttons, they hold things together,” and then decorated them with colorful buttons. Most people planned to keep theirs in a place they would see it every day as a reminder while others planned to give theirs as gifts. While we let the glue dry, we had lunch: a burger bar (burgers grilled courtesy of maintenance staff) with potato salad and potato chips. After lunch, we did budgeting activity in groups. Each group was given a budget of $50 with the requirement of buying enough food to make breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for 7 days. We had 10 minutes to write out the items we would purchase and the meals we would make and then we shared with the whole group. Everyone seemed to go for ingredients like ground beef, dry beans, milk, eggs, pastas, and rice—they knew they could use them in many different recipes and make them stretch for a while.

Afterwards, we decorated meal planning sheets that were laminated afterwards so that we could write on them with dry erase markers each week. We heard a presentation by AWAIC and discussed abusive relationships, how to navigate them, and resources available if we found ourselves experiencing domestic violence. Some of the information we talked about was triggering, so afterwards the meditation and restorative yoga led by Angela Houston was a perfect way to end the day. Before yoga, we were given soft eye pillows filled with aromatic lavender that we got to take home with us.

Day 2: everyone showed up in their “Mission I’m Possible” shirts! The morning began with an information session, “Legal Info We All Need to Know,” presented by Jessica & Jessica of Nyquist Law Group. The presentation included the basics of everything from rights as a tenant to rights with police. The presentation was useful and probably could have easily lasted all day, but of course there wasn’t time for that. After this more serious session, there was a light & fun cake decorating demo presented by Alaska Cake Studio. Chef Will taught us how to make the perfect buttercream and how to avoid cake crumbs in your icing. We loved his demo and he even gave the cake he made to the person whose birthday was most recent. Luckily at lunch, there were cupcakes from Cake Studio, because after watching the demo, ALL we wanted was cake!! Lunch was catered by Hula Hands—pulled pork, grilled chicken, mac salad, and rice.

At lunch, Kari Hall gave a presentation about all types of relationships and how important they are in determining how our lives end up. She asked us to think about who we spent time with and decide if they had a good, neutral, or bad influence on our lives. We talked to the people next to us, kind of trying to figure out where to place the people that came to our minds. We wrote the names down on a piece of paper, put them in envelopes, and addressed them to ourselves at an address we would be at in 6 months.

For the service project, which was the final activity of the conference, we helped make breast cancer awareness bracelets for breast cancer survivors. A local woman was trying to complete 300 bracelets and wanted us to be involved. In just an hour, we probably completed about 40 bracelets! I left the conference feeling inspired, empowered, and accomplished. I also felt like I was joining other women in solidarity. I left with a new support group that I was a part of. I’m definitely attending next year, and I can’t wait to see how far everyone has come.

Covey Prom: A Night To Remember

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Pascaline and staff pose at last year’s Covey Prom.

Last year, former youth and current volunteer at Covenant House Alaska, Pascaline, brought the idea of Covey Prom to the table. She asked, “if all other kids get to go to prom, shouldn’t our kids get to go too?” We took her thoughts and ideas to heart. She Shared with is her passion and why she feels it’s so important for youth to have a prom experience.

Prom is part of a normal, healthy teenager’s life. Teens who have stable home lives spend the day leading up to prom night making themselves glamorous. Their parents show interest in them. They take them to get fitted for a beautiful dress or the perfect tux. They help them get their makeup, hair & nails done. They will give them a ride if they need one. They are sure to get copies of the professional prom photos to frame and put up around the house. But Covey youth have had hard lives, some don’t even have parents, or their parents don’t want anything to do with them.

Kids end up at Covey because of traumatic experiences, looking for a safe place to sleep or food to eat. For them, the staff at Covey become family. It’s the staff that they see every day. The staff are who talks them through their problems and helps them make appointments or register for classes. The staff try to give them the same chance at happiness and success as other people their age. They also make close friends with other kids at Covey because they have stuff in common. This helps them heal from trauma faster.

Last year was our first prom ever. The dance floor was busy all night, the photo booth was very popular— even staff were getting their pictures taken! Everyone who came looked comfortable, you know, they were happy to be around the people they knew and trusted. I know for a fact they will remember their time and feel like they didn’t miss out on something fun and cool that all other kids are doing. Prom at Covey should be just as fabulous and special as any other prom, a kind of red carpet feeling. With snacks, a backdrop for photos, flashing lights, a dance floor, and loud music. Covenant House tries to bring as many things as possible to the Youth Engagement Center. So, If a kid is in crisis, they will be more likely to get the help they need. Going to a regular high school can be super scary to kids who are experiencing homelessness because they just aren’t like the other kids at school—they don’t have a room to call their own or reliable parents or clean nice clothes. It can be so intimidating to the point they just won’t go. But at Covenant House, they can go to class with other kids like them without ever having to leave the building. They are able to stay on track getting their High School credits, but they miss out on the fun social events that normal high schools offer. If we bring class to them, why not bring prom to them too?

How the Sleep Out Changed Me

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A cardboard shelter made by the youth at Covenant House for the 2017 Sleep Out.

“I remember they really drilled it into me that the Sleep Out wasn’t about pretending to be homeless…”

The following is an interview with Jessica Leystra, 2017 Young Professional Sleep Out Champion.

Q: What’s your history with the Sleep Out?

A: Well, I actually used to work at Covenant House Alaska, which is how I learned about the Young Professional Sleep Out. I also learned that being part of it by participating at least once is kind of a rite of passage for the staff at Covey. 2017 was my year! It was my first and only sleep out. The other sleepers and I raised about $60,000 total – there were maybe 20-25 of us – and that felt really good, knowing we were able to give that back to kids that needed it the most.

Q: When you agreed to do the Sleep Out, were you excited?

A: HA! Honestly? No! Who would be excited about sleeping outside for 8 hours in the winter? I was NERVOUS. Thankfully, though, there was next to no snow on the ground when I slept out. But seriously, I was terrified, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be too cold? Did I bring enough layers? Would I be the only one that couldn’t handle it? Is it possible to bring TOO much gear? But now, looking back, I was overthinking it and letting myself get carried away with worries. Even though it was still cold, wet, and uncomfortable, I know it’s not even CLOSE to how hard most of the kids in Alaska have it when they aren’t at Covey.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway?

A: My biggest takeaway…before I started working at Covey, I knew very little about youth homelessness and how prevalent it was in Alaska. When I familiarized myself with Covey’s mission, programs, and services, I felt like an expert, and MAN was I wrong!! The Sleep Out offers the experience of what it’s like to be out on the streets surrounded by strangers late at night with no place to go. When you get a chance to sit down across the table from a kid at CHA, you see a whole different perspective that most people haven’t seen. So, realizing that it’s easy to convince yourself that you fully grasp the effects homelessness can have on a young person and that you know all the reasons why they end up homeless has to be the biggest takeaway. Talking to real people, face-to-face, opened my eyes to so much more.

Staff, youth, and Sleep Out Champions participate in small group discussions.

Q: What was it like learning about the lives of kids living at Covenant House?

A: It was difficult to watch and hear them sharing such personal truths that many wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with people they hardly know. I ate lunch with some of the kids that participated in the Sleep Out in the weeks leading up to it and thought I understood their struggles, but I had no idea. I heard Dominick and Rebecca’s stories in our small group session:

Dominick told me about his upbringing—about how his father would abuse his mother in front of him and his siblings, how he started experimenting with his dad’s drugs that were left around the house, how he eventually stopped coming home because the abuse there was too much to handle, how he drifted from one friend’s couch to the next, and how, eventually, he ended up in a group camp. Then Covey.

Rebecca came to Anchorage with the promise of a place to stay, but when she arrived, she couldn’t get in contact with her “friend” and ended up on the streets with no money, friends, or family. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but she eventually wound up being trafficked for sex. Then Covey.

After hearing these stories, youth homelessness was no longer just numbers on a page, it was people I knew.

Jessica Leystra, 2017 Young Professional Sleep Out Champion

Q: What was your favorite part of the Sleep Out?

A: Waking up with aching bones and muscles from sleeping on the hard, cold concrete wasn’t my favorite (that part truly sucked), but it was the perspective it gave me that really was valuable. For me, it had only been one night—not seven, or a month, or an undetermined amount of time that I couldn’t predict. I knew that the very next night, I would be jumping into my fluffy warm bed. Sitting around with the other sleepers the next morning, you could see the relief in their eyes when morning came. The relief in knowing that it was over for them. But we all knew it wasn’t over for those who do it night after night with no other options.

Q: Would you do it again?

A: Oh yeah! I wanted to do it this year, but I have a different event I’m planning around the same time. I’m committing to sleeping out in 2020, though! In 2017, I remember they really drilled it into me that the Sleep Out wasn’t about pretending to be homeless, that it was more symbolic—we were sleeping outside in their place, as a display of solidarity with them to say “we see you, we know your pain, we are here for you.” And that action, to me, is really important to continue, support, and honor.

To support this year’s Young Professional Sleep Out, please donate. Your impact is immeasurable.

To Pick. Click. Give a kid a home. please consider designating Covenant House Alaska when you file for your PFD. Your donation will be applied to support the Sleep Out!

Dreaming Big: Part 1

Foster Burgess Impact Updates

The Fellows for the 11th Class of the Children and Family Fellowship have just recently been announced! We are absolutely thrilled to share that Covenant House Alaska’s very own CEO, Alison E. Kear, has been selected as a Children and Family Fellow by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. When Alison nonchalantly walked down the hall to share the news with her team that she was one of the selected 15, she played it cool—typical Alison!—but she is over the moon now that she has digested that this is actually real and she can’t stop talking about it (heck, she can barely sleep)! She is the second person in Alaska who has ever been selected—the first being Gloria O’ Neill, CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), in the 8th Class.

The mission of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Baltimore, is building a brighter future for children, families, and communities, which they work toward, in part, through the Children and Family Fellowship. The Fellowship is an executive leadership program designed to give professionals the confidence and competence to lead major system reforms and community change initiatives. Every couple of years, they select 15 individuals across the United States to become a Fellow, in recognition of their hard work to advocate for children and families in their communities.

This fellowship is a two-year commitment and will demand a lot of work in identifying exactly what Covenant House Alaska (CHA) and the Anchorage community needs in order to continue lowering the number of homeless individuals and eradicating youth homelessness in our city. The Fellowship is fast-paced, has long seminar hours, and requires mental and emotional stamina. Alison will use the 21-month fellowship to work within her agency, organization, and community toward specific, measurable improvements for large numbers of young people and families:

“My passion has always been learning – and taking what I’ve learned to then apply it to systems that help empower at-risk youth. Right now, I’m working hard to create a culture at CHA that includes youth voice, in an environment that used to live only by rules established by adults who weren’t living the same experience of the youth. Years ago, we thought we knew what was best to give homeless and at-risk youth; now we know they must be included in the conversation. I thrive to connect funders to the most amazing mission and our kids to ensure that organizations like Covenant House Alaska exist. I want to be in a position to help young leaders manage sustainable careers and to help organizations realize what resources they need so they can make the most difference for young people who face significant obstacles. I want to be in a position to influence policies and support organizations in their funding, and to create systems change, so that each case worker ultimately touches the life of a young person in the most powerful way possible.”

While this work will involve many active meetings full of thoughtful brainstorming, collaboration, and a careful analysis of the issues and trends surrounding homelessness in Anchorage, Alison is up to the task and ready to face these issues head-on with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This fellowship will benefit Alison, pushing her closer to her personal goals, and in turn, will simultaneously benefit the whole of Covenant House Alaska, the Anchorage community, and the youth whom she tirelessly serves. “We are extremely proud of Alison for being selected for this fellowship,” said Judith Crotty, Covenant House Alaska Board Chair. “She already has a strong record of achievement and through this fellowship she will be able to set her sights even higher to improve the lives of youths in Alaska.”

We all want to whole-heartedly congratulate Alison on her award and are pleased that her dedication to young people and our community has been recognized. She deserves it. Alison’s mom — Mary Whittemore (pictured with her above) — who she credits for her boldness and lack of fear of failure, always told her to dream big, and this is one of those big dreams come true. We are so excited about everything she’s going to learn on this two-year journey as a Children and Family Fellow and the countless dreams she will make come true for youth in Anchorage. Now it’s time for her to get to work! Check back for updates as we follow her on her journey.

To make a gift to Covenant House Alaska, please visit our donation page.


Sex traffickers target homeless youth. It’s time to end this horrible epidemic.

coveyhouse Impact Updates 1 Comment

In April 2017, Covenant House released a groundbreaking study that shed new light on the link between youth homelessness and human trafficking. The largest study ever of human trafficking among homeless young people, it was conducted in 10 cities nationwide, including Covenant House Alaska in Anchorage. The results were staggering. Of the 10 cities studied, Anchorage had the highest reported prevalence of trafficking. Twenty-eight percent of the youth surveyed at Covenant House Alaska were found to be survivors of human trafficking—more than a quarter of youth at the shelter, compared to 19 percent in the survey nationally. Eileen Wright, Trafficking Case Manager at Covenant House Alaska, relates her experiences about the work done at our youth shelter for survivors of sex trafficking.

Not too long ago, a teenage girl arrived at our shelter at Covenant House from a small village in rural Alaska. Like most our youth, she had experienced some kind of trauma and was looking for a safe place to spend the night off the streets. Little by little, we began to unravel her story. The girl had been locked inside a boarded-up room and held against her will with armed men outside barring her escape. Her boyfriend, the trafficker, had brought customers into the room to sexually assault her as he profited from her abuse. She had come to Anchorage from the village to escape a dangerous home life. She now found herself trapped in the nightmare of sex trafficking, with no place to go.

Sex trafficking is an insidious crime, where predators target the most vulnerable of society. In Alaska, we have one of the most vulnerable populations in the entire country: our children. Alaska sadly has the highest statistics of child molestation and abuse in the nation, and the highest rates of sexual assault and child neglect. These children are particularly at risk to sexual exploitation and chronic homelessness later on; they’ve already been “normalized” to a life of abuse and so are easy prey. There are criminals out there, looking to make a profit. Homeless youth are the targets.

Traffickers groom young people through manipulation, coercion and lies. It usually starts out with a relationship with a youth who is already vulnerable, who has no sense of value or self-worth. The trafficker lies to them, telling them they are loved, they are appreciated and will be cared for. For many at-risk youth, this is the first time anybody has lavished them with such praise and affection. A young girl soon cannot imagine their life without this person; in their minds, they are the only ones who have ever truly cared for them.

Then comes the abuse. Their boyfriends, the pimps, tell them “If you really love me, then you will do this favor for me.” Resistance is met with beatings and threats. Girls will often be tied down and injected with meth or heroin, igniting painful addictions. And thus the cycle of trafficking begins.

When we found out the results of the study, that 28 percent of our youth at Covenant House Alaska were survivors of human trafficking, none of us here were surprised. If anything, we felt that it was underreported. We were also not surprised to learn that Alaska experiences the most heinous cases of sex trafficking in the nation. The researcher, Dr. Laura Murphy of Loyola University’s Modern Slavery Research Project, told us that from among all the Covenant House sites across the country, ours had the most brutal cases of sex trafficking— worse than the big, crime-filled cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans and even New York. And it’s true. When youth finally do open up to us, their stories are horrific. It is absolutely soul-crushing.

I love these young people. All of us here at Covenant House truly do. And I believe that the most important thing we can do for youth who are being trafficked, for all our youth who experience abuse and homelessness, is to show them unconditional love and respect. We build trusting relationships with them and always accept them for who they are. We make it so that Covenant House is a safe place that they can always come back to. The more times they come back here when they’re in trouble, the more likely they are to open up to us. And we become that relationship of unconditional love that they thought they had, which unlocks the ability for them to share the abuse they’ve suffered. Burdens are easier to carry when someone else is supporting you.

We all must do something to end this epidemic of sex trafficking in Alaska. It can start with our most precious resource: our children. Our mission at Covenant House is to “serve the suffering children of the street and to protect and safeguard all children.” If more Alaskans took that mission to heart, then perhaps we could begin to tackle the underlying trauma that brings youth to the streets, and ultimately to sex trafficking, in the first place.

—Eileen Wright, Trafficking Case Manager for Covenant House Alaska

To make a gift to Covenant House Alaska, please visit our donation page.

To read the Covenant House study on human trafficking, go to https://covenanthousestudy.org/landing/trafficking/. For more information on how you can join Anchorage’s movement to end youth homelessness, please contact CHA’s Volunteer Specialist at 907-339-4261 or volunteer@covenanthouseak.org.