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!”

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

Kendalyn Mckisick Volunteer Stories 2 Comments

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

Kendalyn Mckisick Our Youth Leave a Comment

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?