Dec 30, 2016
by Jolise Elsinghorst
I had the privilege of interviewing Nate Stenson, past RISE coordinator in the Dornsife Center for Community Engagement and 2016 Whitworth graduate, for this next blog post. I met Nate in the coffee shop to talk about his experience in AmeriCorps. Nate started working with Communities in Schools of Spokane County this year through AmeriCorps. Communities in Schools is an organization whose purpose is to address the root causes of poverty by preventing high school dropout, and is present in 25 different states. Communities in Schools identifies high, middle or elementary schools that are high need/low-income and then asks those schools if they are willing to have Communities in Schools partner with them. Once the administration has given the okay, Communities in Schools sets up an office in the school. Through this office they receive referrals from counselors about kids who might not have their basic needs met or kids who need help advocate for themselves because they know where the office is. They also have a food pantry and hygiene supplies so if kids need it, they can give it to them. They are like a support for schools and Nate and his partner check and connect with youth.
Nate works with Communities in Schools at North Central High School. Nate talked about how the administrators in North Central were awesome. When I asked Nate what he did specifically, he laughed and said he always felt busy. Mostly his job is reactive, kids come to the door of their tiny office needing help. He has a caseload of 35 students, which means he has 35 kids he is supposed to connect with on a monthly basis. He helps these students set goals. For example, if a student has an F in Chemistry he helps that student set a goal of a grade they want. Then he helps that student create sub-goals/steps that will allow them to achieve their main goal. He also works with their afterschool Homework Center, which is available to all North Central High School students and targets students who otherwise have nowhere to go. A snack is provided in case students need food.
I asked how the culture of service at Whitworth affected his decision to join AmeriCorps. He talked about how being in AmeriCorps had not been a dream before coming to Whitworth. We spoke on what got him interested in being part of service including applying for the job in the Dornsife Center. He talked about the friends he made at Whitworth. Some of his favorite people were the people interested in using their privilege to benefit others. Whitworth magnified how he was an over privileged white Christian male and he felt a responsibility to use that privilege to help remove barriers that block opportunities from youth that society does not treat so fairly.
Nate is a past RISE (RISE is a program that gets Whitworth volunteers to become mentors to students in low-income schools in the West Central neighborhood) Coordinator so, I asked him how service in the Dornsife Center at Whitworth prepared him for his position in AmeriCorps. Nate thought it had prepared him really well. He found out about the positon through a community partner he had while working with RISE. Volunteer coordinating in his position now is very similar to the volunteer coordinating he did as a RISE Coordinator. Being trained in mandatory reporting as a RISE Coordinator was really helpful because he mentors youth. Mandatory reporting is that under law certain classes of people have to report "suspected child abuse and neglect" to the government (1). He learned how to create an elevator speech when he worked as a RISE Coordinator and said that he has had to use that skill for this position. Each student worker in the Dornsife Center creates an elevator speech that is 20 words or less in the beginning of the year that describes their position if someone asked them about their position. Lastly he talked about data entry and how a person would not think that data entry is such an important part of nonprofit work, but that it was what made nonprofit work run.
When asked how his position affected lives he said there was two ways: in a very tangible way and in a very intangible immeasurable way. On the tangible end students are receiving basic needs items like coats, and food for the weekend, but this only lasts for a short while. On the intangible side he creates relationships with students, where he doesn't know the impact he is making. Some things might give him a clue as to the impact he is making. For example, every day for two weeks a student shows up at the office door with a frown on his face and then the first day of the third week he might have a smile. Or he might not see change until the student is 20. He can only hope that whatever change does take place is positive and long lasting.
I asked Nate how volunteering had changed since graduating Whitworth. At Whitworth his priority was education and volunteering was secondary, now volunteering is first. Nate said that there was more pressure to be responsible in his positon and that working 45-50 hours a week is tiring. There are moments when he has to remind himself why he is doing what he is doing. He also talked about how he is investing more into the kids he works with and building more trust because of the amount of time he has to offer, which makes the rewards bigger.
I asked him if he were given the chance to do AmeriCorps again if he would do it. He said that AmeriCorps is a broad term and each position is completely different. They all fall under the umbrella of "beneficial for society." He talked about how he was happy he was doing it this year, but he also felt it was draining and not totally suited to his skillset, so lifelong this position would be hard for him. He would consider doing AmeriCorps in a completely different realm like forestry. I also asked if he would recommend it to others and he said he would recommend graduates to use their gap year to do something like AmeriCorps.
The hardest thing about his position is that he is too nice. Many of the students Nate works with have had to fight for themselves their whole lives. This in turn gives them difficulty with traditional authority. He talked about how he had to learn to be stricter for the long term good of these students. For example, in the Homework Center if students are disrupting he has to kick them out. He hates to do it, but it is keeping other kids from doing their work and they are not doing good things. He also hates to do it because if kids are occupied during the hours of three and seven at night they are a lot less likely to get involved in gang-related activity, but he needs to be strict in setting hard boundaries and sticking to them. After kids get kicked out of Homework Center they do come back.
I asked him what the most amazing thing had been about what he was doing now. He asked me if I meant jaw-dropping amazing in a bad way and I laughed and responded with wanting a good amazing thing. He talked about the goal of benefiting one life and giving these students one lasting tool/asset to help them succeed. The definition of success was a high school diploma-for these students to graduate in whatever way possible. I asked him for a cheesy story and he talked about how there was one student who had just fallen through the cracks. This student popped up on their radar because he was so hungry, so he came to the office and they gave him food. This student had had great grades until his senior year when his grades dropped and he was getting all Fs. The student didn't come to school for two weeks. Nate and his partner made a home visit to drop off some food with a note that said they missed him at school. It turns out that it wasn't his home, he had just put a friend's address down for his school registration information, but he got the food nonetheless. The next day he came back to school after having been gone for two weeks and said thanks. He is passing most of his classes and is possibly on track to graduate.
I am so grateful that Nate being so kind actually met me in the Whitworth coffee shop after a hard day of work and was willing to share the experiences he had.
1 "Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect." Child Family Community Australia. Australian Institute of Family Studies, May 2016. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.