This is a guest post from Sophie, who interned with United Way this summer. Here, she reflects on what her time here has meant as a Seattle native, plus she gets perspective from a member of our AmeriCorps VISTA cohort.
Having lived in Seattle for practically my whole life, I’ve always thought I had decent exposure to our community’s needs. My neighborhood has hosted tent cities, my high school cafeteria was across the street from a methadone clinic, and I can’t think of the last day I spent here that I didn’t lock eyes with a person experiencing homelessness. I now go to college across the country and every time I come home, I notice my childhood stomping grounds become the unlivable “homes” of many. As former Mariner’s season ticket holders, every game my family would find free parking (hard to believe, I know) under the I-99 bridge and weave through the pillars on our way to Safeco Field. That walk that should invoke feelings of nostalgia is now gloomy with the sight of countless nylon tents and shopping carts full of belongings.
Even still, I can’t say I feel immersed in the homeless community. While I volunteered frequently, I lacked the knowledge of systematic pressures and witnessing personal experiences. It’s safe to say homelessness is on my mind after interning at United Way King County.
Most memorably at United Way, I interviewed and acquired quotes from AmeriCorps members and VISTAs. A majority of the people I sat down with I could relate to heavily, they came from a position of privilege, passionate about social justice, and maintain a sense of responsibility to give support to the struggling populations. A conversation with one VISTA stood out to me.
Kiara, a Gonzaga University grad, has been working as an AmeriCorps VISTA at United Way for five months. Assigned as a Project Specialist at YouthCare, a nonprofit providing services to homeless children, teens, and young adults, Kiara has been creating a series of workshops on the intersection of mental health and homelessness. While her project started as a small private program needed to be piloted, they’re planning to scale her workshops to train eight other agency partners in King County.
However, Kiara wasn’t always in a position where she could afford to be serving others. Growing up in poverty, she often found herself using similar social services that she gives her time to now. Born in Bremerton, Washington, Kiara lived on the verge of homelessness her whole life. She moved from home-to-home, even to Alaska for a bit, and often paid visits to the Salvation Army for meals, otherwise going hungry without those resources available. “I really saw, early on, how important the public sector and non-profit organizations were because it was a lived experience for me.”
Even without financial stability, Kiara managed to be the first person in her family to go to college, a feat that she attributes to the amazing role models she’s had in her life, particularly teachers. Hoping to use her VISTA position as a stepping stone, Kiara is interested in going into nonprofit development or journalism, giving her an opportunity to raise awareness to and change the systems that she lived under. “[This work] means a lot to me because I know that there’s a lot of people slipping through the cracks.”
While Kiara and I come from different backgrounds, we’re both wow with this line of work and our colleagues. Kiara said, “It’s been really amazing to see people dedicate their lives to other people and then see the results, in real time!” As I head back to college, it’s been wonderful to provide skills and support to United Way, keeping YouthCare and agencies like it running.