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Emily Holt has facilitated writing with youth in juvenile detention, psychiatric hospitals and foster care. She is working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific Lutheran University and works at Seattle University in the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.

Say “homeless child” and people may picture a tiny victim huddled by a chain link fence with three younger siblings and a single mother. When many think of an older youth, it’s assumed she’s made a choice and rebelled against her family.

Both images can be accurate but are also inadequate.

Faadumo* tucks her turquoise headscarf into a pink leather jacket. The thick arms of her jacket hide a gaunt frame and distract from the red rimming her eyes.

Like most 6th grade girls at Washington Middle School (WMS), Faadumo lights up in the company of friends. In the classroom and with school staff, she is nearly mute, occasionally asking for a glass of water or saying “Thank you” for a snack offered between classes.

Unlike most students, Faadumo is one of the 69 students at WMS experiencing homelessness. Her school, along with Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, a feeder school for WMS, and Garfield High School, where many WMS graduates go, are the three schools in the Seattle school district with the highest number of students who are homeless.

As part of the Seattle University Youth Initiative (SUYI), university and community partners have been working to build a pipeline of educational support for youth and families who live in Yesler Terrace and the Bailey Gatzert attendance zone.

During the 2012-2013 school year, I was the coordinator of the WMS Redhawk Academic Mentoring Program, a SUYI program. Faadumo was one of the first to be matched with a mentor, and throughout the year, her name often came up in conversation with other service providers with a, “What can we do for this girl?” tone, each of us aware of the many issues she faced and the short time we had with her.

I am white and was raised Christian in a small town, and homelessness has only touched my life indirectly. Demographically, I am not the best poised to support Faadumo and other youth at WMS who are impacted by poverty, religious and cultural tension between home life and school, or the difficulty of taking standardized tests in reading  while still learning English.

I do know the impact a positive adult can have on the developing self of a youth who has experienced trauma. For the past four years, I have volunteered with King County Juvenile  Detention, local psychiatric hospitals and non-profits,where I facilitate  creative writing as a means of processing trauma.

150My service with teens in crisis has shown me the significant impact supported expression and positive mentoring can have on youth trying to find order in chaos.

When Faadumo experiences a night outside, a day hungry or the stress of not understanding her teacher—or perhaps all of these—her brain is flooded with adrenaline, and connection, which is essential for learning and building relationships, cannot happen. Trauma hardwires the brains of youth like Faadumo to use survival skills all the time, not just when needed.

Other youth can focus on a history lesson about Ancient Egypt, but Faadumo may be trying to forget the clamor of the shelter the night before or the fear on her mother’s face that morning.

Another term used to describe Faadumo—“disabled” – is a label that can encompass as much or as little as the term “homeless,” especially if one considers disability as something imposed by the limits of societal care, not only as something innate.

Couch-surfing, sleeping in cars, escaping abuse, emigrating to flee genocide—these are just some of the realities that lurk behind the term “homeless.”

None of these experiences give shape or life to a 12-year-old girl who loves to dance in gym class and writes beautiful stories. Like the other girls she talks to in gym, Faadumo jumps when she sees her Seattle University mentor, Gabriella.*

Gabriella checks in on Faadumo’s grades, assignments, her behavior in class, and any news she may have heard about Faadumo’s home life. Gabriella takes in all this information, which can overwhelm. But she understands that her enthusiasm, warmth and fashion sense will engage Faadumo more than sole focus on attendance patterns and homework completion.

During the weekly hour of mentoring, something small but significant happens:  Faadumo gets to interact with someone who doesn’t need a description of her mental state or an analysis of how her reading has improved. She gets to be with someone who just enjoys her presence.

Another term used to describe Faadumo—“disabled” – is a label that can encompass as much or as little as the term “homeless,” especially if one considers disability as something imposed by the limits of societal care, not only as something innate.

Couch-surfing, sleeping in cars, escaping abuse, emigrating to flee genocide—these are just some of the realities that lurk behind the term “homeless.” None of these experiences give shape or life to a 12-year-old girl who loves to dance in gym class and writes beautiful stories.

Like the other girls she talks to in gym, Faadumo jumps when she sees her Seattle University mentor, Gabriella.*

Gabriella checks in on Faadumo’s grades, assignments, her behavior in class, and any news she may have heard about Faadumo’s home life. Gabriella takes in all this information, which can overwhelm. But she understands that her enthusiasm, warmth and fashion sense will engage Faadumo more than sole focus on attendance patterns and homework completion.

During the weekly hour of mentoring, something small but significant happens:  Faadumo gets to interact with someone who doesn’t need a description of her mental state or an analysis of how her reading has improved. She gets to be with someone who just enjoys her presence.

.*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Visit the Seattle University Youth Initiative web page to learn more and find out how you can get involved. 

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