Volunteer Street Outreach Serves Kids, Builds Trust
The backbone of Our Ark’s program is street outreach. At least four days a week, small groups of volunteers drive and walk to locations around Olympia, Lacey, and Yelm where they know they’ll find young people living outside.
Street outreach volunteers load their cars with snack bags and hot meals prepared by food prep volunteers. They also carry basic necessities like hygiene products and clothing in a variety of sizes. Once they’ve parked near an encampment, volunteers fan out. They walk into the camps and the surrounding area, calling the names of kids they know have been living there.
Tammy is a street outreach volunteer with Our Ark who has been with the group since November 2021. I shadow her on my first afternoon of outreach. At our first encampment stop, she looks for a kid we’ll call G. We walk all around a small encampment calling his name. There are a few adults around. They recognize Tammy and seem comfortable with her, and they tell her they haven’t seen G today. Tammy is visibly concerned as we walk back to the cars.
She tells me about her first time going into a camp. “It was a lot to take in at first because I’d never been in an environment like that before, but after I got to see the kids and look them in the eye, I felt my heart wanting to reach out and help them,” Tammy says. During her first street outreach, she went with Danny to the encampment near Capitol Lake before it was swept. She heard kids talking about waking up with rats around their heads, and saw one rat herself.
Other volunteers have brought in a few kids from another encampment area and they are catching up near the cars. A major part of Our Ark street outreach is building trust and inspiring the youth to feel ready to take steps to get off the streets. “We believe in supporting the emotional needs of the kids in addition to the basic necessities,” says Danny, Our Ark’s founder and CEO. Once they’re ready, our volunteers help them take the necessary steps to get a cell phone, their state ID, and DSHS coverage. The only way this process can start is through one-on-one conversation. Trust can only happen when a volunteer shows up week after week.
“I just show them love,” Tammy says. “And consistency. That’s huge to them.” Tammy has forged her connection with G only in the last few weeks. She’s relieved when we see him walking toward the cars with his small frame and bright red hair. He’s probably 19 or 20. Tammy tells me later she thinks she’s so drawn to him because her grandson has red hair. Tammy and Danny chat with G and give him some meals and a few hygiene supplies. They ask him if he has any dirty laundry they can collect, wash, and bring back. G is on the cusp of readiness and Danny has been working to connect him with a paying job.
“Street outreach means you have to check your judgment,” Tammy says. Our Ark volunteers go through three phases of training as they ramp up to join outreach on a regular basis. They learn about compassionate listening and how to interact with street youth; motivational interviewing; and trauma-informed care. Volunteers are also encouraged to keep learning as they continue to serve the kids on the street. Tammy recently attended a training about how to safely administer Narcan, for example.
As we wrap up the day, Tammy tells me about a kid we didn’t see. N is a boy around 20 who has been proactively trying to find work. He recently told Tammy that she reminded him of his grandma. “At first I was like, WHAT? Then I thought, wait, that’s a compliment. He loved his grandma.” Connections that feel familial set Our Ark volunteers apart.
Our Ark needs more volunteers like Tammy: people with patient hearts, full of love, who are unafraid to connect with kids who have so little. If you feel ready to play a role in the system of support we are sustaining and building, complete our volunteer application or RSVP for one of our orientations.