Retiree continues her mission to help vulnerable youth
July 1, 2016
It's a raw and rainy morning in June, rare among the many warm, sunny days served up for Anchorage this spring and early summer. It's not the kind of day anyone would delight in being outside – grey, damp and chilly. Downtown, people in raincoats, carrying seldom used umbrellas, scurry indoors.
There is a place in downtown Anchorage whose doors are always open, 24/7, every day and every month of the year, no matter the weather. Covenant House Alaska has opened its doors for 27 years, working tirelessly to welcome homeless and at-risk youth and get them off the streets, coming through its doors to find refuge. On this rainy day, many youth have come inside the building on the corner of A and 7th streets, where myriad services are offered.
I was there that morning to visit with Sally Ausman, a faithful volunteer at Covenant House for the past six years. Now a grandmother and retired professional, working many years in youth services administration, Sally calls the youth who come to Covenant House "my kind of people."
"They are resilient," she says. "They've all come through stress, seeking to find some kind of new hope. I love working with them."
She pauses, pressing her hand to her face, adding with a soft sigh. "I really care about these young people."
There is a quiet warmth to Sally, a sense of true dedication, that could draw in kids, away from their imminent struggles on dangerous streets.
"After retirement, I needed to be in a place with a mission," she says, and then smiles. "I think I am the oldest volunteer here. The other volunteers, the staff and youth, seem to forget I'm a grandmother. They forget I'm old. I'll say something old-fashioned like 'we need to roll with the punches,' and they will roll their eyes. I tell them to cut me some slack."
The youth and younger staff around Sally at Covenant House might be more likely to spout out, "This is how we roll." Visiting with Sally, I sense the need to go with the flow is essential to all that goes on there, no matter how that multi-generational need for flexibility is stated.
Sally's volunteer efforts focus on "job group" meetings. Every Thursday morning, she is there sharing professional advice to young people seeking employment. "I've developed a way of working with them through trial and error," she admits. "Sometimes whatever I've planned becomes a disaster. So I think it through, come back, and try again – something different. And I never know how many will come to the group – one or sometimes 16."
Over the years, she has developed a system of cards to draw out ideas from the kids.
"I want whatever we are doing in the group to relate to real life experiences," she says. "Most of these youth have not had happy classroom experiences, and negative experiences in looking for work. The cards help them talk about their real life situations."
The cards Sally has developed have questions on them dealing with job hunting, interviewing, filling out applications, coping with on-the-job problems.
"They draw a card, read the question out loud, and can answer it or pass it on. They might read, 'What should I do if my supervisor is unhappy with me?' or 'Should I take a friend with me to the job interview?'
"They might have already been job jumpers, been fired. We talk about a one-two-three approach. One – What happened? Two – What did you learn? Three – Why is this not a problem for the future? How have you fixed this? This engages them. I'm not doing all the talking.
"I always greet them with a smile. And I'm happy when they can smile back. We talk about smiling during the interview. They've gone through hard times. It's difficult for them to know how to present themselves and talk about themselves. We practice a lot. Confidence doesn't come easily."
Sally's innovative approach in working with the youth has earned the admiration of Covenant House staff. Julie Sullivan, PR Specialist at Covenant House, says, "Sally is wonderful. For her selfless efforts, the Covenant House team recently nominated her for the Spirit of Anchorage Award. Although she didn't win the award, she's always a winner in our hearts."
Sally delights in the moments when the kids can see themselves as winners, no matter how small or fleeting the moment may seem to others.
"Watching them smile when they get a job interview, or just seeing them get dressed up for an interview, coming back to tell me they are doing good things on a job – it's heartwarming. It means so much when I can help draw somebody out, sense they have something positive to offer, or see them gain a little confidence."
Sally's smile makes a fitting end to our time together as she offers, "I'll keep doing this as long as I can – until I'm really old!" And, yes, she rolls her eyes.
Covenant House has about 125 volunteers, according to Executive Director Alison Kear. Some now on staff were first introduced to its services as youth in need who came through its doors. Heartfelt dedication is evident everywhere. In addition to the job groups and life skills groups, volunteers can assist in food service, janitorial services, clerical assistance, in recreational activities, as mentors, or with special events.