College students volunteer at the Steve O’Neil Apartments.
Children were happily mixing paints and chattering together at the Steve O’Neil Apartments, a place which offers permanent homes for previously homeless families with children. It was literacy night. Contrary to what the theme suggests, it was an evening which provided kids with an introduction to new topics and fun activities.
Kate Strehlke, a junior studying cell biology and genetics at UMD, remembers the event like it was yesterday, “The kids had a blast. Things were everywhere, paper was everywhere, paint was all over their hands, and the kids were having so much fun.” Strehlke enjoyed her time at the Steve O’Neil Apartments so much, she knew she would be back. She loved her experience of seeing families and kids, from toddlers to tweens, bonding with each other through art.
That first year, Strehlke originally worked as a work-study student, but when the funding stopped, she stayed on as a volunteer, joining in the after school programs and other activities every week.
Max Krueger, an education and math major, and a senior at UMD, has a story that is similar to Strehlke’s. He also originally worked at the Steve O’Neil Apartments on work study, but continued volunteering after the first year of funding ran out.
Krueger remembers a moment when he was working with a fourth grader to clean up trash in the playground. “The other kids and volunteers left to go do other activities, and we had a quiet moment alone,” says Krueger. He was trying to get to know the boy and asked him, “What is your dream?”
The boy looked up at Krueger. After a short hesitation, the boy said, “I wish that drugs and alcohol never existed.” It was a tough moment for Krueger. “It makes me want to cry just thinking about that. As a fourth grader, what could have possibly happened to him to make that his top wish?” That moment was part of the reason Krueger is still committed to the kids at the Steve O’Neil Apartments.
VIDEO: Krueger sends a message to the children at the Steve O’Neil Apartments.
Strehlke and Krueger have important goals at the Steve O’Neil Apartments, to provide homework help and to engage in play-based activities focused on working with numbers and literacy. This academic work is making a huge difference to children, and it has an impact on Strehlke and Krueger as well. They both have made deep connections to the children.
An Important Question
Strehlke found she enjoyed working with the older children. One young girl enjoyed being with Strehlke so much, she asked Strehlke a big question. In Summer 2020, months after schools had transitioned to on-line learning, the girl asked Strehlke to become her mentor through Mentor Duluth, a local program.
There’s a formal start-up process and the girl and Strehlke are taking the steps toward the match. When they finally get to meet, they will follow COVID-19 proper safety measures. Strehlke plans on showing her new friend a variety of experiences. Strehlke’s first activities will probably be outside, and someday they might go to coffee shops and the Duluth Aquarium.
Mentor Duluth is part of the non-profit organization, Mentor North, which houses two additional programs, Mentor Superior and Five Points. They currently serve hundreds of regional youth. Mentors are required to keep in regular contact with the children and once a year, all families and mentors complete an evaluation.
Strehlke is in University Honors, a UMD program that aims to shape future leaders. University Honors provides a range of opportunities for students to give back to the community and build leadership skills. They have built a multi-year partnership with the staff of the Steve O’Neil Apartments and many Honors students, like Strehlke have taken leadership positions to help underprivileged youth.
VIDEO: Strehlke sends a message to the children at the Steve O’Neil Apartments.
Help for Families
Both Strehlke and Krueger started work at the Steve O’Neil Apartments as members of the UMD America Reads & Counts program. They work closely with Molly Harney, an associate professor in the UMD education department. Harney is committed to the America Reads & Counts program, having supported students for the past three years. She vets, interviews, hires, trains, and supports the students. “I meet monthly with the students to talk through what they are experiencing as they work with children who have been impacted by the trauma that homelessness brings.”
The links between the Steve O’Neil Apartments and UMD are extensive. Harney and UMD students partner with Caitlin Ward, the Steve O’Neil Apartments after school program coordinator and Aleesa Newman, the Steve O’Neil Apartments Early Childhood Program Coordinator. The UMD programs, which include American Reads and Counts, University Honors, and student volunteers, work under the supervision of Amy Swensen, Steve O’Neil Apartments site director, and Lee Stuart the executive director of the parent organization, CHUM.
Changes Due to the Pandemic
In March 2020, with the onset of COVID-19, educational support changed at the Steve O’Neil Apartments. Public schools stopped in-person classes and UMD students haven’t been back since. Harney saw a crisis in the making. She requested a reallocation of grant funding from the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation to install the internet in the Steve O'Neil Apartments. The "wired" building will help as UMD students continue to provide distance connections and academic support during the COVID pandemic.
During spring 2020, Krueger was able to tutor some kids in math via Zoom, but it clearly wasn't the same. Instead, the volunteers reached out to the kids by sending "pen-pal" letters through the mail, and they also made videos of themselves. Krueger and Strehlke are hoping this video compilation will cheer up the kids.
Krueger and Strehlke know the wait isn't over. They join the other UMD volunteers in hopes they can be back at the Steve O’Neil Apartments soon.
The experience at the Steve O’Neil Apartments helped shape Strehlke and Krueger’s plans for the future. Krueger plans to teach high school math in an underserved community. Strehlke has plans for graduate school in physical therapy after her graduation from UMD in spring of 2021.
UMD student Bailey Jacobson, who is double majoring in English and writing studies, worked on this story. Bailey works with Cheryl Reitan in University Marketing and Public Relations.