Valley native Joel Black has moved to the big state capital but hasn't lost the giving spirit engrained in him by the local community. A Pacific Lutheran University graduate and employee at the Washington State Department of Revenue, Black finds time to volunteer as co-executive director at Olympia's branch of StandUp for Kids, a nation-wide nonprofit that aims to reduce youth homelessness.
"To 'StandUp' for kids is what we are all about - we work with homeless and at-risk youth who may have slipped through the cracks at some point. These are the unseen homeless population, if you will. Thirteen kids die on the streets each day from abuse, disease, and suicide. These 13 kids are dying from preventable causes. We are standing up for kids because they are overlooked, abandoned, forgotten, and unrecognized. There is a multitude of resources for homeless adults, homeless women, homeless families, etc.; however, there is a lack of resources for a homeless kid who ran away from an abusive home, or for a teenager who aged out of the foster care system. That's who we aim to serve."
Black got involved with the organization after moving to Olympia and being shocked by the existence of homeless youth. "Homelessness is not always a choice; it is not always free will, especially when it comes to homeless youth. The average person would see a homeless 20-year-old and say, 'Why don't they just go get a job?' But it's not that simple! The average person doesn't take into account that that boy on the street was raised on the street, that he is suffering from some sort of traumatic stress disorder, that he has no family, no friends, and no possessions. The average person doesn't acknowledge that to get a job, you have to have an address, a place to live, clothes to wear, a place to shower - at the very least. And in turn, a homeless person has next to none of those things. You can't get off the streets while on the streets. That's my passion, showing people that there are no simple solutions to the homeless problem."
Working with homeless youth has led to some heart wrenching experiences for Black. "Last winter we were helping a boy get clothes from our storage unit. It was pouring down rain that night and he said, 'You guys are the only ones that care about us.' We of course said, 'There are lots of people who care about you.' He said, 'Yeah, but where are they when it's raining and cold?' That's when I realized working with StandUp is a really unique opportunity, one you won't get volunteering at a shelter or soup kitchen. The experience is raw and uncensored."
StandUp for Kids has over 20 programs in 15 different states, with one of these programs located in Olympia, where Black volunteers. In addition to providing immediate services to homeless youth, such as clothing, food, and supplies, the Olympia branch also facilitates outreach including a new program called 'Don't Run Away.' "This program will advocate to keep students in school and stop them from running away through education and by directing them to resources," Black explained. "We are also working to create a mentoring program which would provide more individualized contact with the youth we serve, over longer periods of time. The idea would be to have two StandUp volunteers per one homeless youth, meeting and working together outside of the regular street outreach in order to set and achieve more goals than we can now through street outreach alone."
After starting out at the organization as a volunteer two years ago, Black quickly moved up the chain of command. He became director of volunteers, then assistant executive director and now co-executive director. "As the Co-E.D., I assist with local fund development activities; ensure that our local program operates in accordance with the bylaws, articles of incorporation, and mission of StandUp; supervise volunteers; and manage two of the currently filled leadership positions, director of volunteers and director of outreach."
Black has learned a lot in his two years of working with StandUp, including the importance of spreading awareness about youth homelessness. "Each person I come into contact with at work, on the streets, or as new volunteers I'm training, I hope I can change their viewpoint on homelessness. If everyone could experience what I have as a volunteer, we would all treat those on the streets a little differently."
With a great need of further volunteers and funds, Black encourages others to get involved in StandUp or similar organizations by donating or volunteering - contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested. "However, on a greater level, people can get involved by advocating for these homeless youth. Next time you see a homeless kid, don't judge him as a punk who couldn't follow the rules at home - recognize that he or she has a story many of us will never experience."
Black also has advice to offer to local teens: "I challenge all of Pacific County teens to get out and experience a new part of the world, even if it's just down the road in Olympia. There's so much to learn, see, and do, outside of Pacific County - not to say you can never return. Get educated, find a passion, get involved, and give without expectation of receiving.