Meet our Youth Engagement Coordinators

Does working at Youth Rebuilding New Orleans qualify as a “really awesome adventure?”  Ask Abby Hall, because she would know.  The 23-year-old Memphis native is new to the Big Easy this spring after taking a year to travel to exotic locales such as Alaska, Hawaii and Thailand, and she just started as one of YRNO’s three new AmeriCorps Youth Engagement Coordinators this month.

After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 2012, Abby was ready for some new experiences and traveling was something she loved.  “So I got a seasonal job working right outside Denali National Park in Alaska,” she said.  “That was my first time living anywhere besides Tennessee.  It was awesome.”

Four months later, Abby and her friends decided to move to Hawaii.  “I was working in a nursery of native Hawaiian plants,” she said.  “I basically wake up in the morning, go out in the nursery and weed and water, repot, whatever needed to be done.  By doing that, I got to pitch a tent on the land.  I called it ‘tent palace’—this big 10-person tent that I lived in for like three months.  It really grounded me.  Really cool experience.”

Last Christmas, Abby was in Baton Rouge visiting her family, who had moved there while she was in college.  “During that time, my best friend from college was graduating and we had always planned a trip to Southeast Asia,” she recalled. “It just so happened that my brother was in Thailand at the time for a non-profit, so we planned kind of my last adventure to Thailand and flew into Bangkok, worked our way up north where my brother was, and then went back down south to the islands.  We ended up being over there for about two months.”

Could those three locations be any more diverse, climatically speaking?  Alaska?  Really?

“It was rough,” Abby admitted. “When I first got there, I was freezing and stayed in what we called ‘tabins,’ which is a combination of a tent and a cabin.  No heat.  No electricity.  Nothing.  So we literally bundled up, but it was nice because I got there in the middle of May when it was still cold, but it warmed up pretty quick.  What’s cool about Alaskan summers are that you get all four seasons in the four short summer months.  Getting there, there was still snow on the ground…and then it warms up.  You start to see all the flowers blooming, beautiful, and then we even had a few lake days where we were in our bathing suits.

“Being in Alaska for fall was the most beautiful.  All the colors—red, orange, yellow—but the coolest part was the mountain literally turned purple.  It was so pretty.  So I think I survived just because I knew the cold wouldn’t last for long.

“Hawaii, we went because it was starting to get cold (as the season changed again in Alaska).  We were like, we want somewhere that’s warm and stays warm.  Thailand was ridiculously hot.  I’m from Memphis, so I know heat and I know humidity, but Thailand was a whole different game.”

After returning to the states, Abby stayed with her parents in Baton Rouge for a month, and then established herself in New Orleans by getting a job in a restaurant.  “I had kind of already had my adventure phase and I was excited to do work that I was passionate about—not just waiting tables,” she said.  She got a summer gig canvassing for the Gulf Restoration Network and started looking for work with other non-profits when she ran across the AmeriCorps program and its different partner organizations.  “This one in particular, YRNO, I liked,” she continued.  “I was excited to help rebuild houses and be part of an organization that’s very community oriented.”

When she was younger, Abby had actually done some rebuilding work with her church group in Memphis.  “I really liked it because I’m a talker and I got to become really close with the families and the kids,” she said.  “I hadn’t really done anything like that in New Orleans, but now that I’m here, I’m like, where have I been?  What have I been doing?  Hearing about all these alternative spring break trips, I’m like, what was I doing in college?  I’m really happy I’m here now.”

Another one of YRNO’s new Youth Engagement Coordinators is also a self-described talker, but if you see her chatting with herself, don’t reach for the meds.  Sarah Watiker loves writing, and as part of the short story composition process, she’ll craft long narratives in her head, which then sometimes slip out through the vocal cords.  “I do a lot of talking out loud to myself,” she admitted.

The 22-year-old native New Yorker also calls herself the “weird one” in her family, although only in the sense that she’s not like the rest, who are quiet and live comfortable lives.  “I’ve always been the one who’s running around doing things I shouldn’t be doing,” she said.  “It has gotten me into some trouble, but also if I wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t be here.  My family thinks I’m crazy.  I’m a talker and I love meeting people and I love going out and doing things.”

She’s also not afraid to change her mind about things, starting with her college choice of Oberlin (in Ohio), where her brother also went.  “I didn’t want to go there at all,” she said.  “I wanted to go to a big state school, but applied and got in, visited, fell in love with it.  So happy I went.  I haven’t had too many experiences so far, but probably my favorite decision I’ve ever made.

“The friends that I met at Oberlin have had a profound effect on me, particularly in my openness towards people’s identities and things like that.  So I think if I hadn’t done Oberlin, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.  I also was going to go to the University of Wisconsin, which is a completely polar opposite experience than I think I would’ve had at a small, hippie liberal arts school.  I’m very glad that I decided to do what I said I’d never do and go to Oberlin.”

Sarah wouldn’t be at YRNO if she hadn’t changed her mind about AmeriCorps either.  “I was actively seeking a non-profit position of some sort,” she said of a job search that had her struggling to find employment.  “I was not seeking an AmeriCorps position.  You’d ask me six months ago and I would’ve told you I don’t want one, especially because I think sometimes the experience of service gets a little diluted when you start all these bureaucratic things of big service organizations.  I think sometimes they don’t execute service well.  So that’s why I like Louisiana Delta Service Corps, because I think it’s a smaller community.  While they have the resources of AmeriCorps and they’re in the larger family of AmeriCorps, it’s more caring and more supportive and more about a localized cause. “

New Orleans specifically came into Sarah’s consciousness when she was at Oberlin and made trips to the city during school breaks.  She considered staying in Ohio for another year after graduating this May, but decided she was too comfortable there and needed to leave.   “I was really trying to figure out how am I going to get myself into this community?” she recalled.  “I went on Google, found the (AmeriCorps) application and said, ‘why the hell not apply for it?’  I found out about it two days before it was due, freaked out, got it done and then they called me two days later.”

Whereas Abby is based in the YRNO office, Sarah is embedded at the mostly African-American Sci Academy in New Orleans East, as part of the Future Leaders Initiative.  There she’s able to make good use of her degree in Afrikana Studies.  “I definitely wanted to be working with communities of color,” she said.  “I think the socio-economic communities that are struggling here is where I wanted to focus my work, and YRNO definitely does that, particularly at Sci Academy.”

That’s not to say her new job is without challenges.  “I think the biggest challenge for me has been giving demerits, confronting students,” she said.  “Accepting the culture hasn’t been that difficult, but I think the hardest thing is with seniors who are about 18—I’m only 22, so I’m not that much older—trying to put on the ‘I’m an authority figure’ hat is something that I really struggle with…but I’m working on it.”

Like Sarah, YRNO’s third new Youth Engagement Coordinator came here to avoid complacency.  According to Allison Zeal, “having a passion to push me past my comfort level is really important.”  The 28-year-old grew up in Wisconsin before moving to Minneapolis for college, and spent the last six years working in a bakery there.  “It’s repetitive,” she said of that job.  “And if you have asthma, it’s probably not good to work in a bakery.”

Allison owns a cat named Paulette and has always loved animals.  “I started riding horses when I was 10,” she recalled.  “That was definitely a big factor in my development and work ethic because from the age of 13 I was working at the barn to pay off those expenses.  And then when you’re taking care of living animals that at least in domestication can’t take care of themselves, you learn a lot about responsibility and stepping up when no one else is going to, because it could be potentially a life or death situation.”

Horses have not been Allison’s only love, either.  She has also had a husky, a hamster and hermit crabs—anything starting with the letter “h,” apparently.

“Animals, I do better with body language,” she said.  “I just find it easier to read.  Some people are purposely trying to deceive you, other people subconsciously are, whereas animals don’t really have that.  I definitely had some social anxiety from a pretty young age and it kind of stemmed from that—not quite knowing what people were thinking, and with animals it was always pretty clear.  For me, it was kind of empowering to be able to understand these creatures.”

So how does someone who admits to having social anxiety end up taking an AmeriCorps job working with students at Sci Academy?

“There were a lot of programs that I wanted to do,” she explained.  “It wasn’t like working in a high school was definitely what I wanted to do, but I can be really good with one-on-one connections or small group.  My whole life has been trying to figure out how people work, how people think, and so I feel like I just have a little bit more insight into that.

“I do have this intense desire to help people,” she continued.  “It kind of stems from being really observant of the stuff around me, aware of what was going on in the world and all the bad stuff that was happening—bad interactions between people—and feeling like I couldn’t do anything about it.  You know how in your head you’re like, ‘oh, when I’m older I’m gonna do this’ or ‘these are things I feel strongly about,’ but you’re not actually living it?  I just got to the point where I was like, ‘OK, I’m 26, 27, this is my life now.  If I’m gonna do stuff when I get older, this is when I should probably start.’

“We’ll call it my personal renaissance,” she added, laughing.  “This is the first time I’ve used that term.”

And for someone who hadn’t spent a lot of time in New Orleans before, why come here specifically?

“It was kind of like little happenstance things that New Orleans would keep popping up,” she said.  “But at the same time for me, New Orleans and trying to do good for people are kind of intertwined.  Even if you’re not in service work, I feel like the community is very much about looking out for one another.

“When I was explaining to my Dad why I wanted to move here I was like, you know, I think the culture here will be therapeutic for me because you can sit on the porch and you’ll almost have conversations with people in their cars, whereas in Minneapolis I was sitting out on one of my friend’s porches one morning before I left and there would be like six people walk by on the sidewalk and they wouldn’t even look up at you.  And I was like, ‘I can feel that you see me.’

“And then also, I’m very much an artistic personality, but I’ve also struggled to find ways to express that.  I feel like this is a place where the artistic part of it is intertwined with everything.  I feel like I just have more an artistic outlook or a romantic outlook and that’s something that kind of goes with this city.”

Allison thinks her biggest challenge at Sci Academy will be the large responsibility of setting up summer programming, including the creation of internships.  “It will be building relationships with different organizations, places like YRNO,” she said.  “Just getting it off the ground and establishing those relationships will probably be the hardest part, because I’ve never done anything like this before.”

Then again, if things get too tough, she could recall a secret childhood weapon to get out of the jam.

“My swingset was a time machine.”