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I recently completed a nonprofit internship, and it was a very difficult and challenging experience. My internship took place at Fairbanks Youth Advocates in Fairbanks, Alaska. I was in Alaska for the summer as an AmeriCorps Summer Crew Leader. After a successful summer, I was asked to stay and help open an emergency youth shelter as the Emergency Youth Shelter Coordinator.
My first day on the job was to familiarize myself with the organization by learning about their history and development. For the next few days I became familiar with runaway and homeless youth issues. The next big challenge was researching how to open an emergency youth shelter. There weren’t many options in Alaska, so I had to expand my search. I looked up shelters all over the U.S. and Canada. I looked to many of my nonprofit leadership and management classes at ASU for insight.
This gave me the tools to develop the steps to get the program going. We named it the Emergency Youth Shelter / Safe Space. The next step was to look for a location. We worked on finding sites, and then mailed out 15 letters. The letters explained our mission and what we were looking for. A few days went by, and then we got a response. It was from a church in the community. I called the church and set up a meeting to see if it was a good fit.
Before I met with the church, I went and looked at the location. It was perfect. It was in the middle of town and close to the bus station, police department, and fire station. I also drove around and noticed a lot of nonprofits in the area. I met with the staff of the church the next day and explained all the details. They liked the idea and were willing to help. The area had plenty of room and private access to keep the clients’ identities confidential. It had its own kitchen and bathroom, so the clients never had to leave the area. We worked up a contract and the church agreed to host us for two years, with the option of a possible future renewal. After two weeks, we had an agreement in place.
My next step was safety. I set up meetings with the police and fire department to come up with an evacuation plan and other safety polices. After getting all of the safety things in order, I met with the Alaska State Troopers and worked out an exchange system for the youth in need of shelter. Similar exchange systems were also established with the police department and local nonprofits that might refer youth to the shelter.
Once this was all in place, we worked to make the emergency shelter a Safe Place. Then I set up an appointment to meet with the Suicide and Crisis Line to inform them of what we were doing. Then we contacted the state and the city to find out what we needed to do to become licensed.
The biggest challenge of my internship was getting the word out and bringing volunteers and clients to the shelter. I was responsible for recruiting volunteers, creating flyers, writing public service announcements, coordinating volunteer training, and establishing volunteer job descriptions.
I contacted the police station and found out what the requirements were for background checks and fingerprinting. Then we conducted volunteer interviews. The applications were coming in, and within three weeks we had 34 great volunteers. We set up three different volunteer positions for the shelter. The check-in volunteer helped with intake procedures with the youth until lights out. The overnight volunteer would sit with a staff member from beginning to end. The final position was the check-out volunteer, who helped from lights on until the shelter was closed for the day. The shelter was open seven days a week, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.
As the weeks passed, more and more volunteers showed up. The police station provided the fingerprint cards, and I had the paperwork to send to the FBI, along with an envelope to send the card and application out. Over the next few weeks, I met with the food bank and other organizations for food donations.
On Nov 24, 2012 the shelter opened its doors and had no youth clients. The next day the shelter had 1 youth and by the time I left we had between three and eight youths per night. Looking back at my experience, I learned a great deal about the nonprofit world and that it sometimes takes a lot of sweat, blood, tears, and self motivation, even in -48 degrees, to get the job done. Seeing a wonderful achievement in helping others and putting them above yourself is what makes all the hard work, and being in the nonprofit field, worth it. Thank you Fairbanks Youth Advocates for this opportunity.
Dick Erwin is currently hiking with a nonprofit, Warrior Hike, in the “Walk Off The War” program that is designed to support wounded veterans transitioning from military service by hiking the Appalachian Trail. Dick got his bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in education and nonprofit leadership and management at Arizona State University. He also completed the Certified Nonprofit Professionals program through the ASU Lodestar Center's Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, and also obtained his special events certificate. Dick has been all over the world volunteering and working with nonprofits to make a difference in the community. To learn more about his experiences connect with him through Facebook, LinkedIn, and Warrior Hike.
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