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Empowering Portland’s At-Risk Youth

May 27, 2016

Kallie Kurtz B.A. ’13

Kallie Kurtz (far right) works with teens painting a street mural for peace.Kallie Kurtz (far right) works with teens painting a street mural for peace.

For more than two years, Kallie Kurtz rallied at-risk youth to work as a team in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood.

Teens and tweens from diverse backgrounds joined forces to battle a common foe: a local strip club called the Sugar Shack. “The place had a reputation for drugs, gangs, and human trafficking,” says Kurtz, who was serving as program coordinator for community-based organizations during that time.

Social media campaigns bolstered law enforcement investigations and fundraising efforts for the eventual purchase of the property by a neighborhood coalition Kurtz helped establish.

Her herculean efforts did not go unnoticed. In early 2015, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales hired Kurtz as the city’s teen services/at-risk youth outreach coordinator. In November, she received the 2015 Spirit of Portland Award for Outstanding Young Leader.

“Nothing is more rewarding than watching kids flourish when they feel successful and empowered,” she says.

Last summer, Kurtz helped create a safe haven for kids at the Matt Dishman Community Center in Northeast Portland. She scrambled to design programming and organize staff during the two weeks between budget approvals for free summer youth passes and the center’s opening.

“Attendance far exceeded our goal of attracting 2,500 kids during the season,” she says. “In fact, we averaged 1,000 drop-ins per day.”

Kallie KurtzKallie KurtzOne of those teens was a girl named Sarah* whom Kurtz had first met during the Cully project. Wanting to escape her involvement in the dangerous underworld of drugs and gangs, Sarah started dropping in at the center almost every day to talk about school and complete homework projects. Later, her mom, who had fled the war in El Salvador, started coming in too.

“We worked to get Sarah out of gangs and back on track,” says Kurtz. “She’s now a lifeguard at the center and is attending college.”

Kurtz’s affinity for working with young people developed naturally. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, she was the eldest of 17 cousins and loved being their go-to babysitter at family functions. Kurtz went on to work at the Alaska Center for the Environment, where she developed curriculum and taught children to thrive outdoors and care about the environment.

After graduating from a self-directed alternative high school at age 16, Kurtz decided to take a gap year before college and travel to Panama.

“In high school, I was an intern with the Alaska World Affairs Council,” she says. “It made me eager to explore different cultures and learn about their values.”

When it came time to choose a college, she says Lewis & Clark’s overseas study program was a big plus. She was also won over by the college’s international affairs curriculum; the College Outdoors program; a merit scholarship; and encouragement from her mom, Kathryn Kurtz B.S. ’88.

Though she was a natural athlete, leader, and public speaker, Kurtz struggled with academics when she first arrived. “I have dyslexia and dysgraphia, so reading and writing are not my strengths,” she says.

She credits Heather Smith-Cannoy, associate professor of international affairs, along with the Writing Center and Student Support Services with helping her develop strategies to succeed.

“I went from a D on the draft of my first international affairs paper to an A on the final version,” she says. “That taught me to always ask for help, no matter what the challenge.”

While in college, Kurtz worked on human rights issues in Kenya, Tanzania, and Cuba in conjunction with two overseas study programs. Back at Lewis & Clark, she redesigned training programs for leaders and student coordinators in the College Outdoors program.

“Along with wilderness skills, trip leaders need to learn conflict resolution skills and mental health strategies,” she says.

Hoping to expand her own repertoire, Kurtz is now earning her master’s degree in public policy with a focus on youth development.

“I dream of putting policies in place nationally—and even internationally—that support kids and prevent them from getting lost in the system.”

—by Pattie Pace

* The teen’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.

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