Welcoming Meriça Whitehall, new Interim Executive Director of A Way Home WA

Dear Friends in the Movement,

I write to you today in thankfulness, admiration, and enthusiasm for a new phase in A Way Home Washington’s future.

As many of you know, A Way Home WA Strategic Communications Director Ben Sung Henry has served as Interim Executive Director during Julie Patiño’s continuing leave. Since the beginning of his service in this role in October, Ben has shown a rare level of compassion, strategic acumen, and dedication to both staff wellness and momentum of the mission that have been comforting and galvanizing to us all. It is with deep respect and esteem that the Advisory Board receives Ben’s desire to pass the baton and reprise his role as Strategic Communications Director.

It is our honor and pleasure to introduce to you the person who will receive that baton and carry A Way Home WA forward through this next phase. Meriça Whitehall has accepted the position of A Way Home WA Interim Executive Director, and has assumed the role effective Feb. 26.

Meriça is an experienced and human-centered leader who will partner with us to stabilize and sustain our growth, increase our visibility, strengthen our work, and further build our team. She brings more than 25 years of experience empowering teams, strengthening organizational operations, improving financial performance, and planning and implementing long-term strategy.

Most recently, Meriça served as YouthCare’s Interim COO and Hugo House’s Interim COO and Interim Executive Director. She also previously served as the Executive Director of Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska, where she spearheaded the creation of a 20-year master plan and completed development of new revenue streams, capital projects, and acquisitions.

Meriça earned an Executive Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University, where she taught frameworks for community engagement as a faculty member following completion of her degree.

We look forward to inviting you to meet Meriça in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we are thankful to each of you for your continued support during this period of transition.

Times of change may come and go, but the unshakeable soul of A Way Home WA is its north-star constant, the fixed point our eyes never waver from — the moment when we’ll see safety and housing stability for every young person in this state. We are inspired to look around our community and see that light burning in your eyes too. Thank you for the passion and strength you all share with us and with each other.

In community,

Nwando Obele, Paula Carvalho, Sheila Babb Anderson, Chelsea Talbert
A Way Home WA Advisory Board

Creating Opportunities and Opening Doors for Young Adults with Our Inaugural Fellowship Cohort Program

Members of the first Fellowship Cohort bring diverse lived experience, talents, and voices to A Way Home WA 

To fully realize our core mission – preventing and ending homelessness of young people – A Way Home Washington (WA) doesn’t just want to “talk the talk,” but actually walk the talk. In addition to preventing and ending homelessness among young people, we also want to provide opportunities and open doors.

One way we’re doing this is through our unique Fellowship Cohort program, which we are thrilled to finally and officially kick off after spending much time developing it. Read on to find out more about how this program came to be, what it is, what the goals are, how it works, and who’s involved!

Why we launched the Fellowship Cohort program

At A Way Home WA, we hold to a set of principles and ideals that motivate us and inform our work. One key principle of ours, one could even say the key principle, is the amplifying and magnifying of young voices. We aim to do this not only materially, by way of addressing youth and young adult homelessness, but also within the work itself. After all, when it comes to meeting young people’s needs – such as housing – young people know best.

From this, we concluded that young people impacted by this work broadly not only should have decision making power in matters that affect them and their communities, but in fact are owed it as a matter of principle. One way in which this is accomplished is through Youth Action/Advisory Boards (YABs), a concept employed not only by A Way Home WA but many of our peer organizations as well. But YABs tend to be community-led, and thus community-specific – while A Way Home WA oversees operations all across Washington state.

Some time ago, our entire staff agreed that we could be doing more to put our money where our mouths are. We wished to integrate the input voices and experience of young people directly in our work – shaping our strategies and their outcomes. In this vein, the Fellowship Cohort was born.

What is the Fellowship Cohort program?

For many, the term “fellowship” suggests a paid internship, or perhaps an opportunity at an educational institution. At A Way Home WA though, we view our fellows as being integral team members working full-time in each of our primary departments. That means that they are salaried and compensated with full benefits, just as our other staff are. 

We set precise parameters to guide the selection of our fellows: They must be between 18-25 years of age, have experience with youth or young adult homelessness, and demonstrate a strong alignment with A Way Home WA’s values. To ensure a richly diverse Fellowship Cohort, we employed a recruitment strategy that leveraged numerous communication channels, from social media to direct peer outreach. The response was astonishing, a testament to the seriousness of young talent eager to effect change in Washington State. Such an extraordinary pool of candidates presented us with the delightful challenge of choosing from among the very best.

By the close of 2022, we welcomed three outstanding young professionals to our team, joining our existing fellow, A Way Home WA’s first fellow, who had already been with us for a year. Together, they represent the face of our inaugural Fellowship Cohort

Furthermore, the Cohort transcends the mere collective of fellows – it extends to include an adept consultant of ours, Michelle Valdez. Under her guidance, the Cohort benefits from functioning also as a cohesive coaching circle, fostering both personal and professional evolution of our fellows. 

What are the goals of the program?

We believe that each young person whose lived experience pertains to our work, regardless of professional experience, education, or skills, has near limitless potential and so much wisdom to offer. 

Each fellow was brought on to join one of four primary departments: the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI), Data & Evaluation, Strategic Communications, and Training & Engagement. All four fellows play a core role in their department’s day-to-day functions; they perform critical duties, carry out specialized projects, receive training and coaching in several skills and aptitudes by their colleagues and superiors, and moreover, these talented up-and-coming professionals contribute lived experience-informed input, feedback, ideas, and much more to A Way Home WA.

The cohort also offers a space in which fellows are able to convene outside of work – to discuss amongst themselves, share and grow with one another, and access the expertise and broad networks of the organization.

Meet the Fellows!

LEEZE CASTRO (THEY/THEM) — DATA & EVALUATION

Leeze, now a Senior Fellow in our Data & Evaluation department, was A Way Home WA’s first fellow. They have worked with us since June 2021 in various capacities, including leading the Innovative Grants Program, adding support and creativity to every department, and developing safe spaces where all voices are encouraged to discuss tough issues such as systemic racism and how to dismantle white supremacist patriarchal institutions. Leeze also serves on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) Committee, the All Home King County Youth Action Board, and the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Office of Homeless Youth as a Youth Lived Experience Expert.

 

SKYLAR LABETH WISENER (HE/THEY) — TRAINING & ENGAGEMENT

Skylar has robust experience in education, lobbying and advocacy, and community service, all focused on helping youth and young adults. Skylar worked for Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council, teaching high schoolers about consent, sexual health, gender, and sexuality, while learning how to create safe and empowering spaces for his peers. He has dedicated himself to using education as a means to enact social change and subvert stereotypes faced by youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Skylar, now a part of the Training & Engagement department, brings their lived experience and passion for uplifting and empowering youth across Washington state to the forefront of their work at A Way Home WA.

 

ROCKY THOMAS (THEY/THEM) — ANCHOR COMMUNITY INITIATIVE

Rocky brings more than five years experience of working with children and youth at Evergreen State College, where they also studied race, gender, and other social justice issues and how they intersect and are portrayed in education and art, as well as youth development and psychology. As a Black, non-binary queer young adult who experienced housing instability throughout their life, Rocky adds a wealth of empathy, passion for enacting change, stellar communication skills, and the ability to train and educate people of a variety of backgrounds in numerous teaching styles to the ACI.

 

KELEH MCLEOD-BUENO (HE/HIM) — STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS

Keleh is a writer with a strong interest in professional communications. He has a passion for the weaving and formation of narrative, especially in service of furthering social justice causes that are near and dear to his heart such as environmentalism, economic justice, racial justice and LGBTQ+ issues.

Meet Our Cohort Facilitator

Michelle is a consultant with more than 20 years of experience working with homelessness services in nonprofits and government, with specific expertise in youth and family homelessness. Michelle has managed multiple local and national homelessness assistance consulting engagements with community organizations and government entities. She currently provides direct technical assistance and coaching to Youth Homelessness Demonstration Programs (YHDP) in communities across the country and has been consulting with A Way Home WA since its inception, helping to develop and support the ACI. Michelle played an instrumental role in developing the Fellowship Cohort program and is currently leading the cohort by providing mentorship and professional development support to the fellows through monthly convenings.

Q: Why is the Fellowship Cohort program important?

Michelle: Having a dedicated space for the fellows to connect with each other on a regular basis, as well as other opportunities outside of the organization to help them gain experience and build a network in their fields of interest is such a valuable step that can often be overlooked in a first job, internship or fellowship program. The intent of this fellowship cohort is to spend time exploring their interests and passions, work on professional development skills that they may not be able to access in the normal course of their day, and to potentially connect with other local and national experts and folks in the field doing this work so that they are able to develop a path for future work and opportunities. 

Q: What about the cohort are you excited about?

Michelle: I am most excited about the opportunity to get to know and spend time with these four amazing young people! They all bring very different ideas, interests, and skills to A Way Home WA. I am looking forward to seeing where they go over the course of this year and, not only what skills I can help them gain, but also for what I will gain from my time with them.