The sign that marks the entrance to Farnsworth Park reads “Dedicated to the children of Soldotna.” During the day, kids can often be seen playing on the equipment or in the grass.
But the nighttime vigil held at the park was for kids who often go unseen.
“They don’t want to be known because they don’t want to be known as one of those kids that doesn’t have the family support and is struggling,” says Krista Schooley.
She knows because she’s been one of them. She was born and raised in Soldotna. She’s 40 years old now and a proud parent and grandmother. But, she says, a long time ago, her life was very different. A series of very bad events led to her becoming homeless.
“A lot of just trauma in my life. I was raped when I was 14 and it just made me go downhill. I ended up being a mom of two by the time I was 17. From the age of 17 to 19, I was a couchsurfer; I went from couch to couch,” says Schooley.
As a homeless teenager, she struggled to find safe places to sleep at night, food, but most of all, support.
“There wasn’t really anything out in the community to help me get on my feet,” says Schooley.
Kelly King coordinates the Students in Transition program for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Each year her program identifies between 200 and 300 homeless students in the district. And the number is rising.
“Going about trying to find what resources are available, it’s very difficult when you’re on your own,” says King. “It’s hard for me to imagine being 16 years old and trying to channel public assistance for food stamps and trying to figure out how I’m getting to and from school.”
Then there’s finding shelter, running water, heat and much more. Her program helps youth navigate the specifics of getting the help they need so they can stay in school.
But the reason she and others have organized the vigil for the last five years is to shed some light on this incredibly important issue that she says, isn’t talked about enough.
“Well, I think in society in general, there’s a really negative stigma attached to the word homeless,” says King.
She says she hopes events like this will motivate people to really think about the issue without stigmatizing it.
17-year old Soldotna High School student Lana Chesley is doing just that. She’s seen how being in that position goes beyond personal life. She’s had homeless classmates and friends it takes its toll on school life and social life as well.
“I knew it was really hard because most kids grow up with all sorts of electronics and gizmos and money and stuff,” says Chesley. “And the people who I knew did struggle because they couldn’t connect with their friends like that. So I think it’s a struggle for them as an identity thing because they can’t relate to their peers as anyone else did.”
She’s glad this vigil is specifically for kids and their families. It’s hard enough to just be a teenager much less one without a stable place to call home.
“When I put myself in their place and try to feel what they’re feeling, I can’t really imagine it,” says Chesley. “So I guess there is a semblance of sadness in my heart because I really don’t know how they feel and it hurts me that they’re hurting because I know they are.”
Schooley says it is hard, but it’s also possible to turn things around.
“I got my life together, healed through all the pain and trauma and found out what was happening here and it’s just unacceptable,” says Schooley.
She went from being homeless herself to now working with kids in the same position. But despite having that experience, she was still surprised to find out how big the problem is on the peninsula.
“These are families and students and individuals who are really that invisible population amongst the crowd but they are very much here and very much present,” says King, who hopes that making the unseen seen, even just for one night, could spark the change that is sorely needed.