Q&A with Terra Neilson '10

Terra Neilson ’10 is developmental director of HomePlate Youth Services, a Hillsboro-based nonprofit that provides a variety of services for Washington County youth. The following is a Q&A with Terra.

1. Can you tell us about your background and what prompted you to come to Pacific University?

My parents were divorced when I was very young. My dad and stepmom are accomplished business leaders and challenge me regularly on economic or political debates. My mom and stepdad are accomplished urban farmers, growing most of their own food and constantly helping me ask how I’m impacting my environment and community.

I was rebellious in high school, but kept my grades up and held down a part-time job at a local independent movie theatre.  I had a hard time “fitting in” during my junior year.  So, at 17, I left my traditional high school and began managing the theatre. I rented an apartment and moved out of my mom’s house (with her blessings and help from both sides of my family) and at 17 was feeling pretty independent.

After struggling with traditional school settings, I just found myself forging my own path and largely surviving on my own before I turned 18.  I know, though, that I had a lot of adult support—and without their help and confidence in me, I wouldn’t have been able to create the situation in which I thrived.

After I completed my diploma, I started taking part-time classes at the local community college (Spokane Falls Community College) where I finished my associate’s degree.  I had visited a friend who attended Pacific, and after meeting a handful of folks down there and hearing about all the activities they were involved in—The Outback, B-Street Farm, and many of the artistic endeavors—I started my application.

At Pacific, I was part of the Sociology/Anthropology Club, was a Voyages coordinator, and double-majored in social work and sociology.  I interned at the Washington County Commission on Children and Families, where I was given freedom and support again to create my own path and thesis project.

My thesis project was evaluating a local school-based health center and asking the students themselves what they need out of a healthcare system (especially out of a healthcare system which was designed to not involve their parents). This research project, talking directly to youth about the policies and systems that affect their lives, ultimately led me to my first job after college as a social researcher at an evaluation firm in Portland.  I worked at this firm for the last two years while I volunteered at HomePlate.  I officially became a full-time staff member after working a few part-time hours for them over the past year in August.

2. What drew you to interact with homeless youth?

I think my unique path led me to want to work with young people and my knowledge of the needs of my own neighborhood lead me to HomePlate.  Portland has many centers and programs specifically for youth experiencing homelessness, but we’re the only drop-in center for homeless youth in all of Washington County.

3. What do you see as the causes of youth homelessness? Do you have suggestions on what society can do that would aid youth?

Homelessness in Washington County is different than the homelessness we typically are familiar with on the streets of Portland or as is portrayed in popular culture.  Many of the young people I’ve met through HomePlate have grown up in this community, the suburbs, with economic and family challenges like parental unemployment, substance abuse, physical or sexual abuse, disapproval of sexual orientation or religious restraints that pose an incredible challenge for them.

Every story we hear is unique, but many, although not all, of the youth we meet have friends and a social net where they can “couch surf” and stay dry and safe at night, but they lack a consistent community structure where they can rely on someone to check-in with them and to cheer for them when things are going well. 

We all react to positive reinforcement, and when you’re alone going from house to house, it can be hard to keep working at a difficult task or blazing your own trail, like job searching or completing an education, if no one is cheering you on along the way or congratulating you for working so hard at the finish line.  I think community connections play a huge role.

There’s definitely value in ensuring youth’s basic needs are met, too—making sure they have baby wipes and diapers, or a water bottle when it gets hot out, or a shower if they’re sleeping in their car. It’s all helpful, but I think the real draw for youth coming to HomePlate is really the relationships they build with our staff and our volunteers. Having people who will light up when you complete your GED or land your first job, or offer support when you’re feeling burned out, or resources for assistance in accomplishing your goals—it is an understated, but incredibly important need. 

4. What can you say to people who see young people hanging out on the streets that might be helpful in understanding the situations that cause youth homelessness?

I’ve heard so many people judge folks living on the streets because they believe they “choose” to be there.  But, the concept of choice is relative:  If you’re posed with the choice to stay in a home with abusive family members, or excessive drug use, or the responsibility to care for your siblings because your parents cannot due to circumstances like unmet mental health needs, substance abuse, or 60-hour work-weeks required to meet the financial needs of the family—then, I challenge folks to consider what they might “choose” to do in that situation. 

Other young people are forced out of the home because parents cannot afford to care for them, and they hope at 16 or 17 they can make their own way.  Sadly, unemployment rates are the very highest among young adults (Oregon unemployment reached 12 percent for young adults in May) so this hope is often met with youth couch surfing and struggling to meet their own needs day-to-day.

5. What kind of success stories does HomePlate have?

They’re all unique stories and success looks different for all of us.  We have youth who attend drop-in regularly and are raising incredible children themselves, with stability and compassion—and that is a success.  We have young-people who are now working at their first jobs, who had filled out applications at HomePlate over a plate of spaghetti with a volunteer—and that is a success.  We have multiple youth who are now in their own apartments largely because of their own determination and will, but also with the help and support of our staff and volunteers—and that is a major success.

6. What do you feel your work has done for yourself, e.g., what have you learned? Do you ever feel discouraged about the situations you encounter What have you seen or heard about or thought about that is positive as well as negative in regard to your decision to be a social worker?

I love my work because it’s a challenge.  My own paradigm is constantly stretching to understand the reality I work in.  I consider myself a small business advocate and have seen so much support from our local businesses in Washington County, but I’ve also seen incredible kindness and community support come out of our corporate partners, who are made up of our neighbors, and whom I appreciate so much for helping us continue our work. 

I also have a hard time realizing my own limits as social worker and working in a grassroots nonprofit.  There’s a point when you have to be honest with yourself and with the people you work alongside and know what you’re capable of doing. 

I work in development, so most of my time is spent in the office, but on drop-in nights, I love that youth come into the office to say “hi” and check in, tell me about their job prospects, or how their little one is doing…it’s a great way to remind myself why we’re doing this work.

6. Any other thoughts?

We’re always looking for new volunteers: from childcare volunteers for our HomePLAY program (our childcare program that provides our youth short-term childcare during drop-in) to fundraisers willing to help on our funding committee and keep our doors open each week!