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Sparrow’s Nest manager aims to be positive influence for teens

by HILARY MATHESON
Daily Inter Lake | July 18, 2022 12:00 AM

Katie Hawes is hoping to serve as a positive adult influence in the lives of the homeless teens who land at the Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana.

Hawes joined the Sparrow’s Nest in December as the new program manager.

“One of my favorite parts about working here is that I’m just doing life with a bunch of teenagers. I tell people that’s kind of my job,” Hawes said, smiling.

Sparrow’s Nest aims to provide safe housing, support and resources for unaccompanied, homeless high school students in the Flathead Valley while they work toward graduation or completing the HiSET, a high school equivalency test. Once they graduate, the hope is that the teens will take flight into young adulthood as productive members of the community.

“I’m kind of in charge of all things kids in a way and taking care of house needs. A lot comes up with that,” Hawes said, explaining more of the work entailed. “We’re also licensed with the state of Montana — so making sure we’re up to par with licensing requirements, making sure kids' files are up to date.”

When Hawes graduated from Columbia Falls High School in 2016, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do as a career but she did know she wanted to work with youths having previous experience as a camp counselor and daycare worker.

“I’ve always really enjoyed working with kids even when I was younger. Even when I was a kid I loved working with kids,” Hawes said with a laugh.

Initially, Hawes thought she wanted to be a teacher and spent a day shadowing one of her soccer coaches who taught kindergarten. She quickly learned that might not be the best fit.

“So in high school, it was kind of trying things out,” she said. “It wasn’t until college that I started getting interested in more of a helping profession. I had plans to be a school counselor, but I changed my mind and now I’m here,” she said.

After high school, Hawes attended Flathead Valley Community College where she got an associate degree and went on to earn a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Montana.

“I just really loved my psych classes,” she said, from high school on. “I just found them really interesting, so I just kept taking them and that’s really it. I knew I wanted to work with people and I knew that that would help me do that.”

After graduating from college she completed an internship at a North Carolina camp program and moved back to the Flathead.

“It’s home,” Hawes said.

She applied to jobs in other states and received offers, but after meeting with Sparrow’s Nest Executive Director Rachelle Buckley who shared about the nonprofit’s work, Hawes was sold.

“I love working in the community and working with kids who are part of the community,” she said.

She asks people to think beyond the labels or stereotypes associated with youth homelessness.

“I don’t like to call them troubled youth, or trauma kids, or at-risk teens. They’re just …” Hawes said, pausing. “teens. We were teens once, you know, and it's a hard age, but they’re so special and so kind and so brave.”

However, it’s not a perfect world for many students when they first arrive at the Sparrow’s Nest seeking shelter.

“Otherwise, they wouldn't be here. As a team we meet the kids where they’re at,” Hawes said. “That’s where the impact happens. That’s where the success happens.”

A teen’s life experience when they arrive is unique to each individual.

“There’s no formula to this job. Every kid is different and they’re all in different places and they all have different experiences and they all have different dreams,” she said.

Hawes has found her strong suit in working with this age group.

“I love being able to have intentional and in-depth conversations with these kids. These kids know more than I do most of the time and have so much life experience. Also, I love being goofy and acting like a kid some of the time and I can do that with them,” she said.

“They are in that really pivotal time of their lives where they’re transitioning between kid and young adulthood,” she adds. “That’s a hard place to be. I know when I was graduating high school it was just a lot. It’s very confusing. There’s lots of anxiety.”

Hawes said she is enjoying supporting the students as they gain life skills and independence.

“Just kind of propel them into that next season in their lives,” she said.

Working with youths takes a certain personality and skill set.

“You can either do it or you can’t and an education really helps, but I could have a bachelor’s in psychology or even a master’s and still not be good with kids,” she said.

Growing up in Montana, it’s no surprise that Hawes loves the outdoors and staying active.

“My parents always took me out hiking and biking, swimming and camping. I love to ski. I also love sports. I grew up playing soccer,” she said.

She gets to share that enthusiasm by taking the youth in her charge out paddleboarding or bowling, for example.

“I really value the time spent getting to know them. The good conversations. That’s where the success happens,” Hawes said.

As the homes executive director, Buckley explains why Hawes was a good fit for the program manager position.

“I valued the fact that she was local and she kind of understood the needs and just the dichotomy of wealth and poverty in our community,” Buckley said. “I grew up in Whitefish and anytime I tell somebody that they think I have a trust fund. I do not. And so it’s good when somebody can understand truly where the cracks are. And then her energy. Upon meeting her I just knew she’d be able to connect with these kids — approach them from a place of caring. She made it clear she didn’t want to be tied to her desk. She wanted to be out in the community.”

The Sparrow’s Nest can accommodate up to eight students. Currently, there are six residents. Referrals primarily come from school counselors, however, there needs to be parental consent to live there. The nonprofit operates completely through community donations and fundraising such as the Whitefish Community Foundation Great Fish Community Challenge in August.

“I would love to see this program expand and grow because I think there are still a lot of needs that could be met in this community,” Hawes said.

For more information about Sparrow’s Nest or to donate visit www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org/.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 406-758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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