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How a ‘computer guy’ came to be a Promise Fellow for kids who have it tough

a path to progress

William Lah got involved at a local middle school, pledging that students will have a caring adult in their life, no matter what. Among other things, he helps them envision a future at college.

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    William Lah (shown here at a track meet) identifies sixth- through 10th-graders who need extra support.
    Courtesy of Encore.org
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This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.

My main career has been in information technology: I was “the computer guy.” Where I live in rural northern Minnesota, good tech jobs were scarce, but I managed to piece things together – working with businesses and teaching courses at a local college.

Then I got divorced and found myself as a single parent with one son in high school and another in elementary. Without a permanent job working on computers, I was concerned about my family’s future.

So I sat down with my sons to discuss whether we should move to where the higher-paying jobs are. But we decided to stay and I’d go back to college for more training, even though it meant we’d be living on less.

While I work toward an education degree, I have become what’s called a Promise Fellow in a local middle school, as part of a program affiliated with the Minnesota Alliance With Youth.

Among the “promises” we make at the start of each school year is that the students will have a caring adult in their life, no matter what. My fellow “Fellows” and I don’t teach. We do what’s called “whole-life support” because our students need more than just academics to succeed.

Why? Their lives aren’t easy. The rural counties I live and work in have experienced a huge downturn in the primary industry of iron mining. The poverty experienced by my students and their families is often exacerbated by mental health issues, plus drug and alcohol abuse.

Paid a monthly stipend of about $1,000 from AmeriCorps, I identify sixth- through 10th-graders who need that extra bit of help.

Recently I asked one of my students, “What is keeping you from being able to come to school?” It turned out he has trouble waking up on time.

Why? His alarm didn’t go off.

Why? Because he sleeps on the floor at his uncle’s house and there’s no outlet where his phone can be charging.

So I got him an extension cord.

With our attention, the students feel supported. Most of the kids have a lot of abilities and are way smarter than they give themselves credit for. We take them to college campuses and get them to visualize their future. It helps them realize that if they can get a good grade in math, they have a future.

I’ve always liked talking and working with kids. But I actually think my age (50-something) has been an advantage. I’ve raised a couple of kids. I’ve gone through some rough times personally. I’ve had so many jobs that I can step in and apply my background.

I had worked with two students in our 2016 graduating class at Northern Lights Community School. Both are going to college this fall. These are the same kids who laughed at me when I first mentioned college to them, so I know I’ve played a role in their lives.

 The Promise Fellows program was created in the 1990s by the Corporation for National and Community Service and America’s Promise Alliance to deliver on five promises that young people need to succeed: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education, and opportunities to help others.

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