William Lah

Hibbing, MN

"I promise to be a caring adult in my students' lives, no matter what."

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

At age 50, I sat down with my sons for a heart-to-heart. “We have a choice to make. Either we move to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) where the higher-paying jobs are, or we stay here and I go back to college for more training.” We decided to stay, even though it meant we’d be living on less.

In the meantime, as I work towards an education degree, I have become what’s called a Promise Fellow in a local middle school, 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. I and my fellow “Fellows” 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 in recent years. People struggle to make ends meet and the poverty experienced by my students and their families is often exacerbated by mental health issues, plus drug and alcohol abuse. Many of the kids live with grandparents, or in foster families. It’s amazing that they get up every day and get on the bus and get to school. That, in itself, is inspiring to me.

Paid a monthly stipend of around $1000 from AmeriCorps, I identify 6th through 10th graders who need that extra bit of help. It’s been found that if you intervene early with kids who are having attendance, behavior or academic problems, they have a better chance of not dropping out before graduation.

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 and he can’t charge his phone.

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. “See?” we say, “In 24 months, you can get a technical degree, maybe move on to a four-year college.” 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, I can step in and apply my background. I understand the situations my students are dealing with. That’s what my being older has brought to the job.

Our 2016 graduating class at Northern Lights Community School was just 17 students. Two of them were among those whom I had worked with in the last few years, and both will be 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.

Promise FellowsThe Promise Fellows program is available in Minnesota and Massachusetts. It 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 thrive and succeed: Caring Adults, Safe Places, A Healthy Start, An Effective Education & The Opportunity to Serve.

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