From homeless teen to CASA advocate: UCC graduate earns degree in helping others
At 13 years old, upcoming UCC graduate Pamela Kuk not only had to face the emotional and physical changes that all adolescents go through, she also became homeless and self-supporting. She was on her own.
Kuk was raised by her mother and stepfather, never meeting her biological father. When Kuk was 11, her stepfather lost his job after more than 20 years of service when the Douglas County Champion Mill shut down. He tried to get several jobs but couldn’t hold any down, and her mother rarely could find work.
The family then started camping along Highway 138 and around Diamond Lake. Because of some difficulties, Kuk left her parents’ care during this time to stay with someone she met, helping them with childcare. A few months later, she got in contact with the Diamond Lake Resort manager and secured herself a housekeeping job and lodging in a dorm room.
A year later, Kuk’s parents had found work and their own place again, but Kuk stayed at the Lodge. “It was honestly kind of a relief to be on my own, even though I was thirteen. It was a lot to be taking care of my parents. What I was doing was definitely not legal; I should have spoken with the human service worker or at least had the option to go into foster care,” Kuk says. “But I’m thankful for the opportunity I had. The rent was only $115, and I would buy my own food at different parts of the lodge.”
The food at the lodge was expensive and deducted from her paycheck. Her parents, without Kuk’s permission, would often charge food purchases to Kuk’s account while they were homeless. “Sometimes I wouldn’t even get a paycheck,” Kuk says.
Two years after her employment started, when Kuk was 15 she met a man 15 years her senior. They married when Kuk was 18 and had one child, all while Kuk still maintained her job and residency at Diamond Lake Resort. Kuk eventually ended the relationship and had to take on the role of single parenthood.
At 25, more than a decade later, she left Diamond Lake Resort. “My son was five at the time, I had no vehicle and no transportation, so it made things really difficult, but I was able to get on Section 8 housing and got a job at Walmart,” Kuk says. “I got my GED when I was 26 or 27 at the Confidence Clinic. It has since been closed, but it was a UCAN program that offered GED testing and services as well as confidence building programs. It was an amazing program.”
After getting her GED and caregiving for a close friend, Kuk went back to school and completed her culinary degree at UCC in 2013; however, she instead decided to start doing advocacy work. She started working at Peace at Home, formerly known as the Battered Persons Advocacy (BPA). “I had gone through domestic violence, so I could relate to the people coming there. Working with the women showed me that I had a niche for women opening up to me and being able to help them;I just have a way of talking to people,” says Kuk. “ Often at the BPA my supervisors would direct me to clients because I was so good at talking to them.”
While working at BPA, Kuk heard about a shelter for homeless youth and decided to start working there. She related well with the youth at the Casa De Belen shelter. “Because I was a homeless youth once, I felt like I could really connect with them. Working with the at-risk youth has been really fulfilling, seeing them grow. I’ve worked with some amazing at-risk youth. They finally get to live the lives that they deserve. This is where my heart is; it’s what I want to do.” Kuk worked at Casa De Belen for two years and then returned to UCC to get a degree in Human Services.
Kuk also found safety and security through spiritual guidance. “I went on a missionary trip with Pastor Ken Bell, from the Family Church. The church supported the Hearing Heart Ministries, which provided funding for global missionary work. I heard his story about all the things he went through and was really inspired,” says Kuk. “We went to Dominican Republic and wanted to share the gospel with the deaf there. We had a total of 300 deaf people, eight of whom were deaf and blind at our camp. I was there for 10 days. The pastor and his wife helped me so much along the way; I really want to go back.” The trip also inspired Kuk to learn sign language, and she is working hard on becoming proficient so she can better serve others, Kuk says.
Kuk’s presence has been felt throughout UCC’s campus as well. UCC student Dena Felix says “I met her in one of my classes; she is very shy, but once you get to know her she has a great sense of humor. Pam is an amazing lady with a heart of absolute gold! Probably the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
Pauline Martel, a Human Services instructor, noted, “Pam has been a dedicated student. She is able to combine her work and life experience with academic instruction. This has been value added not only for her own scholastic work but also for her fellow classmates. It is always a pleasure to work with students who have a commitment to academic success.”
Kuk recently completed her training and will be an advocate for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), the nonprofit agency here in Douglas County which advocates for the safety and well-being of children in state custody or the foster system. CASA advocates go visit with these children and families and give recommendations to the courts based on their findings. In the future, Kuk hopes to run her own missionary outreach program for at-risk youth and those living with disabilities.
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