“Why am I in the classroom? Just to love on these kids. To teach them God’s love by the way I teach them and respect them.”
Another day behind her.
Krystle Halvorsen sat in her car, pulled up alongside the curb in front of the house she shared with her mom and whomever her mom rented to at the time. “Why can’t I just . . . want to be here?” It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question.
Blowing out a discouraged breath, she pulled her soccer gear from the back seat and headed to the front door, noticing the peeling white paint on the siding. First the screen door, then the front door, then the stairs to the finished attic. Her bedroom was her haven – when she absolutely had to be home, that is. And turning 16 helped guarantee that wasn’t much.
A driver’s license on the heels of that birthday, plus the hand-me-down car from her grandparents, got her around to soccer, basketball, track and softball during those high school years. Retail jobs filled her weekends, paid for gas and other expenses that come with high school – and kept her out of the house, away from the drugs. “Lots of drugs in the house,” Halvorsen says. “It was really hard to go to school and come home to that. Hard to feel motivated.”
She did not know then that one day she would climb out of this mess and give hope to a classroom of sixth-graders that they could do the same. One day, all this junk would be an asset.
‘Not the best part of town’
Born and raised in Portland, Halvorsen had a normal childhood until the fourth grade. “That was one of the bigger milestones in my life,” she says. “That’s when my life kind of crumbled.” It was a messy divorce. Her older brother joined the Navy. She and her younger sister stayed with their dad, in that white house.
But by Halvorsen’s freshman year, she had made up her mind: “My dad’s house just wasn’t a good environment for me.” While sister stayed, Halvorsen moved in with mom – not a vast improvement. Drugs. Evictions. Low-income housing. Government assistance. She ticks off the elements of her high school years and sums it up simply: “Not the best part of town.”
When Halvorsen’s dad and sister moved to Alaska her senior year, she and her mom moved back into “the old house.” That’s when she wanted to quit. “My senior year, I started to figure out why mom was the way she was,” she recalls. “It was drugs. [She] was in and out of jail, always gone or couldn’t make it” – to soccer matches, track meets, anything important.
“This was the reality of my family,” Halvorsen says. “My friends were exploring college out-of-state and I didn’t even know where to look. When things got tougher at home, I felt like shutting down.”
Leadership and mentoring roles in a Young Life club and a 3.7 GPA didn’t stop the questions. “What if I don’t make it? I’ll just be a big failure. Where am I going to live? How can I afford college? Might as well quit now.” Her tears of frustration and ache of loneliness had filled her to the tipping point.
A change in trajectory
But just as Halvorsen would one day push sixth-graders to make a different future for themselves, two women at her high school pushed her then. Her soccer coach, Mrs. Reeves, urged her to apply for the Act Six scholarship at George Fox University. “I’d never heard of George Fox or Act Six, but she kept pushing me to look into it,” Halvorsen says.
Then Colleen Teague, a secretary at the high school, offered her home as a haven. “They really just took me in, showed me what a family could be like that is unbroken,” she says. “Of course I still love my mom and dad, but I really wanted a safe place to go home. Her family provided an environment where I could apply for college.”
The Act Six leadership and scholarship initiative, designed to develop urban leaders to be agents of change in their communities, requires a rigorous four-month application process that includes interviews and events designed for students to prove their academic, leadership and problem-solving abilities. The process began at a local high school. Halvorsen then joined other applicants for several days on the George Fox campus, where the competition continued.
Then, the good news came: She had received a full-ride scholarship to attend George Fox. “It changed the trajectory of my life,” says Halvorsen, a first-generation college graduate. “If I had not gotten it, I don’t think I would have gone to college.”
But the lack of parental support left a big gap. Halvorsen’s parents never came to Family Weekend or other campus events. “I never invited them,” she recalls. “My mom didn’t come to anything when I was a kid; what was the point asking now? Sometimes I felt a lot of doubt; was I doing the right thing? Everyone else had their parents.”
Healing among the broken
Halvorsen’s heart for people who did not come from an ideal family background inspired her to major in social work at George Fox. “I wanted a job that wasn’t a selfish job, not just about helping myself,” she says. “I chose social work with the goal of helping people, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do.”
Along the way to learning how to help others, Halvorsen learned how she could help herself.
One day after class, she asked a social work professor, Debra Penkin, if they could meet. “She helped me see different perspectives on what I was struggling with in my relationships with friends and family . . . that I have the opportunity to break the cycle of a broken family and pave a future for myself,” she recalls.
It was the first of many conversations with Penkin. “I never felt judged by her,” she says, “just safe, and I didn’t feel crazy.” Talking with her professor, Halvorsen knew she needed to grapple with her past in order to move ahead. Easier said than done.
Halvorsen’s own pain and healing began to merge with others’ needs her junior year, when she joined a four-month, university-sponsored semester abroad trip to South Africa as a therapy counselor, conducting play therapy with children. In a country torn by suffering, Halvorsen was led into forgiveness by her host “mom,” a woman who had experienced apartheid.
Calling Halvorsen “my intense child,” she listened and hugged and prayed for her as she cried because of homesickness, anger or confusion.
“She taught me that it’s OK to have those feelings,” Halvorsen says. “I was trying to fight them. I cried . . . telling her it wasn’t fair . . . no one could understand everything I was going through emotionally. She taught me that I have every right to have those feelings; it’s just how I choose to handle them. She taught me that I wasn’t a burden. In that moment, I was able to . . . just truly feel, without needing to justify why I felt that way.”
Among people who had endured severe wrongs, Halvorsen found understanding and acceptance. Talking with people who survived those wrongs, she found forgiveness. “Yes, my mom and dad didn’t provide me with the childhood I’d hoped for,” she says. “But experiencing all of that helped me forgive. I feel like I found myself in South Africa. I found so much healing there.”
Called to serve
As a senior set to graduate in 2012, Halvorsen interned with the state of Oregon. Safe job. Benefits. And a lot of paperwork. “I thought back to my time in South Africa,” she says. “I loved my time in the schools; the kids needed so much help.”
The first day in her Houston classroom, Halvorsen saw her younger self reflected in 25 pairs of sixth-grade eyes. Her pain. Her defensiveness. Her guardedness. And she knew why she was there.
So she applied to several masters programs in social work and was accepted at New York University, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan, with the aim of working with Native Americans – part of her own heritage. Then a friend told her about Teach For America, an organization that recruits young leaders to teach in low-income public schools in order to strengthen educational equity.
“I looked into it and saw that I could mentor, build programs and help kids through my social work degree. I feel like God led me to it,” Halvorsen says. “But it looked like a prestigious program, and I thought I wouldn’t get in. They recruit at well-known schools like Harvard and Yale.”
When Teach For America accepted her, she faced a dilemma: pursue a graduate program or work in a classroom on the wrong side of the tracks in Houston?
Joel Perez, then-director of the Act Six program at George Fox, was instrumental in her decision. “He told me graduate school would always be there; I could always go back if I wanted a masters. Teach For America would be an experience and opportunity that wouldn’t always be there.”
“Why not just go? Obviously I was chosen for a reason,” she says. “Kind of like my [Act Six] scholarship, I decided this had to be God. It was one of my gut feelings.”
Creating pathways for kids
The first day in her Houston classroom, Halvorsen saw her younger self reflected in 25 pairs of sixth-grade eyes. Her pain. Her defensiveness. Her guardedness. And she knew why she was there. No one else did, though. “A lot of teachers thought I wouldn’t be able to track with [the kids] because I looked different,” she says. “It was odd to them that a white-looking teacher was there. I had to win some of my kids over, because I looked different from them.”
Halvorsen began to share her story. Bit by bit, and on a sixth-grade level. “I was born in Oregon,” she told her class, showing pictures of mountains and trees. Some kids had never seen beyond the McDonald’s in their neighborhood. “My parents divorced,” she told them. “Everyone whose parents are divorced, raise your hands – if you’re comfortable doing this.” All over the classroom, kids raised their hands.
“It helped build vulnerability, helped them draw connections among each other,” she says.
Halvorsen quickly became more than a teacher. “I was a counselor. Sometimes I was their only friend,” she recalls. “I had to ... show them they’re worth something and there’s a pathway for them if they choose to work for it.”
A pathway for kids like Nicolas, who started acting out. Halvorsen kept him after class for “tutorials” – her substitute for detention – “to help them get their work done and be there to just see what was going on in case they needed to talk.” That afternoon she asked Nicolas if something was wrong. “He opened up, saying his dad was on drugs. He could relate to me because I was open about what I went through,” she says. “He wanted to be an NFL player when he got older. I gave him a book about Michael Oher [an NFL player with a similar background]. A year later he wrote a letter about how I was his favorite teacher.”
Halvorsen’s DC Scholars stop for a picture at the airport before flying to Washington, D.C., where they stayed on the campus of American University. Highlights of the trip included a visit to several colleges, the Department of Education and the White House.
Helping inside the classroom wasn’t enough. She and a few other teachers built, from scratch, a program they called “DC Scholars.”
“We wanted [our students] to have the experience of going out-of-state,” Halvorsen says. “To say to them, ‘It isn’t just Texas for you.’”
They planned their Washington, D.C., itinerary, complete with visits to colleges, monuments, the Department of Education, the Capitol and a tour of the White House. They created an application process modeled after Act Six. “A lot of middle schoolers don’t interview, so it was cool giving them that experience.”
Then they got busy raising the necessary funds: “Dances, dinners, candy sales, anything we could think of.” Television news crews found them. Donors found them. They raised $20,000, and 30 kids went to Washington, D.C., that first year. They stayed on-campus at George Washington University the first year and American University the next, all without spending a dime.
But Halvorsen paid a price. “My first year I got really sick because I was working so much,” she says. Her life was packed with teaching, testing, education plans, fundraising, after-school tutorials – and connecting.
“My first year teaching, I was afraid I wasn’t touching enough kids’ lives; they weren’t learning enough; I wasn’t making enough of a difference,” she says. “My [high school] soccer coach said I was already giving them what they need by loving them. I’d remind myself . . . she had made a difference in my life just by caring. Why am I in the classroom? Just to love on these kids. To teach them God’s love by the way I teach them and respect them.”
A new chapter
Another day behind her.
Krystle Halvorsen sits in her car, pulled up alongside the curb in front of her house. Sometimes, she can’t believe she’s here. A great job. A future. Happy. Following her two-year stint with Teach For America, Halvorsen found a new way to help kids. Instead of being one teacher, she now recruits multiple teachers, working as a talent recruiter for KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) in the Houston public school system.
“I still want to make a difference in education,” she says. “If I’m able to find really good teachers and put them in the classroom, working with a similar demographic that I come from, that’s a win-win.”
Blowing out a tired breath, she pushes away the guilt that comes – less often now – with her success.
“You want the best for your family . . . so I would feel bad knowing that not everyone is where they want to be,” she says. “The biggest thing I had to realize was that my situation was the only one I could control. Once I started to truly believe that, I felt proud of myself and everything I had accomplished, because I worked hard for it.”
Halvorsen has proven to herself, to several dozen sixth-graders, and perhaps most importantly to her younger sister, who graduated from George Fox this spring, that the next chapter of your life story can be very different from the first. “You can break the cycles of poverty, drug addiction and broken families if you believe in yourself and surround yourself with a strong support system to help you see it through.”