Northfield Union of Youth has a new director, Kelli Podracky. And she's bringing her passion for youth all the way from Orlando, Florida. Podracky was previously an educator who also volunteered for nonprofits. (Side note: she does have a huge warm jacket to keep her warm for her first Minnesotan winter.) When asked what sparked her interest in giving back to youth, Podracky shared that she had adverse childhood experiences that led her to want to work with youth. In addition, she has a transgender son so living in a welcoming community is a priority - and Northfield provides that.
“It’s important that youth feel safe, supported, welcomed, and loved," Kelli told United Way in a recent conversation. "Northfield Union of Youth has historically served youth who need stability and inclusivity. As an educator, I had the classroom that the kids hung out in, and I appreciated fostering those relationships with youth.”
Already, Podracky has not only inspired young people to grow -- youth here have accelerated her growth, as well.
“As an educator, I used to say that I learned way more from those kiddos than they ever learned from me. In these past 6 weeks with Northfield Union of Youth, I have experienced a large amount of personal growth and education, and humbled myself so much,” she said. “Dealing with youth who have experienced so much already in their life, you see where you can help and where you can walk alongside them.”
“It's important that youth feel safe, supported, welcomed, and loved.”
Podracky’s organizational aspirations and objectives for the Union of Youth are far from modest in scale. In just a few weeks, Podracky created a weekly, queer youth-led meetup to offer a safe and fun space for queer youth to connect. Right now, she also is working to increase staffing, establish the Key commandments, recruit a new youth board and, separately, create a mental health board.
“Staffing is difficult right now. Everyone is feeling it. I’m working on hiring a staffing coordinator. Staff need to feel equipped and empowered. We want to focus on stabilization and not so much on just trying to stay open,” Podracky said.
As a part of a broader, enduring vision, Podracky is tackling the youth homelessness crisis. Currently, Northfield Union of Youth does not have enough community partners for host homes. They’ve been reaching out to churches, the Rotary, hotels, and other local groups to help find spaces for unhoused youth due to this shortage of individual hosts. She said that because of this housing shortage, children are having to spend nights in other areas such as the Twin Cities.
“It’s hard to have to take kids away from their homes; they need local support from Northfield. Even if individuals open your home for a night, a week, or a month, it makes a huge difference for these kids,” Podracky said.
Despite these hurdles, Podracky expressed enthusiasm about being part of a community that prioritizes community-driven initiatives.
“Northfield is the most resource rich area I’ve had the privilege of being with. Orlando isn’t collaborative at all, whereas Northfield works with all the partners for the betterment of the community,” she affirmed. “Youth is my heart and passion.”
-- Masyn Rykhus, Carleton College intern for Rice County Area United Way