Our Ina Maka Program Manager, Kristeene Smith, was recognized at the Parents As Teachers (PAT) Conference for 15 years of excellent service. A walking interview with Kristeene revealed her dedication to service work.  

Tell me about what got you into service work?  

K: I have 4 kids that graduated from the head start program here. I began by volunteering in their classroom after my other full-time job on my day off. I realized how excited they would always be to see me. I’ve always loved being around kids, so I started there. Next thing I know, I took a nice paying job being a teaching assistant. From there I moved to an early childhood assistant role, and then I really got into early child home visiting. I just kept boosting my knowledge in early childhood development by taking CDA classes and learning as much as I could. That’s how I became involved in the Ina Maka program at United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UTIAF)!  

What does it mean for you to work at UIATF? 

K: It means a lot to me. When I was younger, like 11 years old, my dad would bring me to the Powwows. He would always like to get his Pendleton hat. It was new to me, but I liked being here, I loved the culture and I believe he was trying to get me connected slowly. From coming to the powwows to my kids coming to the preschool here, I feel like this is home and I have a connection here. I feel that I want to help the community in Seattle. I feel everything is all connected, and this is my connection, coming here from when my dad brought me here to where I am now, working here. My dad isn’t around anymore, but he always did community work. Everyone says I’m like my dad in that way (laughs).  

That’s beautiful, that his passion for this place and community work has been a driving factor in your life. 

K: Definitely. I also go to church a lot too, I’m on the board for community engagement there too, finding the connection in the area where my home is. We’re trying to get more engagement helping the homeless, passing out hygiene product bags, all this work is connected and I want my kids to know this, to help, and volunteer.  

What is a misconception around service work? 

K: That we’re judge-y (laughs). That we need to know their business and stuff, but it’s really not like that. We’re there to offer knowledge, help where we can. If we see an area that needs some work, we can help in that area or know a resource we can connect them to. A service person needs to know whets being provided in the community as a whole to serve people best.  

What else is important to know about service work?  

K: Something else that is important is consulting with elders. We need to consult with our elders and take those key points and the knowledge we get from them to better ourselves and this type of work. It’s so important. My number one elder, Auntie Berta, who passed away recently, was a head start teacher. She was my kid’s teacher. And I try to be what she was to me, you know? I try my best to fill their shoes but they’re hard shoes to fill (laughs). I consult with Auntie Pam on a lot of things too. My mom is also someone I consult with. I’ve been fortunate to have her staying with me for the last three months, so she’s been giving me a lot of knowledge.  

Anything in particular she’s taught you that has been sticking with you lately? 

K: Just that there’s always going to be things put in front of you, but you have to keep strong and go over those hurtles. We never know what we’re going to face or what people are going through, so be respectful and be strong.  

What’s been a challenge for you in family service work? 

K: Meeting the needs of the community. It’s always hard to answer to the community. How do you know you’re doing good work, right? It’s always a struggle, but you know by the families, by them recommending more families to you, by them saying “Thank you, you taught me a lot,” just hearing the feedback from the community and making sure that we’re actually doing what we’re supposed to be doing. 

What has your moment of inspiration recently helping you push through challenges? 

K: My own kids, they keep me going. Talking with them, or sometimes when I get emotional, a nice hug from my sons really helps me. It helps me keep going, that I have to keep being the model for my kids, I got to keep letting them know that life isn’t easy but stay strong, keep going, and take care of yourself, exercise, eat health, take care of your body, be happy.  

What’s been one of the greatest joys in this work? 

K: Knowing that this work makes a difference. Hearing numerous families that graduated from the programs saying “Kristeene was my home visitor, she helped me out so much,” or recommending another family, or just thanking me. I hear that often sometimes; families will come up to me and be so proud that this was their teacher at a certain time. That’s just such a joy.  

So, a lot of this work really is really about teaching!  

K: Yes, yes, it is. The curriculum we used for a long time with the parents as teachers is making sure the parent knows they are their child’s number one teacher. What you have to do is model that behavior, model those interactions, and point out the different positives that parents are doing, or educating them in a kind way what it should look like. Always being positive based. 

Educate the parents how you hope the parents will educate their kids? 

K: Yes, yes! (laughs) Exactly. 

Tell me a bit about the Parents As Teachers (PAT) conference. What did that look like? 

K: This is an annual PAT conference; I’ve been to several throughout the years. This is the first time it’s been in person for a while, but it contained different classes talking about the different cultures of PAT, where its headed, some of the new trends, how to engage families through virtual service delivery which is a new thing we’ve started. The conference is basically classes the curriculum we use offers to teaches us more up to date ways to serve our families.  

And it’s really important, since these conferences put value on the curriculum we’re using and why it’s valuable. It’s also a great chance to meet with other people around the US that come together, share thoughts, concerns, or positive things going on in their home visiting programs. It’s really important. Right now, the struggle is hiring quality staff. Nobody wants to work (laughs). But I’ve heard from elders’ people are slowly trickling out to work now.  

What did it mean for you to be recognized like this? 

K: I didn’t know they were going to recognize me for 15 years of service, so I was shocked! Next thing you know they’re calling me on my phone, I’m running up on stage to get my pin, and they gave me an award. It was really cool because they had Desmond Tutu’s daughter speak, and boy, she put me in tears with how she spoke about how this work. I didn’t realize this, the work we do with this birth to three age will change the future. It molds who these kids will be as adults. It’s really inspirational work. And I knew this, but hearing it from her… she used a lot of African quotes that talked about how working in community, you need other people. You need to build these connections. It’s all support that will help the child grow into who we want them to be.  

So to me, being recognized meant I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing, because I know that this work helps the world. It’s work that is needed, and I don’t want to stop doing it because I want to keep going and change more lives. It also lets me know that other people care, people like Desmond Tutu’s daughter know the value of this work, that it needs to go on and on and on. Until we can get families out of poverty, educated, we need the work for another 20 or 30 years.  

How do you share what you do to show how meaningful and impactful your work is? 

K: I say this is a great program that helps you connect to other families in the community, as well as learning development of your child, and know the activities and ways they’re supposed to play to boost those different developmental domains. It’s a whole other educational experience. A lot of the families are really into that! We bring our elders in to visit. A lot of families like that (laughs)! We really value them.  

Do you have advice for people hoping to be in service work?  

K: I would say, if you’re a people person, you like talking to people, communicating, meeting people, and you’re open to other people’s cultures, this is the perfect job for you. The more early childhood education classes you can take is a plus, but we need more people in this field, and it’s very rewarding. Sure, it’s tough, but this job makes you feel good.  

What does service mean to you? 

K: What service means to me is… really advocating and listening to the family. Listening. You just have to listen to what they say, it’s not always your time to talk (laughs). So listen to them, and then wherever you can find the ways to help, weather financially, setting up a resource, communicating, doing work to help the greater cause and to help people.  

What have you heard is the greatest need/challenge that families are facing 

K: Right now, it’s rent, groceries, food. That’s the big need right now, especially with the holidays coming up. Some of these families can’t even buy clothes for their kids going into school.