When Ollina Simmons went to Atlantic Street Center for food and diapers this summer, she found a familiar face who was offering so much more.
Years ago, when Simmons was a teenager, she had experienced intense grief and loss.
“My mother passed when I was 13,” said Simmons, now 24. She wasn’t getting along with her stepmother. “I was being a teenager, smoking weed, trying to hang with the big kids,” Simmons said. She was struggling.
In her sophomore year at Franklin High School in Seattle, Simmons met Freda Everett, an Atlantic Street Center behavioral therapist. They clicked.
“I love her sense of humor, her open ear,” Simmons said. “She knows me. I don’t have to explain myself.”
Years passed, including some hard ones.
When Simmons sought assistance from Atlantic Street Center this summer, she asked if counseling was available and was thrilled to reconnect with Everett.
“Words can’t describe it,” Simmons said, when she learned Everett could work with her again. “It was very exciting to know she was going to be my counselor.”
Atlantic Street Center, which serves about 8,000 people each year, has been offering public services for 110 years. The agency supports children and families with a variety of resources, including kinship care, behavioral-health counseling, early learning and assistance for those experiencing domestic violence, among other programs. Atlantic Street Center is one of 12 nonprofit social-support agencies that benefit from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
The organization tries to meet families where they are and tries to assist with whatever needs arise.
“We’re doing all we can to wrap around whatever a family needs, and we walk with them as they’re raising their children,” said Terry Pottmeyer, interim executive director at Atlantic Street Center.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages, people’s needs have shifted and the agency’s mission has adjusted.
Atlantic Street Center, which primarily serves low-income families and individuals of color, this year distributed more than 100 laptops to families without access to technology now essential for school-aged children.
“Many of the families we serve, they didn’t have technology,” Pottmeyer said. “They are really fast-forwarding into the Zoom environment.”
The agency now completes most behavioral-health visits virtually. It decided to provide additional rent and utility-payment assistance because of COVID-19’s impacts. And instead of holding its annual holiday toy and gift assistance event in person, Atlantic Street Center organized a no-contact pickup of gift cards and books.
This fall, about 16% of the agency’s 72 staffers became sick after contracting the novel coronavirus. One was hospitalized.
“You’re the helper and then suddenly, you’re the one who finds yourself not able to be in a helping role,” Pottmeyer said. “It’s really hard for them during this time of great need.”
Even though most services can’t take place in person, recent support-group events for teen parents and for kinship care were lively events, with warm conversation among videoconference participants.
At a recent kinship-care event for grandparents or other extended family members, participants shared family legal resources and celebrated the recovery of Mary Mitchell, the program’s leader, from COVID-19.
And during a teens-as-parents session, a handful of new moms discussed postpartum depression, sharing tough stories of their pregnancies and empathizing with one another.
“If anybody needs emotional help, seek out Atlantic Street’s counselors,” one woman advised. “They’re so helpful. They’ll support you for anything. They’re not going to shoot down your thoughts.”
For Ollina Simmons, Everett’s counseling during high school helped her graduate. She knew she had an ally.
“I didn’t have anybody to talk to. It was nice to have somebody to pick me up when I was falling,” Simmons said. “Me being hardheaded and stuff, I still made bad choices.”
After graduating from high school, Simmons left home — kicked out amid family friction. For several months, Simmons drifted with her daughter, Saniyya, who was born during Simmons’ senior year at Franklin.
The pair stayed with an aunt, at friends’ homes and at shelters for people experiencing homelessness.
“Living out of bags,” Simmons said. “It was so depressing.”
Simmons struggled with drugs and alcohol. Disruptions took a toll on her mental health.
Today, Simmons lives in Federal Way with Saniyya, 6, and her baby son, Ayden. She has stable housing, a steady job at Fred Meyer and better relationships with the family members with whom she once had friction. Simmons graduated from an outpatient recovery program earlier this year.
“I really like where I’m at in my life,” Simmons said. “I’m excited to continue recovery.”
Simmons meets regularly by phone with Everett, who is part of her support system and someone she can talk to about recovery or anxiety.
“I learned a lot of coping skills and mindfulness and things I can do to help when I do get anxious,” Simmons said. When she makes choices, has a rough day or things are going badly, she has somebody to talk to, she said.
Everett said Simmons is a mature and introspective person who sees the value of meeting with a therapist.
“She’s able to recognize she can overcome, she can conquer — that there’s opportunity to repair relationships, opportunity to stay on the road to recovery. She acknowledges with the right support and self-help and treatment, she can overcome these things and stay on track in life,” Everett said.
Working during the pandemic with risk of exposure while caring for two children, who can’t attend school, causes additional anxiety and stress, Everett said.
“We talk about how she can manage to stay calm and have positive thoughts,” Everett said.
Everett said Simmons’ work ethic, her drive to succeed and her sense of humor serve her well.
“She’s brave. She’s had a lot of trials and tribulations, but despite it all, she continues to push forward,” Everett said. “She’s a loving and caring mom. She’s committed to her children.”
Everett said she views Simmons as a leader who is willing to share, for the benefit of others, her experience of seeking counseling.
“I’m hoping she’ll be a standard to others,” Everett said.
Simmons is considering a return to school and recently applied for admission to Highline College. She’s leaning toward social work.
“She wants to be successful in her life as a young mother — a young person. She has her own goals and ambitions. I want to see her shine,” Everett said. “I can see Ollina doing whatever she sets her mind to.”