20 for the Next 20 2015
President and CEO, Adult Friends for Youth
When Deborah Spencer-Chun contemplated a career, the decision was easy. From her parents, who worked for social service agencies, to her siblings, she says helping others is in her DNA. That was 27 years ago. Today, she’s as committed as ever.
While there was no question about her career, the population she ended up working with surprised her. “I didn’t start thinking gangs or male youth. Most people shy away because they think it’s tough to work with adolescents. But I think adolescents are a misunderstood group of kids. This stage when they are trying to find themselves is the best time. … They’re so full of energy and ideas.”
When she first started, she was primarily out in the field, connecting with kids and rescuing them from fights at three in the morning. Nowadays, she spends more time educating the public on their program. But, regardless of what her job entails, Spencer-Chun is excited and proud of the things her kids and the organization has accomplished.
“We don’t have a termination phase so our kids come back at any time,” she says. “It’s so exciting that we have the kind of relationship with our students that they always call us and want to visit and keep us updated. I’m really blessed to have this job. … I see this as a purpose in life for me.”
Even on bad days, she doesn’t lose sight of why this is her life’s work. “When you lose them to violence and suicide, it’s never easy. But then you remember the reason you’re here. One question I always think about and ask our kids is: ‘What if we didn’t exist?’ Where would they be today? They would say, ‘I’d either be dead or in jail.’ ”
That was the case for former client Malakai Maumalanga. “She was right there with him even when he was incarcerated,” says Adult Friends for Youth VP McKay Schwenke, who has worked alongside Spencer-Chun for the past 23 years. “When he got out of prison, Deb continued to work with him and encouraged him to go to college. He went on to get his bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. Today, he is one of our lead clinicians. That’s just an example of how she’s always willing to do what she can to help. These are her own kids.”