Meet Karen Nicholson

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Karen Nicholson
Photo by Shari Winstead
Meet Karen Nicholson
Echo Lake teacher, volunteer 
and outstanding community member!
By Shari Winstead

Before I met Karen for our interview, I wondered what her story would be. A friend had told me about some of the many great community projects Karen had been involved in, but the question on my mind was, how did she end up in Shoreline?

It wasn't a surprise when Karen told me she had moved to Shoreline for the schools. It’s the same story that many of us share, the common thread of moving to a new community to make sure our kids get the best education possible.

There is something else that many of us in Shoreline seem to share, I’ll call it the “volunteer gene”. Sometimes it is at the school, or at one of the “extra” activities. We see the need, and we step up.

And we learn through that process that these groups (like little league or boy/girl scouts), don’t happen without parents working behind the scenes.

While most everyone with a school-age kid has probably joined the PTA at some point, not everyone turns the PTA experience into a career.

Karen was already working as a preschool teacher when her kids started school. In fact, she was in charge of the children’s programs at her church, Shoreline Covenant, where many Echo Lake kids have started their education.

With a degree in social work, and after many years of volunteering in many various ways in the Echo Lake community, she realized the right place for her professionally was at Echo Lake Elementary. After returning to school and receiving her degree in education, she did her student teaching at Echo Lake - and was then hired as a full time teacher at Echo Lake Elementary.

After interviewing Karen, it was clear that Echo Lake is truly a fortunate school, to have a teacher like Karen. In fact, I found myself wishing my son had been in her class, or even better, that I had a teacher like her in my school years.

As Karen described the different activities her classes were involved in, I begin to see not just the teacher, or the Mom, or even the volunteer, but a woman who has dedicated her life to helping make others’ lives better. In addition to the three R’s, her kids learn skills that will help them to be the kind of adults I want leading my community.  

She embraces diversity and culture in new and different ways. Her kids learn that a person’s skin color is not the only indicator of a different culture. She uses herself as an example - of Swedish descent, her class learned about St. Lucia Day as a part of her heritage. Likewise, the kids have learned about a Bulgarian Christmas celebration, and many other culture’s holidays and traditions.

The fact that her class speaks (at least) seven different languages is an indication of the different cultural experiences that her kids get to share with each other, and the knowledge that these kids will grow up with. It’s the best kind of learning - a true hands-on experience.

And then there is the "Great Kindness Challenge.” Echo Lake Elementary was the first school in the Shoreline School District to embrace the Great Kindness Challenge, which has now been done at many other elementary schools.

And speaking of diversity - you can hear how kindness matters in 21 different languages!  Take a moment to check out this really sweet and inspiring Echo Lake Kindness video.

Hand in hand with the Great Kindness Challenge, is “Kind Coins for Kenya”. After learning about kids in the village of Mikei in Kenya, this fundraiser was chosen to help build a school. It really gives our own children a reason to pause, when they see other kids without desks or books, who walk for hours to get to “school” - which is held somewhere different every year. The Echo Lake kids saw the need - and they responded. This video will warm your heart.

The more I listened to Karen, I realized that she was a “matchmaker” of sorts. She was connected with great organizations, and she was seeing, first hand, great need. Most of her volunteer projects are a beautiful intertwining of the things she loves - her school, her church, the kids, her community.

We’ve all heard the expression that “it takes a village” to raise healthy, happy, successful kids. Hearing Karen talk about the many projects she has been involved in takes this expression to a new level. She has the vision to see how community groups can accomplish more by working together.

When her church was interested in doing a community project, it was a natural fit that they help with the elementary school. And Karen knew exactly what the needs were, because she is on the ground with the kids. She sees the kids who have needs - whether it’s food, clothes or emotional support. She is the perfect person to make the connections to help our kids. Kids that will likely become our neighbors and our leaders.

It is inspiring to see so many of our kids stay in Shoreline and give back to the community where they grew up. because of teachers and role models, like Karen. It’s not unusual to find past students in Karen’s class, dropping by to say hello, but usually volunteering.

While kindness and helping others in a seemingly distant place have been important projects, one of the most powerful projects Karen has been involved in, led by Pastor Erika Haub of Shoreline Covenant Church, is “No Homeless Kids Sleep Out”.

I had noticed the bright orange signs on 185th Street and on Aurora Avenue last September, telling the story of how many homeless kids we have in Shoreline (currently over 350 kids in the Shoreline School District self-report as homeless). And then I saw the tents and cars in the parking lot of the church - women choosing to sleep in a tent or their car, to bring awareness to homeless kids.

While most people believe the homelessness issue is exclusive to single adults living in Seattle, the need in Shoreline for families is also very significant, especially the need for transitional housing.

This Sleep Out is a fundraiser for Vision House, formerly known as Jacob’s Well, which offers housing for families in crisis. While Vision House consistently has a waiting list, the fundraising done by volunteers and Shoreline Covenant Church makes a difference.

Funds raised in the last couple of years have been used to help build a new wing at Vision House. (See previous article). Raising between $14,000 and $18,000 for a single night of sleeping out takes a huge effort - and is a tremendous response by our generous community.

Besides all of the important, great work Karen does for the Echo Lake Elementary Eagles and Shoreline Covenant Church, she has a great wit, and knows not to take herself too seriously.

While Karen jokes that she has no reason to leave our neighborhood, her recently published article in Chicken Soup for the Soul, about one of her experiences in Sweden, is a heart warming story of learning to trust and let go, even when we are feeling the most uncomfortable. And talk about patient! The story was submitted 6 years before she had the experience that all writers hope for, a letter saying she was being published.

While Karen continues to have her adventures - whether it’s in Sweden or the neighborhood, the one thing Karen assured me, is that her heart will remain at Echo Lake. And now when I drive by the school, I have a much better idea of all the great things happening inside because of teachers like Karen. Not only are the kids learning in different, creative ways, they are loved, supported and cared for by the wonderful educators within our Shoreline schools.

Our great city of Shoreline is full of interesting people and places. If you know of a secret gem in Shoreline - person, place or thing, drop me a line.


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