Sarah Leaman, 33, at her home

Sarah Leaman, 33, at her home

One of my dear friends (Hi, Maggie!) from back in New England reached out to me and Sarah to connect us because she knew we both lived in Bend. It took a few months to organize something, so I finally just asked Sarah if she would like to meet by participating in this project. And she was keen on it. Oddly enough, after we spent about an hour together, we realized we had run into each other not long ago on a dog walk, too. Small world. Sarah and I have mutual friends in the realm where outdoor education intersects with social work and counseling and she is currently working in that field as a crisis support specialist at Youth Villages.

Who are you and how would you describe yourself?

This is a tough one. I've read the responses. It's weird to define... who am I? I am a person. I'm from New Jersey. I'm a sister and a daughter and a friend and a worker and an artist. And a photographer - picture taker (laughs). Adventure lover, traveler, movie goer, coffee drinker. I don't know - a lot of things, I guess. 

What matters to you?

What matters to me most is relationships. My family and my friends - making time for those things. I really love travel. Getting out there. Getting out of my comfort zone, as we say in outdoor education. It matters to me to always feel like I'm learning and that I'm still curious about stuff. I guess that, to me, is living. Being curious and loving people, loving yourself, trying to get better at things, being open, which gets harder, I think, the older you get. Trying to stay childlike. Trying to force myself to do things that are scary, like learning how to ski. All those kinds of things are what make up who we are. Oh! And really just making time for people, too. So, having family on the East Coast and I have friends all over the place - and just making priority to see people. I think I always try to keep in mind that everything is chaotic in reality and we don't know what's gonna happen to us even tomorrow or whenever, so trying to prioritize people and relationships and all that stuff. Seeing things. 

What gets in the way of what matters to you?

Money (laughs) can be a barrier to travel and stuff like that and being around my family as much as I would want to be. Sometimes living the life that I would want to live - sometimes, just because things like food can be expensive. I would say there's been points where time has been a barrier, but I don't feel like I'm in one of those phases just now. So, like feeling like I don't have the time. And then maybe just my own fears of things or anxieties get in the way of maybe doing something different, doing something new, meeting new people, having new experiences. 

What does community mean to you?

I think community is really hard. I think it can be really hard and also really enriching. And that's kind of what life is about. I think it's so easy for us to be disconnected from each other and isolated and all that kind of stuff. I think community is being around people - all kinds of people that are in your vicinity, whether it's like school or just the town you live in or the workplace. And then, I think, the biggest challenge is learning how to be around those people. And for some people it's gonna be really easy, but then other people - it's gonna be really, really tough and you're gonna have to make some choices about how to be around them. Family is an intense example of community. You're just kind of born into that and you have to learn how to live with it (laughs) and live with them. I think we kind of romanticize community sometimes or idealize it. But I think community's actually really hard. And I think it is about being around people that aren't like you and that you aren't gonna like all the time. But, that's okay. It's normal. 

What's the value in it to make it worth the struggle?

I think it can be character-building. You might learn how to interact with different people and learn about yourself - how you're affected by people, what makes you angry or happy or sad or disappointed, and then making decisions around, you know, Do I want to confront this person or do I not? If I don't, is that okay? Is it not okay? Do I need to be more assertive here? I think it definitely can build your character and can teach you how to be better. I think community can also be painful, too. That can be hard. If a relationship is broken or something and it's difficult to know how to navigate that. But, yeah, I think if you stick with it, I guess the benefit is you can have really deep relationships and people that have seen you go through stuff and they know you. I think being known is also very valuable. I know when I go back to the East Coast, there's lots of people that have known me for much longer. And, I mean, that's really valuable. And there's something that's really grounding about that and kind of sobering, too. And I think time heals things, as well. So you can go through some stuff with people but then later on it's over and it's okay and you learn something and now they know you (laughs) a little differently and you know them, too. Yeah, I think that's really valuable. 

Any thoughts on why people seem to be turning within as opposed to towards togetherness? 

It's weird nowadays. You can stay in touch with people and you can share like every day of your life with people if you want to, like through photos and all the social media stuff. So, in some sense, it's like there's almost a bigger emphasis in terms of community and sharing. But I think there's a superficial layer to that. So it can feel like it's community, but it doesn't mean that you're necessarily around people or even really know what's going on. I mean, you can post anything. You can post beautiful pictures all the time, but your life is falling apart. And that can feel lonely and isolating. So I think it's almost easier nowadays... or maybe we keep up face different than we used to. It used to be maybe you putting on a smile when you are around people and you look okay, but until someone actually talks to you, they don't really know what's going on. And nowadays we can do that in all kinds of ways (laughs). It's just kind of weird now because I think people are more isolated sometimes. You may be posting a photo every day on Instagram, but at the end of the day maybe still feel a little lonely because you didn't actually have a real conversation with someone. And that, I imagine, can be confusing. Especially if you're growing up in that kind of age, too, where you're not talking on the phone with people, not having as much of a human interaction maybe. When I was younger a lot of my friends were far away and I would have loved to have been able to connect with them instantly all the time through texting or through whatever, but I didn't have that, so we wrote letters. And as soon as email came out, I was like, Oh my gosh, this is crazy! I can just send this and my friend in New Mexico is gonna get it right away. So there's an aspect of the instant communication that's really cool, but then can be really damaging on the flip side when the negative stuff gets out to everybody. Or you're just kind of living a superficial lifestyle through it. I just thought of The Office (laughs). I love that show 'cause I think that's what community is. And it's so beautiful (laughs). That's more what it's about. So, yeah, if you're on your phone the whole time or you're choosing not to engage with the people around you, I think you're missing out on something. 

What's your role in the fight against social injustice?

Oh my gosh. I don't know. I don't know that I do that much, to be honest. I mean, I'll have conversation with people, but again, I think it's hard to have conversations with people who don't understand what that is or even understand a need for something like that. 'Cause it's like you're speaking another language (laughs) and they might even get irritated immediately. I've always had jobs where I feel like I'm doing something good or something helpful for people, so I guess that's kind of where I see my work. So, when I go into the emergency department and I'm assessing a kid who is suicidal, there's a lot there in terms of trying to help the kid, trying to help the family, trying to connect them with resources, maybe doing some psychoeducation about trauma and how that affects kids and babies from a young age. So I guess I like to think in that job and maybe some other jobs that I've had, it's more of a focusing on one individual or one family and trying to help them. But I don't know if that's fighting injustice. I will say I'm terrible at being a part of political movements or going to a rally or something like that. I don't do those things. 

I think where I get stuck is I don't think my voice really matters (laughs) that much. Yes, I can call people and I've signed petitions, but I still feel like I don't have power. I don't have money. So, I don't know. That's a copout and I don't really know where to begin. But with some of this stuff, it's so big. The only thing I can think to do is just... yeah, if I have opportunities in my daily life to talk to someone or do something in that way. But otherwise it just feels like you can't touch it. It's so hard to even make changes in your own workplace (laughs) even at an employee level. Like, if you have a problem with something. Yeah, you can talk to HR, you can try to kick it up, but it just comes down to people in power doing something. So how do you reach the people in power? I think it's hard. I don't know. 

What do you wish for the future?

I think I would like to see people kind of turn off their phones. I'd like to see it flip the other way. I do wonder what the effects of that is gonna be on kids that are growing up in it. And I don't think I'd want my kids growing up with as much of that social media stuff. I have concerns (laughs) about the future with the new administration - what the damage is gonna be to some of the things that I think are important. I'd like to see our economy even out a little bit. I feel like it's almost impossible to do things that people once did or had - get a house, have cars, I don't know, be able to function a little more on a middle class salary. I feel like now you need a lot more money to feel comfortable or like you're not constantly paying off debt or paying your bills. I'd like to see the youth suicide rate go down in central Oregon. It's really high. We had like five youth suicides that I know of since I started working here. Which seems really high to me. And for myself, I'd love to have a house and have a family and all that. I'd love to design my own house, but I don't know (laughs). 

Regarding bullying and suicide among teens:

It feels like a different kind of climate now. We do have a very privileged man in power who is a bully. I can't help but think that that does affect the way that some of the white privileged kids that live in this community maybe treat other people. I wouldn't blame that solely, but that definitely came to mind. I don't really know much about how the schools are addressing it. I know that there's a big movement to try to address youth suicide in this community. I know when I interview kids, bullying comes up as one of the top things. How do you fix bullying? I think probably you build community (laughs) in your school. But easier said than done. But I don't know what the school's movement on that is and I don't know what their interventions are. I know when I worked in outdoor education there was some cool movements. There was one called Courage to Care and it was experiential based. There was one woman in Massachusetts and she just focused on building the community in her classroom for the first few months and just put tests aside. The kids were behinds on the tests at first but once they had built that community, all their scores went up to where they should be. It seems like right now they're trying to do some prevention in terms of flagging kids who seem like a risk. It's definitely on every school's radar. I hope they also are doing some other preventative things so that kids aren't just bullying each other.