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by Alison Krupnick

If Jami Bess came to visit after you’d just had a baby, you would feel enveloped in the warmth of her presence, which feels like a virtual hug. Bess is an Outreach Doula Program Manager with Open Arms Perinatal Services, a community-based organization offering birth, early childhood and parenting support for low-income and marginalized families in King County. She sees parents who are experiencing a range of challenges and she offers them support without judgment.

She’s also a Rainier Scholars mom. Her son, Ossie, a member of Cohort 17, is now a seventh grader at Seattle Academy, one of several independent school choices available to him after he completed the challenging 14-month academic enrichment phase. “It felt wonderful to know that there were multiple options for Ossie for middle school that would keep him on a college trajectory and give him access to an amazing educational experience,” says Jami. “Without Rainier Scholars, the opportunity for these schools would not have been on my radar.”

Having made it through the hard part, it’s easy to assume that Jami Bess would be ready for a break from providing hands-on support. But that’s not how she operates.

She knows how it feels to desperately want an opportunity like Rainer Scholars for your child. She also knows how it feels when that opportunity is out of reach. Bess initially applied to Rainier Scholars for her oldest son Akim, now 19, but he was not accepted into the program. Fast forward five years. Having learned what her family needed to do differently, when application season rolled around for Ossie, she   jumped at the chance for him to become a Rainier Scholar.

Once he joined Cohort 17, Bess felt as if her whole family became part of the Rainier Scholars family. Now, daughter Ayana, age 8, is an aspiring Rainier Scholar.

“The way Rainier Scholars shows up for families has definitely influenced how I interact with my kids and school,” says Bess. “Especially for families who lack support, Rainier Scholars fills in the gaps.”

Jami Bess’s community roots run deep, so it’s no surprise that she has been applying the professional wisdom she’s acquired from conducting home visits, blended with her personal experience as a Rainier Scholars applicant and community member, to assist with one of the program’s key strategic initiatives – increasing Multi-Generational African American (MGAA) recruitment and retention. Specifically, she’s interested in creating early connections between Black American families and Rainier Scholars, so that those families can access information and resources to put their children on the path to college well before fourth grade, when students are eligible to apply to the program. She has been working closely with Dave Sarju, who leads Rainier Scholars’ MGAA community engagement strategy. In late September, Sarju and Bess, in partnership with Rainier Scholars staff, Seattle Public Schools and a host of community organizations, led their first community workshop, with some eye-opening results.

“It’s hard reaching parents who think school is taking care of their children and help them understand that there are things they can do to support their child’s chances of attending college,” says Bess. “Particularly parents who are struggling and don’t have the capacity to do more.”

Bess believes that stability gaps and information gaps hinder even the best-intentioned parents from supporting their children on the path to college. She wants to take fear for the future out of the equation, as well as reassure parents that they are doing a good job, despite their challenges. “In my work, I see successes every day,” she says.

Sarju agrees that it’s important to meet parents where they are, to provide an honest picture of what it takes to send a child to college and to provide more nurturing high-expectation environments. In collaboration with Rainier Scholars’ academic and mental health counseling staff, he’s developed a roadmap that parents can use to maximize their children’s college options. Bess wants to help spread that message, making sure community voices are heard. She’s flush with ideas on how to strengthen peer-to-peer support among Rainier Scholars parents, make academic resources more broadly available to communities outside of Rainier Scholars, as well as engage brand-new parents, with gestures like sending their baby a book.

Leading by example is something parents can do to support their children’s academic future; advice Jami Bess takes to heart. She is preparing to return to college to complete her bachelor’s degree and envisions family homework evenings, with she, Ossie and Ayana working side-by-side. Though Akim’s educational journey has been more challenging, he also is now on a college pathway.

But no matter how busy she is with work, school and supporting her family, Bess will continue to find ways to help communities, offering support without judgment. That’s just how she operates.