Bonnie Owens and Promise, a perfect match
Bonnie Owens (center) was named the Outstanding Afterschool Site Coordinator in Utah by the Utah Afterschool Network in October 2017. (Photo courtesy South Salt Lake)
Former Hillcrest High student Bonnie Owens’ happiness spreads to those around her as she works with kids through the South Salt Lake Promise program. Her passion, joy, and ability to listen to youth-in-need compliments Promise and matches their goal of helping children reach their highest potential.
After graduating college in 2011 during a shaky job market, Owens was unemployed. “I was in that weird bubble of being over qualified for many jobs and under qualified for many jobs,” Owens said. With an undergraduate degree in gender studies and a graduate degree in cultural studies and education from the University of Utah, Owens had never worked with young children.
“I spent my master’s learning about underrepresented students and how to best serve them in school and my intention was to teach adults,” Owens said. She taught college for a while during her master’s program and taught teens for a bit between her degrees. Yet a happy accident brought her into the world of elementary-age kids, which she fell in love with.
Once a week Owens would play basketball at the Columbus Center during her eight months of unemployment and she heard about a position opening. She remembers going into the interview and learning about the specifics of the job.
“When they started in the interview talking about kids I was like, ‘Wait a minute, what is this job? What are you talking about?’ And I hadn’t had any experience at that point with elementary kids, I had only experienced teenagers, and I was pretty nervous but I was also really desperate and I thought, ‘Hey you know, I just got a degree in this. Maybe I’ll give it my best shot,’ and I went for it.”
She reluctantly began as, what was called at the time, a group leader, now titled prevention specialist, which she explained with a smile is “a glorified camp counselor.”
Six years later Owens has moved up the ladder, with her most recent promotion to deputy director of Promise, and she couldn’t be more thrilled. “The only reason that I was afraid of kids was because I didn’t have any experience with them. They actually are really cool people and an honor to have in anyone’s life,” said Owens.
The Ninja Turtle Christmas wrapping paper, amongst all the other kid-friendly toys and games like basketballs and jump ropes, in her office is a reminder of a recent action the Promise Program and Owens took because they listened.
“We had a huge year for Sub for Santa and Angel Tree. More than 80 families were able to get gifts and needed items and a lot of the ways we figured out which families to support was just knowing the kids and listening to what they were talking about,” Owens explained.
She remembers one child in particular who said he didn’t celebrate Christmas and she asked him if he celebrated another holiday. “He said, ‘No we don’t celebrate because we can’t afford presents.’” Owens kept a mental note of this and when Christmas time rolled around programs within Promise, like the Family Liaison, were able to reach out to the family.
“Bonnie’s dedication and impact are evident on the faces of all the youth she serves,” said South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood. “She invests in them as individuals and sparks interest in the things that will help them thrive not just while in Promise programing, but in life. Having Bonnie as a Deputy Director will certainly impact South Salt Lake and our youth for the better.”
Owens grew up on the Sandy-Midvale area and recalls a time when she was a student at Hillcrest High School. That time in her life motivates her in her role today. A few of her teachers got together to encourage her to switch to the AP English class because they knew she could succeed.
“This idea that they were talking about me when I wasn’t around and that they were working together. I was resistant, I was like, ‘No that sounds like really hard and it’s in the middle of the semester, how would I catch up?’ And they basically were like, ‘No you got to do this,’” Owens recalled. This experience endeared her to teaching because she remembers how they believed in her.
Owens identifies as, what she calls, “gender variant or gender non-conforming” and always has. She spent her childhood seeking out adults who looked like her that she could relate to but most told her it was a phase she would grow out of.
“It’s super fun for me to be in this role and for the kids who look like me and who are looking for someone to look like them, it’s really rewarding. Also, for kids who don’t. For them to get the experience of learning from and really caring about someone who is different from them is something that keeps me around the kids for sure,” said Owens.
Owens looks forward to her future with Promise and getting to see more kids succeed. She has now seen kids graduate and get scholarships to Westminister and other schools, as well as a student she had when she first started who returned to work for Promise.
“It’s good times,” Owens said with a smile.