Copy of Samara Stories Logos

The Work

-A Reflection from Julia Sleeper-Whiting, Founder Executive Director-

Over the years I have struggled to identify my purpose and role in the world. This may sound odd; after all, I am a founder of a youth organization that has grown steadily over the last nine years, receiving awards and accolades from multiple organizations and individuals. Tree Street has made a difference in the lives of so many youths and their families. So what’s the issue? 


Is it me, Julia, or is it Tree Street?  How do I differentiate the two?  The irony is that the more Tree Street grew and the more I evolved in my role, the more support I was giving to those connected to the center (kids, staff, peers, supporters) in navigating these exact same questions, but if I’m being honest I never took the space or made the time to answer them for myself. 


When we began Samara Stories some 6 weeks ago at the beginning of the Covid-19 quarantine, our intention was to create a space where people of all backgrounds could come together in unity, share wisdom, while trusting the “right seeds” to land with the “right people” to inspire new growth. Now, it’s perhaps too early to tell if that has happened for others, but for me the lessons I have gleaned from the first 5 stories (and maybe being trapped at home) has challenged me to do the work I so desperately needed and wanted to do.


Malcolm’s story challenged me around self-love, a concept that has eluded me for so long. Don’t get me wrong I like myself, but to truly love oneself in the absence of others’ opinions and feedback takes intentionality and forgiveness. This is the work I have begun.

Alli’s story speaks to an identity battle I have had my whole life, right up to this very moment. When you don’t seem to fit anywhere fully, but also fit everywhere partially, is an extremely hard role to play in the world, especially in today’s extremely polarized society. As Alli so eloquently put it, “I am grey,” but accepting this as a gift is the work I have begun. 

Oren’s story reminds me so much of our Tree kids. Most days they are so unapologetically them, like something in themselves will always lead them back to their true north. But the pressures and risks to follow what the world sees as right vs. the true conviction within is a constant battle. Having the confidence to follow this inner passion and voice even when others don’t understand is the work I have begun. 

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Mike’s story hit me to the core the way I’m sure it did for others with its authenticity, pain, and reality. We teach our youth at Tree that just because something is reality doesn’t always make it right;  a statement I have said too many times over the years in hopes of motivating kids to move past their pains to solutions thinking. This time, however I forced myself to just sit in the reality of his story, recognizing and grappling with the experience he shares with so many, but is something I will never fully understand. Far too often, I think we jump to problem solving without giving true honor, space, and voice to those most impacted by the racism in our country because of the discomfort.  Denial or avoidance is often just easier for especially those of us who do not experience this painful reality as our own. Perhaps the real work for these individuals begins with letting the truth and pain in, not as our own, but as something to be heard, given space, and honored as it is so invisibly and gracefully carried by so many. This is the work I have begun. 

And lastly, Paula’s story of tribute to her parents and recognition of their characteristics and values that made her the person she is today was a good reminder that all of us have had influences from our pasts, some good some bad and that putting together the pieces makes the aggregate. Knowing the parts of yourself you have gleaned from others (even if it is very little that one knows) is one of the keys to becoming who you are and finding your purpose in this world. Some roots run deep, others are just sprouting, but their importance never changes. This is the work I have begun. 


I am extremely grateful for the wisdom shared in these Samara Stories and hope others will continue to share their own. I am also grateful for the space to grow during this unique time. 


What work have you begun?