BEMIDJI — RandiSu Tanem has devoted her life to helping kids like the one she used to be.
Tanem never truly lacked the necessities, never had to scrounge for a meal or a place to sleep. But she credits the people and the programs at Evergreen Youth & Family Services for holding her family together at a time they looked certain to fall apart.
“We would have ceased to exist as a family,” she said.
Now, if kids are hungry, she feeds them. Cold, she clothes them. Jobless, she vouches for them.
If they’re tired, she opens up her office and lets them sleep as long as they need on the couch in the corner inside.
“I like to think, no matter how terrible their day is, there’s something I can do to make them smile,” said Tanem, now 35, now the drop-in coordinator at Evergreen’s offices on the north end of town. “I like to think there’s nothing we can’t do.”
Tanem said she’d be happy to work there forever, in a job she almost didn’t get.
It came open last year when she was working as a counselor at Evergreen’s youth shelter. She had volunteered for years on projects and drives benefiting underprivileged kids and their families. She had also leaned on Evergreen and social workers herself, as a girl, making her just about the perfect fit, said the woman in charge of hiring. Just about.
“I didn’t have a college degree,” Tanem said.
So she went to pursue one last year at Northwest Technical College, wiggling off the academic probation and suspension that were the results of many other failed pursuits. Convinced of her commitment, Becky Schueller, Evergreen’s executive director, gave Tanem the job in September. She’s been serving kids her tater tot hotdish and showing them to her couch ever since, doubling as a model student in NTC’s community health worker program. Just about.
“Online classes are just so easy to ignore,” said Tanem, who graduates Friday.
“She’s multi-talented,” said Schueller, who first met Tanem when she was a girl looking for a haven. To rise above your own troubles to help people with theirs “takes a certain level of skill and perseverance.”
When Tanem was growing up, she had a checkered relationship with her mother. She says everything has been patched over, that they get along just fine now — but back then, to her, living at home was a fate worse than leaving and trying her luck.
She landed at the Evergreen youth shelter where she would work years later, a safe place with food and a bed and plenty of distance from a home that didn’t feel like one.
“We were volatile, me and my mom,” she said. “Now we’re close. When I was in high school, I was like most kids. I didn’t want to listen to her.”
She went off to college at NTC, for the first time, and listened with equal inattention to her instructors before dropping out. Tanem flirted with degrees at NTC and BSU over the next several years — usually for reasons like her loosely held desire to be a radio DJ, usually dropping out for reasons like how beautiful the fall is, and how it doesn’t seem right to waste it in a classroom.
“Now I really like school,” she said. “It’s fun learning something you like.”
In the job she got as a result, Tanem organizes food drives — among them one for peanut butter and jelly that will keep kids fed through the summer. She helps them find jobs or take advantage of programs they need if they’re going to get by. And she talks with them and listens to their problems, sometimes telling them the best thing to do might be to go home and work it out with their family.
“It was a long, jagged, broken road,” she said. “But right now, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. I love not knowing who’s about to walk through that door, not knowing if you’re about to change their life.”
“She’s one of those natural connectors,” Schueller said. “She can relate to these kids.”
Tanem hasn’t graduated from anything in a while. She has her cap and gown all ready, and on the former, she plans to write “Thanks, Google” in glitter.
Barely out of school, she’s already making plans to go back.
Local college graduations
Here’s a list of graduation ceremonies for local colleges and universities planned for the next few weeks:
- BSU will graduate more than 1,000 students Friday at 2 p.m. at the Sanford Center.
- Northwest Technical College will graduate nearly 350 students Friday at 7 p.m. at the Sanford Center.
- Oak Hills Christian College will graduate 26 of its own and three from Mokahum Ministry in Cass Lake on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Evangelical Free Church in Bemidji.
- Leech Lake Tribal College and Red Lake Nation College will hold their ceremonies May 13 at 5 p.m. at Northern Lights Casino in Walker. About 28 LLTC students and about 22 RLNC are eligible.