Graduate recognized for career dedicated to helping youth

For his contributions to bettering the lives of homeless children, youth and families, Jim Theofelis is the recipient of Seattle Central’s 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award

Jim Theofelis, a graduate of Seattle Central College, has dedicated his career to helping one of the most vulnerable groups in our community – homeless youth and young adults. From starting two nonprofit organizations to drafting legislation, Theofelis has been at the forefront of this serious issue. In recognition of his accomplishments, he is this year’s recipient of the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award, given annually to an outstanding former student who has achieved success in professional, academic and civic activities.

“We are enormously proud of Jim’s pioneering work to develop compassionate solutions to the difficult problem of youth homelessness, making him most deserving of this award,” said President Sheila Edwards Lange, Ph.D. “Jim embodies everything we hope for our alumni to achieve – success in their chosen career, and a passion for making our communities better, more livable places.”

Early years
Growing up in a working class family in West Seattle, Theofelis never thought education would provide the path to his life’s work. With only below-average grades through high school, he didn’t believe college was in his future. This led him to enlist in the U.S. Navy at the tail end of the Vietnam War, serving as part of a Whidbey Island-based flight squadron on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga.

Finding his passion at Seattle Central
After his military service, Theofelis wasn’t sure what career to pursue, so he decided to enroll in Seattle Central and found an academic environment that was like nothing he had experienced.

“Seattle Central was a door opener for me. I felt like, for the first time, I was inspired to fully engage in academia to both learn and create a meaningful life. I was never that gifted in school, but through my own maturation and the incredible support of Seattle Central’s faculty, the world of academics opened up for me in a way I could never have imagined,” he said.

He is particularly fond of his instructors at the time. “The teachers were so talented and, to my surprise, they were genuinely interested in what I had to say. They engaged with me as a genuine thought partner, which I had rarely experienced.”

Although undecided on a course of study when he entered Seattle Central, a specific class helped Theofelis identify his passion. “Someone from a local nonprofit called Youth Advocates spoke, and they described the organization’s mission of working with homeless and foster youth. This had a huge impact on me, and I literally started volunteering the next day.”

That lightbulb moment informed his choice of academic program, and he graduated from Seattle Central in 1979 with an Associate of Applied Science in Social and Human Services (with a Mental Health Emphasis). His degree served as a catalyst for future degrees as well – a bachelor’s degree from Evergreen State College, and a master’s degree in counseling from Seattle University.

A compassionate career
During his time at Seattle Central, Theofelis worked at the Youth Advocates shelter in the heart of the Central District and conducted street outreach in downtown Seattle. He identified with the mission that all kids, no matter what their background, deserve to be safe. Within a few months, he had a full-time job with Youth Advocates, and his career path was set.

The proudest achievement of Theofelis’s career was founding the Mockingbird Society, a nonprofit whose mission is to improve foster care and end youth homelessness. “Our approach was built on the belief that by inviting young people to the table, listening to their ideas and addressing their needs, they will respond positively. We wanted to let them be part of something meaningful, to find a way to take the trauma of their lives and turn it into something positive,” he said.

What began with only his vision and hard work, three homeless youth and $15,000 turned into a nonprofit with a multi-million-dollar operating budget and programs that span the globe. “As a leader in the field of child welfare, Jim has transformed the lives of foster children and youth in Washington State and even around the world,” said Peggy Martin-Waters, a faculty member in the Social and Human Services program.

Additionally, Theofelis has played a leading role in the passage of nearly 30 pieces of legislation that have focused on improving the outcomes for youth in the child welfare system, including the Homeless Youth Prevention and Protection Act and Extended Foster Care. He played a key role in drafting, developing and passing the HOPE Act, which provides services and opportunities to all children and adolescents in the state foster care system.

The next chapter
Although Theofelis founded the Mockingbird Society, he recently decided to step down from his role as executive director and focus his efforts on starting a new nonprofit. “I found myself in meetings rather than working directly with young people. I asked, ‘Is this how I want to spend the last five or six years of my career?’” He felt he had the energy for one more endeavor.

To that end, Theofelis launched A Way Home Washington, a nonprofit that seeks to build a network of support in communities across the state. “Young people in crisis should not have to leave their home community and natural supports and run to Seattle just to get a safe bed.”

After he had established himself as a youth homelessness advocate and expert, Seattle Central invited Theofelis back to teach. He taught for several years in the same program from which he graduated, and he currently serves as an on-going guest speaker. “Jim generously donates his time to speak to students at Seattle Central. He speaks with passion regarding his work on behalf or children and youth. He speaks with equal enthusiasm about the importance of education, and the influence Seattle Central had on his life and future vision,” Martin-Waters said.

When he finally retires from full-time work, Theofelis wants to help train the next generation of individuals with a passion for helping others. “I loved teaching here at Seattle Central. My hope was to give to students the same thing I found here when I was a student, inspiration and passion,” he said.