Krystal Adolph, ’05, is always ready with a shoulder. The UW Tacoma alumna works as a counselor for the Muckleshoot Tribal School in Auburn. “I have kids in my office on a regular basis,” said Adolph. “Sometimes they’re having a meltdown but mostly they just need someone to talk to.”
Adolph’s job is less a profession and more a calling. The 37-year-old is an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. She spent her early years in Disautel, a small town of less than a hundred people on the Colville Reservation. The rural Eastern Washington community is about 15 miles east of Omak. Adolph went to elementary school at nearby Nespelem before moving to Omak. “I stayed there until eighth grade,” said Adolph. “I wanted to do something else.”
Adolph’s mother is a big part of where and who Krystal is today. Single and raising Adolph and two siblings, she wanted a good education for her daughter. That desire was shared by Adolph’s grandmother, who lived in Tacoma. “My mom talked to me about attending Belleramine,” said Adolph. “She told me that if I could get here that we’d figure out the rest.” Belleramine is a Catholic college preparatory school in Tacoma.
In the modern context family isn’t limited to a blood connection. Family can be anyone you love and who loves you. Adolph’s grandmother falls into the latter description. “My mom grew up at the St. Mary’s Mission School,” said Adolph. “My grandmother worked there as a Jesuit volunteer and she kind of adopted my mom.” St. Mary’s is now called the Paschal Sherman Indian School and is managed by members of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Tribal boarding schools like St. Mary’s occupy a troubled space in United States history. State and federal governments removed Indigenous children from their homes and placed them into boarding schools as a way of stamping out their “Indianness.” The practice of forced removal ended before Adolph’s mother lived at St. Mary’s. Indeed, Adolph describes her grandmother as a “kind and loving person who encouraged me to be myself.”
Adolph thrived at Bellarmine. After graduation she enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, but ties to her family back in Eastern Washington were strong, and the distance made life in California difficult. “I was lonely,” she said. Adolph’s mother wanted her to stay but eventually relented.
Adolph’s grandmother offered her a place to stay in Tacoma — on one condition. “I wasn’t in a good place and my grandmother told me I needed to get counseling,” said Adolph. “In native families you’re not raised to talk about your feelings or about personal things.” Adolph says the experience helped her in more ways than one. She started taking classes at Tacoma Community College and began pursuing a burgeoning interest in psychology.
Associate’s degree in hand, Adolph transferred to UW Tacoma in the fall of 2002. She took night classes while working full time at Starbucks. Adolph completed her bachelor’s in 2004 then left Tacoma to become the Native American Director for the Okanogan School District. “I served as a counselor for native kids,” she said. “I did a little of everything from holding parent meetings to running after school programs to making sure the high schoolers stayed on track to graduate.”
Adolph left that position to pursue a master’s degree in psychology at Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington near Yakima. “I focused on the mental health side of the field,” she said. “It’s funny because at the time I didn’t want to work in schools.” Adolph did an internship at Children’s Home Society, an organization that “develops healthy children, creates strong families and builds engaged communities.”
“I value education. As indigenous people, we need to understand what we have been through and we need to use this knowledge to fight for our rights.” ——Krystal Adolph
The desire to help young people led Adolph to take a position as youth advocate with the Muckleshoot Tribe. “I did a lot of outreach and crisis counseling,” she said. The work was both physically and emotionally daunting but also rewarding. “My shift was from seven at night to four in the morning but I often stayed later because of an emergency,” said Adolph.
Adolph keeps an open door both at work and at home. In 2010 she took in her first foster child. In the intervening years countless kids have stayed with her, whether just for the night or for longer. Adolph has three foster kids she counts as her own. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. “They didn’t have anywhere to go.” The children are all young adults now. One just recently graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in social work. “She told me that she wanted to do what I did,” said Adolph.
Education and compassion have been guiding forces in Adolph’s life. She’s been a counselor at the tribal school for eight years now. The traditional Monday through Friday work week doesn’t apply to her. She spends many a weekend ferrying high schoolers to and from college visits. “I’ll take any student who wants to go,” she said. “I just want them to succeed to let them know they can do it.”
The job is deeply personal. In addition to being a counselor, Adolph also coaches volleyball. A couple of years ago a student athlete who Adolph knew very well committed suicide. “It was very hard,” she said. “I had to step back from that because I was close to her and her family.” Adolph says the job can be tough but that her students keep her going. “I’m there for them and they’re always there for me too.”
When nominations opened for this year’s UW Tacoma Distinguished Alumni Award a number of people submitted Adolph’s name for consideration. It’s a testament to how much she is both loved and valued that so many came forward to put her name into the hat. “It’s very humbling,” she said. One of her duties as an awardee will be to throw the first pitch at the August 3 Rainiers’ game as part of Paint the Park Purple. Adolph is an athlete but she’s nervous. “I don’t like to be the center of attention,” she said. “I like being in the background and encouraging others to step into the spotlight.”
Thousands are expected to attend the August 3 game and a few dozen will be there to support Adolph. “I have a lot of family, friends and former students coming to cheer me on,” she said. That’s a lot of shoulders.