Once homeless, Everett teen on a path to improve lives through politics

Charles Adkins makes no secret of his political leanings or ambitions. Even while living at Cocoon House, an Everett shelter for homeless teens, he was thinking big.

“He stood out from his peers in a very unique way,” said Cassie Franklin, Cocoon House CEO and an Everett City Council member. “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to run for office before my 18th birthday.’ ”

Adkins is 18 now. He’s vice president of Washington’s High School Democrats of America.

And Sunday, displaying gravitas well beyond his years, the Everett High School senior played a role in presidential politics. At Seattle’s KeyArena, Adkins delivered a rousing introductory speech for Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

“I’m going to tell you why I support Senator Sanders. But first, I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself,” Adkins told the arena crowd of more than 10,000 people.

At Everett’s Firewheel Community Coffeehouse on Wednesday, Adkins expanded on the brief biography he shared at the rally.

An enrolled member of the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, Adkins said his father is an Army veteran who served in Iraq. The “absolute poverty” he saw on the Yurok Reservation is seared in his memory, as is the stress, turmoil and fighting he experienced in his home life.

For a year, he attended the Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in Oregon. Adkins said the Army initially brought the family to the Northwest, and that troubles at home led to his homelessness. He lived at Cocoon House from September 2013 through January 2015.

He now lives with a friend’s family as he finishes his senior year at Everett High. After graduation, he plans to attend The Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he hopes to focus on public and tribal administration.

“Going to Chemawa, I realized how much Native people need help,” Adkins said. At the school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs he met kids from the Pine Ridge Reservation and other desperately poor places. “I am a Bernie supporter because he does care about Native people,” he said.

His childhood goal was to be a history teacher. With his family’s many moves, Adkins said making friends was tough. “I read a lot of books. I read about British history and Native American history,” he said.

Now, he sees elected politics as a path to improving people’s lives.

Julio Cortes, Cocoon House’s community relations and legislative coordinator, remembers taking Adkins to Olympia for Youth Advocacy Day. “He was really excited to be there,” Cortes said. “He was the one asking questions. I’m sure he’s going to be a big success.”

Franklin said Adkins is motivated to make his life all it can be. “Part of that is working hard, getting active and engaged in his community,” she said.

On Saturday, Adkins will support Sanders at a Democratic Party caucus in Everett. “In my mind, he has already won,” the teen said of Sanders. “The candidates are talking about income inequality now. The nomination would be a plus.”

The opportunity to speak at the rally came because Adkins entered an essay contest sponsored by the Sanders campaign. On its website, Washington For Bernie Sanders invited young people to submit essays. The winner was to get a phone call from Sanders.

For Adkins, that personal phone call didn’t come. But his essay drew enough attention that he was asked to speak at the rally. He had just a day to write his speech.

In the summer of 2014, Adkins got a taste of government through an unpaid internship with the city of Mukilteo.

“He’s fantastic,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, a 21st District Democrat who works for Mukilteo as a policy analyst. “He was living at Cocoon House, and one of the counselors there saw his interest in politics.”

Mukilteo staff saw the teen’s struggles firsthand and helped him get some professional clothing, Liias said. “He was trying to navigate a really difficult housing and social service system,” he said.

“He came from some pretty tough circumstances,” said Nancy Passovoy, an executive assistant for Mukilteo’s executive department. “He took two, maybe three buses to get here, nearly on a daily basis.”

During the internship, Adkins did Internet research, filing and other office work. He toured the police station and fire department.

Liias supports Hillary Clinton for president, but is thrilled Adkins had the chance to speak out for Sanders at the rally.

“It’s amazing to see what a young person can accomplish when they have that drive and ambition,” said Liias, adding that mentors can make all the difference. “This kid has a lot of raw talent.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Caucuses, rally

The Washington State Democratic Party will hold caucuses to choose its presidential nominee starting at 10 a.m. Saturday. Anyone 18 by Nov. 8 and affirming that they are a Democrat on caucus day may participate. Find precinct meeting locations and more information at: http://www.wa-democrats.org/page/2016-democratic-caucuses.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders will hold a caucus-eve rally at Safeco Field, 1250 First Ave. S., Seattle. Doors open at 4 p.m. Friday, speeches later in evening. Admission is free; first come, first served.

Watch Everett High School senior Charles Adkins introducing Sanders during Sunday’s rally at KeyArena in Seattle: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb1xGt67bTs.

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