A difficult assignment is a challenge, not a chore. A year ago, Leah Livingston was handed a challenge in a program she coordinates to keep kids in school. This year she is seeing positive results.

Leah Romine Livingston graduated from Pratt High School in 1994, Pratt Community College in 1996 and Barclay College in 2000. She is being honored as one of five “Unsung Heroes” by Communities in Schools, a leading dropout prevention organization. The award will be presented at a ceremony next January in Charlotte, N.C.

Livingston coordinates two programs for students in Lakewood, Wash., where she lives with her husband Daniel and two daughters.

A Champions Mentor program serves 85 students who have been identified as needing an additional supportive relationship. Last year, a student was referred to her by another site coordinator. He was struggling to make school a priority, Livingston said, in part because of cultural factors. He needed a mentor who could understand life for a fifth grader whose extended family faced hardships in Africa. She was asked to find an African male role model, a difficult task even in an urban area.

Thinking she might “know somebody who knew somebody” she posted a request on Facebook. A man from Nigeria volunteered to drive 30 miles one way once a week to meet with the boy during school time and help him “keep his head in the game.”

“It’s really fun to see that relationship going,” Livingston said.

While that mentor-student relationship is successful because the match is so specific, Livingston stresses that every adult has something they can offer a student.

End-of-year surveys with mentees show a satisfaction level of almost 100 percent, she said. The students are more confident, feel better about school and are more positive about life.

Livingston also coordinates an after-school program at the Tillicum Community Learning Center with a focus on academics and enrichment clubs. Seventy-five third- through fifth-graders are enrolled and there is a waiting list. Clubs include music, which Livingston leads, sports, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and an art club. The program also includes field trips, family nights and other ways for parents to get involved.

“We understand that dropping out is a process that begins way before high school,” Livingston said. “If we can keep students on target and at benchmark, it reduces the chances they’ll drop out.”

The learning center also assesses and finds solutions for needs like clothing, dental care, eyeglasses and other non-academic things that cause students to fall behind.

“Mrs. Livingston’s positive and ‘always there for you’ attitude is a huge addition to any school climate,” said Tillicum Principal Taj Jensen, quoted in a Lakewood newspaper, The Suburban Times. “She responds well to parents, teachers, staff, community partners and children....She is a huge support for our community and trusted by staff, students and community members.”

Livingston’s degree from Barclay College is in youth ministry. Her exposure to education as a career came from her mother, Janet Shinkle, who taught English at Pratt High School and her grandmother, Barbara Shinkle, a longtime USD 382 kindergarten teacher.

“It feels very natural for me to come alongside them (teachers) and support them in school,” she said.

Daniel Livingston is a youth pastor in Tacoma, of which Lakewood is a suburb. A Washington native, he also earned a degree at Barclay College.