Cars drove by and honked their horns. One person danced in the yard. Others dropped off balloons and cards. Sandi Kendrick’s son watched the parade of cars drive by his mom’s house over video call and cried. So did Kendrick.
As folks passed by her east Vancouver home in early January, Kendrick, 65, recognized each of the former students.
“I knew who they were right away. It feels like yesterday that we left each other,” Kendrick said weeks later in a phone interview.
When Sandi Kendrick retired from Clark County Public Health on New Year’s Eve, most of Clark County had no idea. She’s one of many folks, who have made a career out of improving the county in mostly anonymous fashion.
“She’s behind the scenes,” said Gretchen Hoyt, one of Kendrick’s former students. “People probably don’t know their lives have been impacted by her.”
While Kendrick’s retirement didn’t register to the general public at large, it was an important moment for the hundreds of colleagues and kids she’s worked with the last 40 years as a health educator.
Kendrick has had a variety of focuses in her four decades of work, but it was the kids she worked with — now adults — who most deeply influenced and moved her.
Kendrick helped jumpstart and lead Public Health’s Reaching, Learning and Educating program, which ran for about a decade in the 1990s and early 2000s. She worked with students who comprised that group, and were known as REAL kids.
REAL held on-stage performances to teach students about sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, condom use, sexuality, sexual consent and more.
The skits were direct about sex in a way that isn’t often talked about in schools anymore, former REAL kids said, but that’s why the performances resonated. They were real and written in a way that teenagers could relate to.
The theater aspect of REAL was one factor that drew Gretchen Hoyt, then a Fort Vancouver High School student, to the program. Hoyt also loved the civic aspect of REAL kids, which dissolved in the early 2000s due to funding cuts.
Hoyt was spurred to become a REAL kid in 1997 because she knew someone who died of HIV/AIDS.
“I got to do theater and I got to do safe sex outreach,” Hoyt said. “It was cool to feel like you had a role in the community, that you had a role in helping people.”
Hoyt said that REAL kids also served as a safe and healthy environment for queer kids, and students who lacked safe spaces.
“She was like a second mother to everyone,” Hoyt said of Kendrick.
As an awkward 14-year-old Black girl at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, Dolly England was one of the teenagers, who found great comfort with REAL.
England was persistent in her mission to become a REAL kid, joining the group a little younger than when most students do.
As a student at VSAA, England saw a REAL kids performance that included a presentation from a local man with HIV. England knew the man through community theater, but didn’t know he was HIV positive until his performance. After that presentation, she wanted to be a REAL kid.
England quickly learned about how the body works and how STDs are spread. She became fascinated by reproductive health.
“These were the things that as a kid I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten exposed to through my regular curriculum,” England, 38, said.
England’s time with REAL kids propelled her to a career in public health. Kendrick helped England find scholarships for college and ways to afford studying abroad while in college. England even worked with Clark County Public Health in 2007 and 2008. Kendrick was her first cubicle mate.
England now works as a community engagement program manager at Oregon Health Authority.
“I can directly relate the work I did as a young person to the work I do now,” England said.
George Pobi, a volunteer with REAL from 1992 to 2002, would take the kids on outdoor retreats. Students would outline their sketches for performances during retreats.
Pobi said the kids called Kendrick “Momma Sandia.” She was successful at reaching students because she was “approachable, dear-hearted and easy to talk to,” Pobi said.
Kendrick said she cared about each student.
“I was a proud parent to every single one of them,” Kendrick said.
REAL provided an opportunity for kids to get answers about sexual health from their peers, but even more than that, Kendrick believes it really changed the lives of the students participated.
“There were kids who really found themselves in the group,” Kendrick said. “They could see their future as being a positive future because they were in the group.”
Kendrick said the kids changed her life, too. She learned what students needed to know about sexual health, but more universally Kendrick learned to never underestimate youth.
“Their perspectives are so much broader than we give them credit for,” she said.