From fighting fires in the Rockies to site leader at the Irving Middle School and member of the 2017 Tenacity Marathon Team, Tristan Norbert has blazed a unique path.
By Special Correspondent Jim Baldwin
Irving School Site Leader Tristan Norbert followed an unusual path to Tenacity’s door; a path that included management, leadership, and team building lessons that go far beyond the offerings of any normal graduate school degree program.
Following his graduation from the tranquil confines of Susquehanna University, Norbert was itching for some excitement in his life. “Susquehanna was beautiful,” Norbert reflected, “but there’s not a lot happening in the hills of central Pennsylvania.”
Hence he began an adventure that fortunately landed him at Tenacity. But there were several stops along the way, ranging from fighting fires in the Colorado Rockies for the US Forest Service to fighting educational poverty in Baltimore’s inner city. As divergent as these opportunities were, they all shared similar characteristics. They were challenging both emotionally and physically, they were certainly outside his comfort zone and they required him to learn about leadership and team building.
Somewhat ironically, Norbert’s adventures started with AmeriCorps, a service program which has become an important Tenacity partner. AmeriCorps had a program where participants assisted the US Forest Service with wildland firefighting, but qualifying for it was anything but easy. Training and qualifying would be challenging both physically and mentally . . . just what Norbert was looking for.
He admitted, “The physical part was difficult, and, honestly I wasn’t in the best of shape going into it. There was an extensive interview process, too, where I was questioned at length about my priorities and values, how I’d respond in emergency situations, how I defined flexibility, my experience with teamwork and what I thought it meant to be a good teammate. They selected only a few for the program, and I considered myself quite fortunate to be one of them.”
Norbert’s team operated out of a bunkhouse in the Colorado Rockies’ Pike National Forest working alongside the Forest Service firefighters. When they weren’t being called to a fire, they were cutting down trees, clearing the forest and doing other types of fire mitigation work.
“We got called to work many fires that season,” he recalled. “We even helicoptered to one fire. We didn’t rappel, but it was really exciting to be ferried by helicopter to the fire. I remember it just feeling like, ‘here I am a kid from the East coast being out here in the wild vastness of this landscape.’ It was inspiring.”
The experiences were so inspiring to Norbert that he spent three more years in the Rockies. In his second year, AmeriCorps made him a team leader responsible for training and supervising a group of inexperienced firefighters. After that AmeriCorps term, he joined the US Forest Service and was assigned to an elite “Hotshot” crew, the teams that are first to respond to fires.
Then he leveraged his experience into a position with a Denver nonprofit, The Mile High Youth Corps (MHYC), which got him on the community service road that would ultimately lead to Tenacity.
The MHYC’s mission was to prepare disadvantaged young men for job readiness, and it was Norbert’s job to lead them into the wilderness for two weeks at a time.
The combination of factors–urban young men, uncomfortable in the wild, wishing they were back in the city and operating, of all things, chain saws–required that Norbert learn quickly about discipline, leadership and team-building.
Norbert recalls the experience fondly. “A lot of them were not happy to be in the wild, but I had to build them into a team. When you have teams running chainsaws they have to be looking out for each other’s safety. We were all in this together. We were responsible for our piece of land, and we had a job to do. We needed to be systematic in the way we did it.”
It was a rich learning experience for him, too. “It was quite a challenge. I had to develop some real leadership skills. I had to build strong relationships and at the same time make it clear what my expectations were. I wasn’t out there just to be everyone’s friend. I was overseeing an entire group in uncomfortable circumstances and it was up to me to bring them all back with their limbs intact.”
While MHYC was rewarding, Norbert eventually left the wilderness of the Rockies for the wilds of Baltimore’s inner city, answering the call of community service, not to mention, literally, a call from his sister-in-law.
“Honestly, I thought I would never leave Colorado,” Norbert remembers. “I was young and living the dream. But my sister-in-law ran a residential program in Baltimore City called Boys Hope Girls Hope with the mission of guiding promising 4th and 5th graders in unstable home environments through high school and on to college. She asked me to be the residential (live-in) counselor, essentially running her program day-to-day. It was a pathway program like Tenacity’s.”
Initially, he decided to pass on the offer and called his sister-in-law to turn it down. Luckily, she didn’t answer her phone. By the time Norbert called again, he’d changed his mind. It seemed to him like another “out of the comfort zone” adventure so he “packed up my car again, drove across the country and moved into a home with six boys ranging from 6th to 12th grade.”
Norbert described it as some of the most difficult work he’s ever done. Being in the wild with inexperienced young men for two weeks is one thing. Being with these kids full time as a surrogate parent and teacher was quite another.
But he found it to be very rewarding as well. “Once the guys opened up to you and trusted you and believed in the program, it was so rewarding. To see how much they cared about you, how much we cared about them and how much you had to learn about them and their families . . . and to see the resiliency they developed. Like, nothing was going to stand in their way. It got to the point where it didn’t feel like work because it was just where we lived, and it felt like family. And they were safe to focus on their academics.”
Given all these prior experiences it seems almost inevitable that Norbert’s pathway would merge with Tenacity’s. But it took another woman in his life to be the catalyst.
He explains, “My fiancé got a job offer she couldn’t refuse in Boston, and I came with her. I actually stumbled on Tenacity, started as a part time tennis instructor and quickly realized there was a lot more to it. The fit seemed really right. I could easily see working with the kids given my residential experience in Baltimore, working on fire crews in Colorado and leading teams of kids out into the wild; it seemed like a nice, neat experience package that would fit well with Tenacity.”
And it has fit very well. Now in his 5th year with Tenacity, currently as the site leader at the Irving Middle School, he says, “I get a chance to recruit our kids in 5th and 6th grade and follow them through to the 8th. To see the maturity and progress that happens in those years is really remarkable.”
He continued, “Throughout my life I wanted to find jobs I just thought were cool and that I would really enjoy doing and get some meaning out of. As I reflect on all this, here’s what it comes down to. I want to work for organizations that I believe in and that I think are staying true to helping build stronger communities.”