Alumni of Distinction: Mistee Davis

by joey  |   

Mistee Davis, A.A.S. Human Services '06, B.A. Psychology '12, will receive the 2015 Alumni Emerging Leader award at Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26.

For the past 10 years, ever since launching into disability employment services as a college student, Mistee Davis has thrived in a field marked by high employee turnover. Ever since a fateful conversation during her UAA practicum, Mistee has worked for Assets Inc.-an Anchorage agency that provides services for residents 18 and older who experience developmental disabilities and serious mental illnesses. Mistee started as an employment specialist, but now oversees all of Assets' community services department, specializing in supported employment and supported living services. Though her roles have shifted, gradually acquiring more and more responsibility, she has never lost sight of the most important assets at Assets. It's the people.

"It's a great field to work in," she said. "I know people always say the cheesy line of 'it's very rewarding' but it's true. It is a very rewarding field to be in."

Assets Inc. provides a variety of services to Anchorage residents who experience disabilities or mental illness, two populations with inarguably high rates of unemployment. Primarily, Mistee's Medicaid-funded agency works to boost the independence and self-worth of the city's marginalized neighbors. That means placing people in jobs that matter to them. That also means finding housing, when needed, in independent apartments or assisted living group homes. Their clients demonstrate a wide range of needs-some may find a job they love and "graduate" from Assets' services, while others may be in a job for 15 years and need daily reminders of their tasks.

It's a seriously demanding role-some clients display severe behavior issues, and Mistee cites employee turnover as the greatest challenge in the business. Mistee, though, has found her calling as an employee cheerleader, providing support and encouragement from the wings. Her adept blend of compassionate professionalism, unwavering advocacy and constant drive have led her from entry-level to executive at Assets, all while earning two UAA degrees.

An ascension at Assets

Mistee first discovered Assets Inc. while enrolled at UAA. As part of her human services degree, Mistee completed a practicum at a downtown agency providing outreach support to Anchorage's homeless population. She just happened to work alongside a woman who also ran the supported employment program at Assets.

That co-worker connection provided the classic conversation many college students know too well. "She asked 'What do you want to do,' and I said 'I have no idea,'" Mistee recalled. At the time, Mistee worked at a furniture store as she figured out what direction to take her interest in human services. The opportunity to start as a job coach at Assets far exceeded the furniture sales alternative, so she decided to give it a go. "I got the job and I absolutely loved it," she said, "and I've been there for 10 years."

Since starting as a one-on-one job coach, Mistee has continuously gained larger responsibilities, stepping up to team coordinator, then development coordinator, then assistant director. Today, she serves as chief of services, guiding all community-based services at the 64th largest private employer in the state of Alaska. Though the promotions have moved her away from one-on-one guidance and into the boardroom, she always remembers what locked her into Assets.

"It's really about the clients," she says of why she stays in a challenging field. Although no longer in direct job placement, Mistee always makes time for the people who convinced her of her career choice. "My favorite part about being a direct service provider was just spending time with people," Mistee recalled. "So I make sure I don't miss that too much."

Thankfully, that's an obligatory part of her job. In between meetings and conferences, the leadership team at Assets finds face-to-face time with clients every week. Mistee often grabs a cup of coffee with Assets' clients and gets lunch once a month with a resident of the supported living program.

"Having been here 10 years, it's really neat to look back and see where they were when I first started and see where they are now. It's incredible," she said.

Employment advocates

And she has scores of success stories to draw on. There's the Home Depot employee who started as a back dock loader, but reached his dream job in cashiering thanks to employment coaching. There's the hardware store employee who has biked to work every day for 10 years, rain or shine, snow or no snow. A Taco Bell franchise in Anchorage created a "lobby manager" position for an Assets client, who has now held the position more than 20 years.

The support of local businesses is crucial to Assets' mission, as well as to the hundreds of individuals they help employ. She admits, though, that it's not an easy sell. Many managers work odd hours and midnight shifts; job developers have to adapt just to get the face-to-face conversation started.

Mistee and her staff strive to find a match that works for both employer and employee. Sometimes a client is incredibly excited about a certain business-that helps convince the company to add them as an employee. Other times, the Assets job development team advocates for a company to segment a job into smaller lists of tasks, so two different clients can excel in one position.

"I think people are just uncomfortable with the unknown and what they don't understand," she said of hiring disabled employees. "There really are a lot of people in need. What we try to do as an agency is break down those stereotypes. It's cool to see people embrace that."

That community-wide embrace has made her hometown a better place for the disabled. "Alaska is doing pretty well compared to other states," Mistee said of the region's services. Alaska has a wide range of social services-including Assets-catering to the needs of people with developmental and mental disabilities. "We have more options than a lot of other states do. When our clients are moving [out of Alaska], parents try to find an agency like Assets and it just doesn't exist."

"At the end of the day, it's all them"

Though she is honored by this recognition from her alma mater, she is quick to put the attention back on others (like any good support person). "At the end of the day, it's all them," Mistee said, citing her clients as the reason for her own career success.

Each individual success is a big reward for both the client and for Mistee. When a client with self-harming behavior goes a year without cutting or overdosing, that's a shared success. When a client moves from assisted living into an independent apartment, that's a shared success too. Even when her staff stumbles or fails, she sees their drive to step back up and try again as a shared success as well.

With so many opportunities and so much optimism, its no wonder Mistee sees her work in human services as rewarding. Helping other people succeed has, in turn, helped her succeed too.

"It's their work and it's their determination, but you know you had some small part in that," she said. "It just feels really good at the end of the day."

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Attend Green & Gold Gala on Sept. 26, 2015 and help raise money for the UAA Alumni Scholarship Endowment. Tables and individual tickets are available online.

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