Natalie Sandoval — McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Liaison

Natalie standing in front of a fireplaceAs a social worker, Natalie Sandoval has helped a lot of people in need, from youth struggling with substance abuse to parents striving to get their kids out of their cars and into a secure home. She’s problem-solved alongside numerous families and dedicated herself to strength-based interventions aimed at improving protective factors for families. 

Since January 2019, she has been the homeless education liaison for the Nampa School District, helping to connect families with the resources they need to survive and thrive. Many of the families she works with are living in shelters, cars, motels or other precarious situations. She helps them navigate transportation, documentation, immunization and enrollment challenges, while also striving to meet their basic needs, including food, hygiene and connection to larger community resources.

“My job allows me to walk alongside families, even though I often don’t have a solution to their larger problem, which is housing,” she said. “It’s hard not to be able to help. But I don’t give up, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

She credits her coworkers with providing the support she needs to keep going. “I couldn’t do it without them, because it’s hard,” she said. But it’s also rewarding.

“Getting to hear people’s stories, being able to exchange on the most human level … We’re there to be part of that moment and process, even in all the sadness and anger. It’s a sacred space.”

Prior to moving to Nampa, Natalie spent six months traveling solo through South America with little more than a backpack and a desire to experience life and human connection.

“When I have a backpack on my back, I’m responsible for me and having all it takes to make it,” she said. “It makes me feel really powerful.”

Along the way she traveled through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay, ending her journey in Panama. She calls the experience life-changing, but when she got home to Missouri, she knew she was ready for a new challenge in her life.

“I had sold my home before I left, and I knew my next step was to move west,” she said. When she saw the job listing for Nampa, she knew her background in housing and homelessness would be a perfect fit. 

It’s a far cry from her childhood dream of attending Juilliard and becoming a classical pianist – a dream she admits was always pretty unattainable, given that she has “no skill whatsoever.” As she got older, she thought she wanted to travel the world as a National Geographic photographer. This was a more achievable goal, and she still loves photography, especially with old film cameras. 

“Aperture, film exposure … it’s such a lost art.”

She learned photography from her dad, who always had a dark room in their house when she was growing up. He is originally from Mexico, and her mom came from the boot heel of Missouri. Together, they raised Natalie and her two older siblings in tiny Beaufort, Missouri, way out in the country.

“I couldn’t ask for better parents,” she said, describing them as significantly powerful, social justice-minded people who instilled in her a love of travel and served as wonderful examples.

After graduating high school, Natalie planned to attend Drury University on a soccer scholarship. She lost half that award when she blew out her knee, so decided instead to attend East Central College on a volleyball scholarship. After two years, she transferred to the University of Nevada-Reno. She was still unsure of what she wanted to study and took some time off to consider what she wanted to do.  

Eventually, Natalie attended Southeast Missouri State, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and her master’s degree from University of Missouri, Columbia. 

After her marriage ended in divorce, she logged her greatest accomplishment to date – getting on that plane with a one-way ticket to South America. “It was not being afraid to make a transition even when it was really scary and hard. I knew I needed to make a change, and I was honoring that feeling, even though I wasn’t sure what that looked like.”

Natalie is grateful to have eventually landed here in Nampa and is enjoying the Western way of life with her firefighter-paramedic boyfriend Steve and their dogs Paul, Current, and their cat Lee. She has started running again and hopes to get back to making that a regular habit and perhaps running another marathon or completing another half Ironman. She also sits on the board of Jesse Tree, an organization that helps prevent homelessness.

She likes listening to music, all things outdoors– including paddling on alpine lakes and skiing. She prefers paper maps to their Google counterparts and is really bad at unpacking a bag after a trip.

In the end, she hopes she’ll be remembered for her passion for living life fully and deeply. “I hope people know that I truly cared about people, the earth and animals. I try to never be something that I’m not or have an agenda. I hope that comes off with my friendships and the people I’m serving.