July 8, 2015 | noon
By Rachel Wilson '15
Around Bethel, Jesse Phenow ’14 is well known for his intense football skills. As running back, Phenow played an integral role in the Bethel football team’s success during his four years at Bethel.
Off the field, however, Phenow is best known for his humanitarian heart. Raised in Richfield, Minnesota, Phenow was surrounded by diversity—ethnically and economically—from a young age. According to Phenow, his upbringing played an important role in his desire to engage varying cultural groups. He grew to care about the forgotten. He grew to root for the underdog. He grew to speak for those who could not speak for themselves.
At Bethel, Phenow studied relational communication as well as biblical and theological studies. It was during his intercultural communication class in 2012 that Phenow and his classmate and friend, Kellen Kersten, were introduced to a family in St. Paul with whom they were to spend time with as a part of the course. The family of nine—father, mother, and seven sons ages 1-14—were refugees from Burma, now called Myanmar.
Both Phenow and Kersten took the assignment far beyond the course requirement and developed a strong, lasting bond with the family, who were part of the Karen people group. “It really just started as showing up and hanging out and kind of amazingly has evolved into our lives being intertwined,” Phenow explains. “We are continually becoming more invested in the many facets of each others’ lives.”
Phenow and Kersten’s care for the Karen family spread far beyond their reach—and has since encompassed some of their closest friends, family, professors, teammates, and even coaches. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes an army to be invested in seven little boys,” Phenow says.
From school plays, to play dates, to appearing in Phenow’s older brother’s wedding together, Phenow and Kersten have participated in many aspects of the family’s lives. Together, they make an effort to continue cultivating a relationship with the Karen family of St. Paul by taking them out to dinner, helping with schoolwork, teaching the boys how to swim, buying the family snow gear, getting an air conditioning unit for their apartment, and most importantly, simply being a constant in their lives.
As a part of his passion for people and his love for the family, Phenow recently spent six months in Mae Sot, a district of Western Thailand that borders Myanmar and is home to the Karen people. “My only agenda was really just to learn as much as I could to better serve and relate to the Karen community in Minnesota,” Phenow says.
From December 2014 through May 2015, Phenow lived and worked with the people of Mae Sot, specifically assisting with children. He traveled into Myanmar and visited refugee camps on the Thailand/Myanmar border. “I felt that I kind of owe it to them as well as myself to really learn and absorb as much as I could about their culture, their home, their world,” Phenow says. “It would be pretty weird to have a best friend or a brother and not know anything about where and what they came from.”
Now back in the Twin Cities, Phenow is looking for an opportunity to combine his skills in interpersonal communication with his passion for diversity to pursue a career in the non-profit sector.