As National Social Work Month winds down, I've been thinking about what older foster youth and those aging out of state care need from their social worker, counselor or other supportive people in their lives.
What do they want and need to help them make the leap from dependence on the system to successful independent adulthood?
The best way, the only way, to find out what these young people need is to listen. Just listen.
By listening, I've learned three things.
1. They have no time for anyone who isn't genuine, real, willing to dive deep into their lives.
Every former foster youth has a story of a child welfare worker who only scratched the surface, who did the minimum, who seemed there only for a paycheck. Former foster youth want people who care deeply about them and prove it by being available at critical moments in their lives.
One of the best examples I've heard of this involves a honey bun - a frosted, sweet roll pastry.
I was on a panel presenting Youth Villages' YVLifeSet program, which helps former foster and other vulnerable youth. A program participant was asked about a time when a YVLifeSet specialist really helped him. The story he told wasn't about finding a job or an apartment or life skills training.
It was late one night, and he was distraught. His girlfriend had just broken up with him via text message. He texted his YVLifeSet specialist - who responded immediately. The specialist tried to help the young man put things into perspective, and he asked: "How did you approach her in the first place? How did you get her to be your girlfriend?"
He had approached her in a cafeteria and bought her a honey bun. Talking to his specialist gave the young man an idea. He sent his girlfriend a text with an emoticon of a honey bun and many hearts.
She took him back.
I guess giving good romance advice in the middle of the night could be considered "other duties as required" for people who work with, mentor or just befriend former foster youth.
2. They want someone who can handle the hard stuff.
Often they're going through very important, very emotional things -- tipping points in their lives. Some of the things I've seen former foster youth face are disrupted adoptions, becoming homeless, trying to figure out their sexuality, learning hard details about their biological families. Tough times call for strong, determined friends, mentors or social workers.
3. They need doers, people who are more action than talk.
This spring, one YVLifeSet specialist spent hours helping a young man learn to drive a stick shift. How to keep from jumping off the clutch and stalling an engine is not something you learn in a 30-minute life skills class. Another was called to be with a young woman in a delivery room. There was no one else to support the young woman as she gave birth. By doing, by being there, that person became part of that young woman's life story forever. That's real.
No matter how you came to care about a former foster youth - whether it's a career or a friendship or a mentoring experience, I want to thank you. Thank you for making these young people a big part of your life. Thank you for those times that you put their challenges above your own needs and what might be best for your own family. Every year, more than 23,000 young people age out of foster care in this country; without help, they face incredible challenges. With all of us working together, this is a solvable social problem. Thank you for being part of the solution.
If you're interested in learning more about how to help former foster youth and are in the D.C. area, please consider joining me at a Capital Hill Forum, "Scaling Effective Practices for Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care," sponsored by the American Youth Policy Forum and Youth Villages, May 23.
Mary Lee earned a bachelor's degree in social work with a minor in leadership from Austin Peay State University and went on to graduate from the University of Memphis School of Law. She is assistant director of strategic partnerships for Youth Villages and is helping expand YVLifeSet, a program of Youth Villages that helps young people who age out of foster care achieve their amazing potential. In 2015, she was honored by The White House as a Champion of Change for her work on behalf of youth who have experienced foster care and was also named one of Glamour Magazine's 50 Hometown Heroes. This year, she will receive an Activist Award from the North American Council on Adoptable Children. For more information, visit www.YVLifeSet.org.