Friday, August 10, 2007

Foster Care Youth As Community Assets

There is an unfortunate tendency toward viewing foster care youth and alumni with suspicion, rather than seeing them as community assets and resources.

Teens in the foster care system are perceived as being in need of various governmental services, rather than being able to offer valuable services to the community.

The truth is that young people in and from foster care have much to offer in terms of insights and abilities. Empowering them to participate in community service projects has the potential to reap many benefits, both for the young people themselves and for their local community.

What works and what doesn’t?
What’s the best method to engage this population in community service projects?

1.) Let us pick the issue.
First of all, the service needs to be meaningful to the young people involved. YouthBuild USA began in Harlem, New York in 1978, when founder Dorothy Stoneman asked neighborhood teens, “How would you improve your community if you had adult support?’

They responded that they would rebuild houses, take back buildings from drug dealers and eliminate crime. This vision, building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people, was created by the youth themselves -- and the program remains successful today.

2.) Treat us as equals.
The Vision Statement on Youth Engagement created by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative advocates for youth leadership. It includes quotes from recently emancipated foster youth, whose request is: “Involve us in changing our own destinies.”

Rather than just lip services about youth involvement, young people in and from the foster care system desire a meaningful role in directing their own futures. In service projects, they are not just there to receive orders - they need to be engaged in brainstorming and critical thinking.

Whenever possible, young people should be involved in the planning and overall vision for the service project. It's only by active engagement that this program will meet their developmental needs.

3.) Be trustworthy and reliable.
Facilitator should strive to create a well-structured program with a predictable routine and clear, consistent expectations. As FosterClub has expressed so eloquently in their philosophy statement, the foster care experience is characterized by chaos.

Young people in the foster care system often find it difficult to trust adults. Working on a project side-by-side and listening to one another can build the foundation for positive relationships. Valuable insights can be shared with one another.

4.) Prepare us for the future.
Ideally, the project would build skills that will prove to be helpful to young people during their transition to adulthood.

Foster youth face the same challenges that all young people face when entering the adult world, plus the extra challenge of having been parented by the child welfare system. Often, due to our circumstances, we might not have a driver's license, might not have been allowed to work during our time in care - and if our wings fail us in the adult world, we do not have a nest to come back to...

Depending upon the setting, young people might build skills in learning how to access community resources, navigating their way through college or learning practical skills that will be appreciated by their future employers. The project could even prepare them for parenting, if it involved assisting at a camp for younger children, for example.

5.) Support us during our involvement, and stay in touch with us after the project is over.
Projects like AmeriCorps support participants by meeting their basic living needs in terms of housing and stipends. This provides participants with a sense of stability.

When young people contribute to the local community, it's important that program facilitators be willing to advocate for program participants in return. Please be aware of the needs of young people involved in the program. If you hear of legislation that might have a potential impact upon their lives, be willing to advocate on their behalf.

The Youth Volunteering and Civic Engagement Survey was conducted between January and March of 2005. This survey found that volunteering increases the likelihood of future social and civic engagement, and that volunteer experience is positively correlated to social connections such as family, faith-based communities, and schools.

Energize, a website created for leaders of volunteers, provides helpful research, tips and other information.

Bisi, Robert. Changing the paradigm: Positioning foster care youth as community assets and resources. Youth Service Journal, Vol. 2, Issue 1.
Kolodinsky, Jane, PhD. The effects of volunteering for non-profit organizations on social capital formation: Evidence from a statewide survey. Nonprofit and Volunteer Sector Quarterly, Feb. 12, 2003.

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I really enjoyed your enthusiasm in this post.

I always think before I tell someone I use to be in foster care, what they might think or misjudge about my personality hinders me sometimes.

I give back to the community as much as I can, I think its good to show that even though you went through a state system part or all of your adolescents doesn't mean you 're not an asset.

anyway, thats my two cents.
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