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Empowering youth to give back 

2011

Hello,
 
I am a CYCC student and my practicum placement is at an emergency/temporary shelter for homeless youth. I would like to get the youth in the program involved in their surrounding community. However, I am having trouble coming up with ideas on how to do this. The youth in the program are there voluntarily. Some are very street-entrenched and others have varying disorders, behavioural issues and addictions.  I would like to get them interested or excited about doing volunteer work, meeting their neighbours (i.e. the residents of the elderly home across the street), and taking pride in their temporary home by cleaning up garbage and graffiti. 

Now, I understand getting any teenager excited about any type of work is a challenge in itself. Nonetheless, I am determined to provide an opportunity for the youth at this shelter to give back and experience the joys that accompany the task. I truly believe that if they felt involved in and part of the community then they would be less likely to be rude to their neighbours and vandalise property because they would feel connected to their surroundings, be positively reinforced for their good behaviour and altogether have less time to become bored which tends to lead to trouble-making. In addition, the stigma the shelter currently holds in the community would diminish as neighbours begin to know the youth not as “hooligans” but as decent youth who are trying to make a change in their own lives as well as others.
 
For me, much of this stems from the Circle of Courage. If the youth were more involved in their community in a positive way then it would foster belonging, independence, mastery and generosity within the individual. By working with the community, the youth may develop a sense of achievement, autonomy, and learn the value of altruism and discover an attachment and bond to their surroundings.
 
Please feel free to share if anyone has any ideas, past experiences (that worked or did not work) or resources for getting vulnerable youth involved in the community. How can I empower street-entrenched youth to get involved and give back? 
 
Carolyn Butler
...

Dear Carolyn,
 
As I read your question I find myself having a number of responses. In the first instance, I really admire what you are trying to do and I agree with most of your ideas, but I also feel a sense of charge and energy from your mail that has knocked me back a little. While your intentions are clearly honourable, I am left wondering if your ideas are based on your clients needs for themselves or your needs for them? If it is the former, then go ahead and I wish you well, but if it is the latter you run the risk of forcing them to do something that they are not committed to, and you are therefore facing almost certain failure. In ordinary circumstances that might not be such a big deal, but with kids who may already have low self esteem and a life experience of failure, you risk further traumatising them by compounding what may already be a sense of worthlessness.
 
You should also be acutely aware of where the child is at in the programme and whether he/she is ready to take the level of responsibility you are suggesting. Remember that the addictive personality is potentially incredibly devious and manipulative.
 
To put any active addict in a position of responsibility that they are not ready for, is a bit like putting a wolf in a chicken coop, expecting everything to be fine, and then blaming the wolf when he does what wolves do! Tread cautiously and keep the faith, your intentions are honourable!!!

With very best wishes,
 
John Byrne
(Ireland)
...
 
Carolyn,

First of all, good for you I think it is so important to have youth involved with their community and see a positive view on others and vice versa. Your question caught my eye and I instantly thought of the 40 Developmental Assets. Have you heard of them? The Developmental Assets framework was first
developed by the USA-based Search Institute which conducted extensive research on behaviours, attitudes and experiences of more than two million youth across North America over a period of nearly 20 years. The results pointed to 40 protective factors-Developmental Assets-that are key to healthy development. The 40 Developmental Assets have gained recognition as a grassroots framework for positive youth development within many different communities. Its philosophy emphasizes the need for us to view each other, and youth in particular, positively, equally, and non-judgmentally. This is a strength-based approach-identifying and building on positive attributes in children and youth-as opposed to the common problem-based approaches, such as programs that target "at-risk" children and youth. It urges communities to develop ways to support youth rather than further shame them when they make a mistake. It encourages the need for adults to genuinely try to understand youth perspectives and to recognize the importance of young people in our communities. They are, after all, our future!
 
When I first heard of the 40 Developmental Assets, I wanted to test the theory out a bit and would have the youth I was working with say hi to strangers on the street and they would be caught of guard by this. It is about the youth gaining the 20 assets first to believe in themselves, so then they can take the next 20 assets and give back to others. You want others to change the view - value, respect and care about every child and youth, as opposed to viewing them as potential risks or troublemaker. The 40 Developmental Assets should be used as a guideline for how we interact and build relationships with children and youth. It is not necessary to learn each individual asset, but to grasp the importance of each category and the overall philosophy. These are generally very common-sense types of concepts, yet our communities have somehow lost sight of the importance of supplying these necessary qualities to our children and youth. Building Assets offers an opportunity to provide these needs to our children and youth in a way that will offer them the strength to make positive and healthy choices throughout their lives.
 
Hope this helps and good luck.
Dave Zimmerman
...
 
Hi Carolyn,
 
Wow!  You sound like you have an amazing opportunity ahead of you!  I have a great deal of respect for your commitment to helping these kids. My only offer of help would be in contacting Dr. Vicki Reynolds at the University of Victoria. She works directly with the homeless and addictions. She is an incredible woman and a wonderful resource.
 
Best regards,
Laura.  
...
 
Carolyn
 
Your ideas about the benefits of getting the youth involved are spot on.
 
Except, I am thinking, for one thing.  As one of my colleagues was fond of asking - whose needs are we talking about here?  Is it your need to get them involved?  Or their need to be involved?
 
On the other hand, in a program in which I worked for twelve boys, we were fortunate to have a mature and experienced musician working as a cyc while he pursued a master's degree in music composition (played trumpet for a time in Europe with BB King!!), and at the same time, a piano teacher who wanted
to volunteer.  They got the kids singing.  The kids enjoyed  singing.  Then, one day, they took them to an old folks home to perform.  After that, the kids and the old folks socialized.  It was magical.  The old folks loved having some young people around.  The kids asked the old folks so many questions about what their life was like when they were kids and after they were kids and how they handled things and...
 
So my suggestion, find a way to get the kids there - not to volunteer or do anything such as giving back - just to get there doing something they enjoy. Ddinner?  card games?  a movie both groups might enjoy, bingo, whatever you can come up with.)  Then see what happens.  The old folks have needs and the kids have needs.  But I think neither group has the energy or motivation to help others.  But when they are together, well, stuff will happen, and it could be good.  In my experience, kids who cannot help themselves will help
anyone with anything when they see the need, provided no one tells them they ought to do it.  If you can get them out there, if not the old folks, then anywhere else, and they see a need and a way they can help, my guess is that they will help.  And their just hanging out with the old folks may be all the help the old folks need.    And it gives the old folks a chance to help. The sense of achievement, autonomy, the value of altruism, attachment and bonding may follow.  For both of them.
 
Kids in residential settings can be more involved with the community than they ever were before. You have a great idea.  But I think you can't force it - you have to find a way to 'let it happen.'
 
I would love to hear what comes of your efforts.
 
John Stein
New Orleans
...
 
Hello,
 
Perhaps starting right from the basics. Work toward them caring and respecting themselves first and foremost. For example, basic hygiene, dress, manners etc.  It may be a good number of them have never been taught or modeled this behavior. Before we help them become contributing, self sufficient youth, we must ensure "they" see themselves  that way. Hope this sparks ideas or opens up dialogue.
 
Maria Strada
...
 
Dear Carolyn,
 
I agree with all the points you have made about encouraging youngsters to be involved in their neighbourhood community and your enthusiasm if backed up by sincerity and determination including that of your managers will ensure  you succeed. If  I were tackling this I would not be too ambitious to begin
with.  Even if you can persuade one youngster to be part of a small step in one of the initiatives you describe, you will have achieved a great deal and you may then go on to achieve much more. However even if you successfully encourage one young person to volunteer and carry out one act of altruism, how ever small, then no matter what befalls the youngster in later life you  will have helped her or him to gain a good experience and they will always carry it  with them.
 
It seems to me you've set yourself a tough challenge but enjoy the small successes on the way. As you see I have little expertise to offer but I do give you all the encouragement I can muster. It would be great to hear on the cyc-net network in a few weeks or months time how you and the youngsters fared.
 
Best wishes,
Charles Sharpe
...

Hi Carolyn.
 
First my compliments for the energy and investment to approach this issue and to try to get the youth you are working with to contribute to the world around them. It is the basic premise that healing others in some way is an important piece of one's own heeling process. Of course, it also fits nicely into addressing the generosity part of the Circle of Courage philosophy.
 
On an encouraging note for you my own experience in practice with this kind of project has been that kids have always risen very much to the occasion and participated extremely positively in any of the programs I developed with "give back" kinds of activities. A few examples from practice and/or new ideas:
 
• We had a program called S.H.A.H. which stood for Students of Hawthorne Against Hunger. It entailed a core group of kids who solicited workers in the program, teachers, local community businesses, etc. to donate canned or boxed food items. The kids would then take the food to a local shelter every two weeks and meet the staff there and learn about the shelter program, etc. It is a very easy program to set up and also very easy to monitor.

• Near the residential program I worked in was a children's hospital that's served kids with physical challenges and well and medical issues. We arranged for a small group of our teens to go to the Hospital once a month to volunteer with some of the younger, most challenged kids. Our group was magnificent in the caring they showed and the dedication to making it the hospital each time scheduled.

• We developed a group of "junior ambassadors" consisting of boys from our 8-10 year old unit who were trained to "host" any guests who came to visit our center. After the visitors met with administration I would arrange to take them to the younger boys unit where each boy would "own" a guest for 20 minutes or so and be responsible to show them their room, talk about their experience living in the center, and then take them to a central spot to share snacks or lunch with the whole group. The most dramatic of these programs involved yearly visits from a University in Japan where the kids would have to learn a Japanese greeting or two and some basic Japanese cultural things. The Japanese students consistently commented the time with the kids was the most revealing part of their trip to the U.S.

• This is not a program I have ever established but in thinking of "modern" issues I believe some sort of program where young people who have particular knowledge and interest in computers, hi-tech stuff, etc. might be matched with seniors who are braving the new world of technology and can use some expert teaching.
 
Hope these ideas help some. Of course, success will likely be very dependent on the energy and enthusiasm the adults show in developing the plan.
 
Frank Delano,
Hawthorne, New York
...

Wow! I am so excited by the amount of responses and varying opinions all of you have offered in your responses. It is such a great thing that as students and professionals, we can connect and share knowledge and experiences around the world.
 
I was especially glad to see in some of your responses the idea of whether or not involving youth in the community is a value and need of theirs or mine. As I think about it, I feel that I should do some exploration and become self-aware of whether or not I would be pushing my beliefs on the youth. It is quite honestly something I had not thought of which is surprising considering self-awareness is such an integral part of our profession.  Thank you for presenting me with an alternate view surrounding my intentions.
 
Many of you also offered me resources for further information (Thank you Laura!). I will be sure to look further into these and pursue other avenues to gain additional knowledge and options. One resource that was mentioned was the 40 Developmental Assets, which I have previously heard of.  It would be a good framework to follow as a guideline to enhancing the lives of the youth I work with. I love the idea of the youth first having to believe in themselves before they can give back to others (Thank you Dave and Maria). Dave Zimmerman kindly mentioned that he asked youth to say “hello” to those they passed on the sidewalk. I would like to perhaps try this small step with the youth I work with.
 
Another idea that I would like to attempt is trying to find out what the youth I work with are interested in and trying to tie that into some sort of community involvement. John from New Orleans kindly shared his previous experience with getting youth involved in singing. Perhaps I can draw on his experience to discover what the youth I work with are interested in and get them involved not by saying VOLUNTEER but rather; “Let’s share your passion with others.” Like John said, I cannot force them into anything but I can attempt to let community involvement happen organically.
 
I will post an update in a couple of months of how my attempts to involve the youth in the community and to get the community involved and invested in the youth are going. I think my first step may be to hold an open-house to allow neighbours and the community see the shelter and hear from staff and previous residents about who the shelter helps and what it does.  Thank you again to all of those who took the time to respond to my inquiry. Please keep the responses coming if anyone has further comments or ideas. As Charles suggested in his response, if we successfully encourage one young person to volunteer and carry out one act of altruism, however small, then no matter what befalls the youth later in life, we will have helped him or her to gain an experience that they will always carry with them.
 
Carolyn B.
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