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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
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Remembering first days at Ranch Ehrlo

Mark Krueger

Oh my God
Oh my God
Oh my God

These were the words of Lis Hansen a woman in a workshop I was conducting at Ranch Ehrlo in Regina Canada. I had asked the 100 or so participants to think of their first day on the job and draw or write it out in a narrative or poem. The purpose was to explore how our experiences helped shape our impressions and us.

By learning from these moments we can also open ourselves to the experiences of youth. For example, remembering our first day on the job can help us understand what must it be like for youth on their first day? We can never have their experiences but if we learn from and value our experiences, it can make us curious and open to a deeper understanding of what it is like for them. If they have been bounced around, abandoned, rejected and abused, what is the story they bring to our centers and how must it feel when they walk in the first time? Do they wonder will I be safe here, will people like me, what will I be expected to do, will I be kicked out again? Does it feel familiar and welcoming or cold and distant? Is this a place where eventually I will feel at home or want to run away?

When I send students out to explore youth serving organizations they can usually tell pretty quickly the good places from the bad places. In good places they feel welcomed. The sights, sounds and smells invite them to stay. It seems familiar or like home in some way. And it probably feels the same for staff and youth.

Ranch Ehrlo is a good place that has years of experience learning how to care for youth and staff. I felt welcomed there and assume most of the staff and youth do as well, especially with time. The administration cares for its staff with the expectation that they will care for youth by constantly learning how to do it better and by being infinitely curious about the youth and the stories they bring with them. The homes and settings they have created are beautiful and cared for as well.
The leadership gets it. They have moved up through the ranks and understand what it is like. They attend the trainings. The message is: We value what you are doing and still remember what a joy and struggle it can be.

Most people have memories of their first days on the job. If they struggle and go through the day with experienced workers they aspire to be like, their memories and pictures (see previous Moments with youth) of these difficult experiences are met with the possibility of better days to come, and undoubtedly it is the same for youth. These places have a sense of possibility for growth in the present and future. My first day was chaotic. I had too many youth to work with and too little experience. Nonetheless, I felt almost immediately that I belonged there. And fortunately it was a good agency in a period of transition to a better time when I would learn from several mentors and youth.

Many of us who struggled early on as youth workers had a feeling that despite what we were going through, we were “at home”. Something in our guts, souls, or hearts told us that no matter how difficult and gut wrenching it would be this is where we wanted to be and would stay. We admired our colleagues for their commitment. “You either throw yourself into it body and soul, or forget it,” a youth worker once wrote. This commitment and sense of personal permanence and desire to keep learning with youth made us good youth workers.

Places that create this sense of “being home” and provide mentors who have grown with the organization, are good places. They provide a sense of hope and well being for staff and in so doing provide the same for youth. Prior to my presentation each day at Ranch Ehrlo the administrators shared the results of a recent agency-wide committee’s study of benefits. Youth care workers would receive raises and increased vacation time. The decisions had been made together, from the ground up. I mentioned how comparatively what they had achieved in the way of benefits and pay far exceeded anything I was aware of in the US.

In writing about places in Canada he called “genuine”, Henry Maier shared stories he had learned from his visits. In his book on developmental care, he also wrote about the importance of care for caregivers. Ranch Ehrlo has created a genuine place that cares for staff and youth. Youth care workers and administrators walk the talk. On my visits to the homes, I saw many fine examples of workers and youth engaged in developmental activity. They were, as Karen VanderVen wrote, becoming what they did. The TV was off (yeah) and they were playing outside or having group meetings to foreshadow what was about to happen. As Vera Fahlberg had written, there was a rhythm to the rituals and routines of daily living. Structure was present in relationships, not in tons of rules and regulations. Process superseded outcome. The pantry was open. After a game of floor hockey one group was off to swimming while the night before, at another location, football and skateboards were the activity. Workers were engaged in youth with youth. Oh my God, how good it is here, I thought, and left with a greater sense of possibility.

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