CYC-Online 128 OCTOBER 2009
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A wall of strength to be admired

Janice Michieli

After ten, long years of being a part-time student, I had come to my final challenge, the fourth year practicum. Deciding on a place for this practicum was quite problematic. I decided that it would be best to focus in an area where I felt both confident and competent and, having been a licensed daycare operator for several years and having worked with children with challenges, the answer became obvious. I immediately sought after a practicum in the area of Supportive Childcare. Two months into the placement, it was clear that there were several factors preventing me from gaining enough hours of work experience. It became crucial that another option was needed.

A new placement was found. This new role was in an area where I had no experience. Little did I know that this new placement would not only force me to face one of my biggest fears in working with children and youth; it would greatly enrich and enhance my understanding of self within the working relationship, and help me discover the true essence of Child and Youth Care practice.

The call came from my supervisor. She received a message from an agency in town requesting a practicum student. I knew very little about this organization but did know that they worked with “troubled” youth. What I envisioned were youth that were involved with criminal activity, living and working on the street, disconnected from family, violent, angry, alcohol and drug dependent ... basically, youth that were “scary” to work with. I remember listening to my coordinator while my mind and body went into panic mode. I felt that I did not have near enough skills to do this kind of work. On the other hand, this would certainly provide a challenge and with that I heard myself agree to meet with the coordinator to talk more about this possibility.

My style is to be very upfront with my feelings, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. I felt very strongly about admitting my reluctance (to say the least) to work with what the organization defined as “high risk youth”.

The coordinator smiled, she knew exactly what I was fearful of, my personal safety, or, more to the point, my life. And it was not just about me: I am the mother of four daughters, three of whom are in their teens, and I was worried that my connection with this program could somehow place my children in danger. My fears seemed to be reinforced by everyone I talked with. My father wanted me to purchase a cell phone for safety reasons. Both friends and acquaintances felt that one would have to be very dedicated (or was it crazy?) to do such work. Even some professionals commented negatively on doing this kind of work.

The practicum coordinator acknowledged my fears and proceeded to tell me her experiences. Yes, there had been a couple phones thrown at the wall and one client that she recalls was turned away because no one felt comfortable working with her. However, she said, these stories were the exceptions. For the most part, these were good kids with “bad” behaviours who needed to be seen, heard and accepted, not judged. They need support, education, guidance and most importantly, a connection to family and/or community, so that they can become successful at making the life choices that would benefit their lives. This does not mean that we, as workers, are to mould the youth into doing things which we deem to be important, but more to allow them to make decisions about where they want to go and to support them so that they can get there.

The first assignment was to work on “Intake”. This involves receiving phone calls from parents, other practitioners or youth themselves, who want help and are interested in the program. This may sound straightforward, but it’s not an easy task. The initial call could be the first big step or “risk” in seeking and receiving help. You may wonder what is the big risk? For many of these youth and their parents, there is already a history of being “in the system” and a reluctance about reaching out because of previous negative experiences.

It is rare to receive a call from someone whose problems have just begun. Often there is already a social worker, probation officer or other worker connected to the youth and/or family. Their first impression of our program can make a difference as to whether the youth or parent will want to follow through with their enquiry.

This organization offers a place where youth can tell their stories without risking being arrested or disciplined in any way or being judged and/or ridiculed. It is totally confidential unless the youth are in danger of seriously harming themselves (suicidal), or harming another (death threats), or being abused by a guardian/parent and in need of child protection. Otherwise, anything they say is kept in strict confidence. I was uncomfortable with the responsibility of Intake for fear of “not getting it right”. Would I get the information I needed? How would I respond?

I discovered that when I chose to let go of all these questions I was able to get to a place where I was just there for the caller. I found that if I listened and let them tell their story, the information I received was far greater than if I started interrupting with questions. By being present and really listening I was able to connect with the person, even though it was over the phone. If I could let go of all the stuff about me and instead be genuine and empathic with the other, the beginnings of a relationship emerged. At a body level, or even a spiritual level, I could feel a connection to a person I hadn’t even met. It is not about sympathy or even fixing, it’s simply about being.

At first, I was concerned about being accepted. I was now in my forties. Was I too old to work with the youth? Was my age enough to turn them away? To my surprise my age was not a barrier. In my own personal life I have several youth (friends of my kids) who talk to me about all sorts of things. The feedback I receive from them is that I am easy to talk to. I believe that my ease in building relationships with them, as with the youth I work with, can be attributed to my genuine love and admiration for young people, even at this stage in the journey. There is something about their zest for life that I find intriguing and fascinating. They simply warm my heart.

I have discovered that youth that have been labelled “hard core” by some professionals are the one’s I find the most fascinating. I see “negative” attributes like manipulation or deceit as positive strengths. These are qualities that have helped them to survive, to succeed.

One young woman I worked with came to us after living on the streets since she first became a teen. Now at seventeen she is reaching out so that she can make changes to her life. I looked at her in awe for the incredible strength she showed. I could not imagine living the life she has led. She was a victim of sexual abuse from the age of 5 through 7 by her mother’s boyfriend. She then was sent to stay with her father whose new wife despised her and physically and verbally abused her when the father was at work “and would then report on how “bad” she had been, and she would get a spanking from him when he got home.

To escape this mistreatment she decided to leave home and live on the streets. She survived by pan-handling, stealing, digging through the garbage for food and clothing, and “couch surfing” whenever possible. She told me how she and her then boyfriend had a special shelter in the city under stairs where they hid cardboard boxes in which to create a little make-shift room so they could be warm at night. Her survival skills amazed me.

I considered her allowing me to understand her world as a true gift, and my willingness to understand and accept this world, as my gift to her. In our times together there were many moments when personal boundaries seemed to meet, where we could be ourselves while connected at a level where we shed all defences and risked vulnerability without fear of rejection.

Their needs, and ours
Youth come into this program with different needs and wants. I became acquainted with one young fellow who was being evicted from his apartment and needed a new place to live. Our relationship grew as we spent several days studying the newspaper and the internet for places to rent, and then checking them out.

I found this seventeen-year-old difficult to get to know. He seemed to be very reserved, unwilling to let me see the real person on the inside. I felt that he was paranoid in not allowing me to understand him, feeling that perhaps I had some motive other than simply to help and support him. I did not push him because I believe he had every right to keep his privacy. Acting on this belief has not always been easy.

I have also had to examine the more pervasive, underlying belief that continues to influence my personal and professional activities – that it is very important that everyone likes me because, if they like me, they will be open to me and then I can say I am successful. I have worked hard at looking within myself to understand why I do the things I do. Over and again I have concluded that it is my insecurities that get in the way of my ability to do the best work possible. “It’s all about me” is a syndrome that needs to be acknowledged, held close, examined and then let free. My work with others must not simply be about my needs since this will interfere with my ability to build healthy working relationships.

I accept that the reason I chose this career has a lot to do with my need to help others. That is O.K. The problem arises when I place that need at the forefront. It takes work at self-discovery to get to a place of self-acceptance, to feel comfortable with who I am so that I can then accept others for who they are – and know the difference. We get there when we understand our boundaries, knowing where we end and where they begin.

Towards the end of our time together, my reticent young friend and I went for a walk on a busy trail. He was very anxious and told me that I could not have picked a worse place for a walk. I replied that I had not known that he would not like this and that if he expressed his needs to me a little more I might have chosen better. He looked down in silence and then replied; “I have told you more than I have told anyone else.”

I stopped and looked at him. I could see in his face that he was trying to tell me something. At that moment there was this special bond between us. I simply said “Thank you”, and we continued on. Sometimes the unspoken language is more powerful than words can ever be. Both of us were “being” in the moment.

In looking back now, I do not even really remember what was driving the fear I had about working with these young people. Possibly it is the way television and other media tend stereotype them. I have found the youth to be anything but scary. When one is able to chip away at the protective hardened shell, a sensitive, loving, longing to be loved individual is waiting to be found.

New ways of listening
Some of the most “down to earth” people I have met are the young people themselves. It is true, criminal activity, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and street smarts are all part of the scene, but they are only symptoms of something that has gone wrong. It’s not so much about defiance as a necessary autonomy and resilience; it’s not always about “drug abuse” but about self-medicating to overcome the pain; it’s about being noticed and acknowledged; it’s about feeling alive. Through this work I have become much more realistic and understanding of their plight and this has enhanced my belief that all people deserve the same respect, encouragement and genuine love and compassion.

Like every profession, Child and Youth Care is guided by several core beliefs. One thing that has come to my attention is our need to “walk the talk” “and how difficult this is. Our work is child-centered, with our clients being the real experts. They know what is best for them. When working with youth, I am extremely challenged by this philosophy. I often find myself hoping that they will follow through with plans which I have deemed important “and find myself feeling irritated when they do not. When I work hard at getting things done, is it for myself or is it for my client? Often it is for myself. One way I recognize this is when I notice that I am working much harder than the client to reach a particular goal.

However, it is also important to remember that people at this stage are often a mix of procrastination, self-doubt and spontaneity. Perhaps a part of them wants to follow through but is not in a position to do so right now. Maybe they intended to, but something else came up. Whatever the reason, it is their decision. I recall talking to one mother who was not interested in helping their seventeen-year-old daughter because they had tried it before and the daughter had not followed through to reach the desired outcome. While listening to this parent I suddenly thought how unfair it is to write off a person, especially at seventeen. People at all ages have the right to “fail” and try again. This should not label them as “failures”. I am not criticizing this mother; I am criticizing myself. I do exactly the same thing. Somehow seeing it come from someone else has helped me gain this awareness. I frequently discuss this with the young people I am with, professionally and privately. I have really noticed this to be a common theme amongst youth. My message is that it is O.K. to “make mistakes”. Everyone does. Just notice anything you may have learned and move on. This awareness has helped me become much more relaxed when working with not only the youth at work, but also with my own children. It is not my responsibility or place to push people, even the young, in a direction they are not ready to go.

Work atmosphere
I learned much from working with the youth throughout this practicum, but I learned just as much from staff colleagues. It is a great gift to work at an agency where the workers are so supportive of each other. Separately, they have their own areas of expertise and they are open to share and to ask for advice when needed. I saw several times how they supported one another and, as busy as they were, each willingly found time to answer my questions as well. The atmosphere was very conducive to my learning. The overall belief about youth was the same, but each professional’s approach was slightly different. I was given the opportunity to examine different methods and think about which fit my various tasks better.

As I go out into the field to work as a Child and Youth Care worker, I will value this experience which has enriched my role as a team player.

This experience of working with youth has given me a whole new perspective, both personally and professionally. I now look at kids walking on the street with a different philosophy. They are not “scary” people but rather human beings doing the best they can. Developmentally, they are still kids but, for many of them, their experiences have forced them to appear more ahead in years. So often, behind the walls they have work so hard to build, is simply a person who is too afraid to stand alone. They need the wall to keep themselves from falling over and crumbling. On the other hand, it is because of their sheer strength that their protective wall is there at all. Child and youth care work is not about tearing down the walls but rather standing by, offering support it until the time comes when they feel strong enough to walk away.

This feature: Michieli, J. (2003). A wall of strength to be admired. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 16, 1. pp. 97-101.

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