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CYC-Online 140 OCTOBER 2010 / BACK
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Reflections on the soul in youth care

Michael D. Fitzgerald

When I began my youth work in the mid-1970s, I quickly experienced an increasing sense of those many things intrinsic to, yet not directly stated in, the various job descriptions and requirements – many of which had a profound and abiding affect upon me. One was that I found myself quite unrepentantly (although often feeling somewhat beset by the call) a youth care worker “twenty-four seven”. My concern and vigilance to matters of youth development, youth need, child welfare, social need and social justice, found me always being alert for the sound of a child crying in another section of the supermarket, then honing in on that area as soon as possible, in order to make a quick check for the public good. My own good. My spirit was unsettled. I wanted, yearned for, a world without pain without children's pain or suffering.

I remember one 14-year-old male with whom I had a youth services contract. We were out in the community – at a corner store – when he announced to me (early in our relationship, and in our time together on this day) that he wasn’t going to accompany me to our destination, his mother’s home, but was rather going to meet up with friends and that he’d see me (us) later.

We had a talk about it. I said that I was carrying on with our arrangement and going directly to his home to consult with his mother. He was welcome to join me if he wanted to reconsider his plans. I took my departure and left the store only to go about 200 ft. when whose face should appear peeking around the corner of the building to see what I was doing? His. My spirit soared. Not just my emotions, but my “spirit”, something deeper. I had made a connection, a real connection. I had done that, not necessarily made it happen, but I was impacted – strongly impacted.

I also remember two brothers, ten and six, whose single-parent mother had died tragically and without designating a legal guardian for the children. The father was unavailable and no family relatives could be located. Options outside of government care were carefully considered and exhausted as possibilities. Ultimately the two brothers required placement in child protective services. They needed a home. They needed comfort. They needed support.

They needed love. They needed and they deserved. Theirs had been a good home and a deeply caring family that was suddenly, unalterably changed. In the short term the only option was to provide these children with a group home situation consisting of a caring set of parents and seven other children. Despite all supports provided at the time, and further efforts to locate more suitable living arrangements for the boys, eventually the “case” passed on to another social worker and our respective lives continued.

My spirit despaired. I was a young father at the time and it broke my heart. And something underlying my spirit, something deeper of which my spirit was an expression, a reflection, a gauge, registered my reaction. This something I intuited as my soul – the deepest region of my individual, yet linked, self. A place not so much known as sensed and experienced.

Then there was Dean – 15 years old and already the father of two children by separate mothers, who, in the referral for youth care support, was described as the “IP” (identified problem) because his single-parenting mother had reached her end with his staying out late and not going to school or looking for a job. And Tina, a 12- year-old Native child whose small basement apartment bed consisted of a piece of green, 1“ inch thick rubber foam that conformed in its ragged way with the relative shape of her body in a curled-up position. From there she would go to school in the morning, while my own young daughters would emerge from beds of warmth and comfort. That deeper part of me, my soul, was somehow shaken.

And there was Paul, a member of a highly affluent family, who I might see in the same day. Unlike other family members who were beautiful, talented, successful and close to one another, Paul, 14, was by almost any measure, not any of these things. He was your average developing kid, somewhere between a little to quite geekish, and he had been identified in his family’s referral for youth work support as the “IP” for settings fires (seeking attention, it was surmised). My spirit felt protective and longed for a simple understanding of this young man's need for recognition and inclusion. I remember, too, the ongoing progress story of a fellow social worker who was investigating (with much police support and eventual attention from the media) a report of alleged ritual abuse that included particular child exploitation that left my soul sickened and horrified. Finally, I remember a letter from an appreciative client thanking me (all of 28 years old with a young child of my own) whom she had always chosen to address as “Mr. Fitzgerald” for my service to her and her family. My spirit was gratified, and this warmed, sparkling of silt in the river of life, comfortingly settled in my soul.

Spirit, self and soul
Each of these experiences involved, in its particular way, an impression, a registering, a contact with that deepest part of me, my “self”, my characterized, personified soul, that Fewster (1999) so eloquently expresses as,

... the “I” within the “Me”. Because it exists beyond the mind, it is sensed rather than observed – a “presence” expressed through its own energetic qualities. From the inside it is experienced simply as “knowing”, a feeling of aliveness that translates into “I am here in this moment in all that I am – wordless and timeless”. Could this be what we take into and take out of this world? From the outside it is recognized not through a meeting of minds, but in direct engagement with another Self. Could this be the unadorned essence of the human relationship – a place where our very existence is asserted and confirmed? (p. 46).

Call this part of each of us our “deepest Self”, our “authentic Self”, our “essence” or “core”, our place of the “spirit or “soul”, our “divinity”, our “thisness”, it is felt and experienced as a personal, yet mystically connecting, phenomenon of individual being that accompanies, forms, and informs us each on our life’s journey And as much as I conceptually embrace and have been richly inspired by the characterization of human support as a “journey” each helper developmentally undertakes (Bertilino and Thompson, 1999; Corey and Corey, 2003), that journey within me, and each of us, I feel, began a long time ago. Perhaps a very long time ago. I’m sure I don’t know. I sense, however, that it originated and remains contained in a place called my soul. I like the way that Anderson (1998) has recently expressed our shared, yet so individual existence:

Human life is the spiritual saga of the creaturely soul; limited, but also expressed through physical embodiment; distressed, but also inspired through the power of spirit (p.188).

States of my soul
I have experienced, among other things, my soul observing, reflecting, hoping, crying, cowering, craving, searching, heartened, weakened , peaceful, undernourished, praising, and pained. And I would call these states of my soul. Here are a few more states of my soul that I have experienced variously as a:

Tender Soul
Yearning Soul
Hopeful Soul
Shaken Soul
Compassionate Soul
Numbed Soul
Waiting Soul
Thankful Soul
Forgiving Soul

And you, the reader; have you not experienced other “states of your soul” as you work in this field?

Each of these states contains (and would often express itself through) any variety of moods and other expressions of emotion. Sometimes these emotions overlapped and intertwined with other states of soul, each with varying intensity and urgency. At any time, my states of soul would seem to combine with one another and be at play within me. Due to matters both known and unknown to myself, however, certain states of my soul, or perhaps a dominant state, would prevail at any given time, affected or triggered (Fitzgerald, 1994) by everyday events, occurrences and interactions. Some states of my soul were more expected and reassuring, while others I found more sudden and disturbing: thus, the ongoing, unfolding/emergence and creation of self in relation to others and the world; self as a sentient, corporeal being in a physical, phenomenal universe – influenced and shaped by a developing sense and understanding of itself and the world, and continually bringing meaning and response to that experience. To the television news, to the stories across the staff table at the social work office, to the cases and files under my responsibility, to watching my children grow and caring for their daily needs, to a magazine article, to ... I found that to varying degree, I was not only registering my life’s experiences on an emotional and cognitive level but also in the most intense, poignant and interior part of me that contained my closest, purest, most deeply treasured notions of myself and life around me – my soul. There I would be most profoundly impacted and would register my innermost reactions, consciously and unconsciously, to matters of the world and my developing self within it. There my deepest sensibilities, values, yearnings, callings, needs, indictments, ruminations, drives, comforts, intuitions, and mysteries, seemed to co-exist, expressed through my emotions and the states of my soul. There I was most moved in myself.

At times I would shudder and implode at disturbing things, such as a news report of a missing child, like a silent, powerful bomb exploding on my psychic terrain. At other times my soul would brighten, dance and exalt in the life around me. That’s life “it gives us all that opportunity and challenge.

Burnout and resiliency
The “work” was demanding upon the mind, the body, and the spirit. One can’t help but invest in the nature of the work (the kids), and build dreams of self, others, and life around it.

Dreams of improvement, change, growth, comfort, and health. Dreams of connection and mutual discovery; of forming attachments with youth on a closer, more significant level; of being in connection with ourselves as developing workers “as developing selves. Looking for the real, the trustworthy, so much like the youth that we serve. As Jevne and Williams (1998) express:

Beneath our consciousness , however, the voices of our souls, our Spirits, are still trying to speak and be heard, inviting us to become authentic.(p.162).

To be attuned to ourselves while generating and giving hope to others.

Here, perhaps, lies much that we can discover about burnout and resiliency. From where comes our energy, inspiration, and investment – and from where comes our disillusionment, despair, and withdrawal? Are we ever really “burned out”? “a state from which, like a “burned out” log of wood, not even an acetylene torch would garner a spark – or are we all too often “singed”, sometimes terribly, by our experiences? As Paul Simon has sung, “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease, I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees “(American Tune, 1973).

Farber (1983) indicated that burnout is a process, rather than an event; a process about which are now better known precipitating and contributing factors, key characteristics, and anticipated outcomes (Decker, Baily and Westergaard, 2002). A process which is beginning to involve our own possible degrees of wounded-ness – or preoccupying “self-need” (Nelson-Gardell and Harris, 2003; Maeder, 1989; Rippere and Williams, 1985) that we each bring to every helping encounter, sometimes richly based in integrity or self-ideal , yet succumbed to the “cost of caring” in which, “...what brings you in [may] burn you out”, and both contribute to and reflect our “... emotional exhaustion, diminished caring, and profound sense of demoralization...” (Larson, 1993, p.32).

Hope and well-being
Only recently has research offered more specific delineations of the profound influence of hope upon health and well-being (Morse and Doberneck, 1995). And perhaps it is hopefulness, among the many states of the soul that plays a leading role in its mediating effect upon us, as a balm, and most certainly upon the resiliency of the children and youth with whom we work (Haggerty, 1994; Yarcheski, Scoloveno and Mahon, 1994). As Parse (1998) bids us consider,

Hope, as a universal lived experience of health, is a way of propelling with envisioned possibilities in everyday living. It springs forth in co-creation with the universe as the desires, wishes, aspirations and expectations that move humans beyond the moment. (p. 4).

A soul that is dispirited, that is disconnected, that has somehow lost its way, cannot but struggle to find hope, to feel motivated and attached . To feel resourceful. And beneath our hope, the well(ness) of our soul that we each draw from invites us to consider its state(s) – to be honest and direct with ourselves. To consider how alertly and responsively we are attending to that which may be influencing our thoughts, actions, and being. That central part of ourselves requires nurturance and care and, fueled by hope, seeks beyond itself not only for meaning but for expression and fulfillment in connection with Other:

Hoping is noticing the times when we hear the voice of the “Other”. When we experience it as a glimpse. When we sense it as a companion. When we recognize that the Voice calls us home. When we sense that we are being tuned as instruments. When we experience those moments that let us listen to the quiet of our own souls (Jevne, 1994, p.136).

Hearing it deep
Beker and Barnes (1990) spoke of youth-serving French educateurs as “hearing it deep” as they responded to the most sensitive and central needs and selves of residential youth in their care. Perhaps, some twenty years later, we must not only continue to challenge ourselves as youth workers to hear and address the deeper sentiments, states, and aspirations of the youth we support, but to also challenge ourselves to hear more deeply and draw upon our own humanness at its most essential and fundamental place of being. We need to become better aware of, consider, and utilize our soul states to propel not only ourselves but, most importantly, the youth whom we serve. Recently, the “soul” of professional development (Krueger, 1997) and of residential youth care practice (Fulcher, 1999), as well as the role of “...spiritual development and “relational consciousness”..."in everyday youth work" (Scott, 2003) have been introduced as reflection on our deepest essence, that which shapes and guides us each together. May I say with all due respect, and respect is due, that in addition to simply soothing the soul with chicken soup (Canfield, 1998), we might well begin with the asking of certain questions:

From theory to practice
From theoretical conceptualization to research and practice? Well-developed research, both quantitative and (particularly) qualitative is needed to form data-based and process-oriented frameworks for understanding the role of hope, the self, the spirit, and the soul in youth care work, as well as study that further delineates and describes the role of hope and the soul in such phenomena as the experiences of “woundedness”, “burning out”, and “resilience” in the youth care worker. Considering, more deeply, the nature of ourselves and the youth we work with in the context of our abiding and interacting souls, brings with it fuller dimension and collaborative therapeutic opportunity (Fitzgerald, 1995) to our everyday helping roles and relationships with youth in their compelling circumstances and everyday needs.


Anderson, R.S. (1998). On being human: The spiritual saga of the creaturely soul. In W.S.
Brown, N. Murphy and H.N. Malony. Whatever happened to the soul? Scientific and theological portraits of human nature. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Beker, J.and Barnes, F. K. (1990). The educateur returns to America: Approaching the development of professional child and youth care cross-culturally through ILEX. Child and Youth Care Forum, 19, 3. pp. 161-175.

Bertilino, B. and Thompson, K. (1999). The residential youth care worker in action: A collaborative, competency-based approach. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Mental Health Press.

Brown, W.S., Murphy, N. and Malony, H.N. (1998). Whatever happened to the soul? Scientific and theological portraits of human nature. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Canfield, J. (1998). Chicken soup for the country soul: Stories served up country style and straight from the heart. Deerfield, FLA: Health Communications.

Corey, G. and Corey, M.S. (2003). Becoming a helper. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.

Decker, J.T., Bailey, T.L. and Westergaard, N. (2002). Burnout among childcare workers. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth, 19, 4. pp. 61-77.

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Fitzgerald, M.D. (1995). On-the-spot counselling with residential youth: Opportunities for therapeutic intervention. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10, 4. pp. 9-17.

Fulcher, L.C. (1999). The soul, rhythms and blues of residential child care practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 4. pp. 13-28.

Haggerty, R.J. (1994). Stress, risk, and resilience in children and adolescents. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Jevne, R.F. (1994). The voice of hope: Heard across the heart of life. San Diego, CA:Luramedia.

Jevne, R.F. and Williams, D.R. (1998). When dreams don’t work: Professional workers and burnout. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing.

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Krueger, M. (1997). A contribution to the dialogue about the “soul” of professional development. Child and Youth Care Forum, 26, 6. pp. 411-416.

Larson, D.G. (1993). The helper’s journey: Working with people facing grief, loss, and life-threatening illness. Champaign, Ill: Research Press.

Maeder, T. (1989). Wounded healers. Atlantic Monthly. pp. 37-47.

Morse, J.M. and Doberneck, B. (1995). Delineating the concept of hope. IMAGE: Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 27, 4. pp. 277-285.

Nelson-Gardell, D. and Harris, D. (2003). Child abuse history, secondary traumatic stress, and child welfare workers. Child Welfare, LXXXII (1). pp. 5-26.

Parse, R.R. (1998). The human becoming school of thought. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Rippere, V. and Williams, R. (1985). Wounded healers: Mental health workers” experiences of depression. New York, NY: Wiley.

Scott, D. G. (2003).Spirituality in child and youth care: Considering spiritual development and relational consciousness. Child and Youth Care Forum, 32, 2. pp. 117-131.

Simon, P.(1973). American tune. On: “Live Rhymin” . New York, NY: Columbia Records.
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Yarcheski, A., Scoloveno, M.A. and Mahon, N.E. (1994). Social support and well-being in adolescents: The mediating role of hopefulness. Nursing Research, 43, 5. pp. 288-292.

This feature: Fitzgerald, M. (2005) Reflections on the Soul in Youth Care. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 2. pp.41-46.


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