C.S. Lewis wrote the following in his book, Mere Christianity:
It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
What a great metaphor for the process of guiding any youth, but especially for foster youth, to successfully take flight as an adult.
Foster youth are often mired in a complicated web of challenges, issues and looming obstacles on their pathway to adulthood, including: limited resources, unhealed wounds from trauma, little to no support (especially from family), and fuzzy future plans.
Add to these existing circumstances the competing forces of fear and excitement felt by most teens, and you can see why it’s hard “for an egg to turn into a bird.” But, as with the rest of us, this transformation has to happen for successful flight to take place.
Transitional Age Youth (TAY) practitioners play a special role in preparing these youth for takeoff. First, it is important to stop protecting the “egg,” instead focusing on strengthening the bird for its journey. I have been amazed over the decades to see so many social workers and caretakers obsessed with protection, leaving the youth substantially unprepared to jump the nest.
It is my agency’s philosophy and practice to allow for trial-and-error successes and failures. It’s a lot easier to pick up the pieces and start over again under the watchful care of a skilled worker than to see a young person crash and burn without a safety net.
Second, they need help to build a safety net of community and natural supports. Every transition-age youth served by our agency is guided through the process of creating a Transitional Living Team to serve and assist them after they have launched into independent adulthood. This usually includes agency staff and “systems” people but most importantly, it includes friends, family, significant others, teachers, et cetera; basically anyone these youth feel connected to who is willing to commit to supporting them.
This element is about establishing permanent relationships; identifying who they can call for wise words in turbulent times or who will provide them solace and respite, and where they can go on Thanksgiving and other holidays.
Third, make sure these youths are instructed in real-life skill building and not didactic workshops and classes which have little impact. Many years ago my agency implemented a hands-on, guided workbook approach developed with foster youth. Using the LIFEBOOK, youths are able to master skills that they have been assessed to be deficient in. It really works; plus, it gives these youth a resource to carry with them into the future.
Finally, and what I consider to be most important: Teach them to be prepared for the inevitabilty of change, and to use it to their advantage. Remember, there is nothing permanent except change. Unfortunately, this truth is rarely discussed or taught in the grand scheme of “life skills development.”
The reality is that most of these young people are used to change, but most of the change in their lives has been negative. It’s our job as youth workers to re-frame the change process into a positive skill. I like to use the “rocks versus river” metaphor when teaching about the positive benefits of harnessing change to our advantage. Life is the river, constantly moving, constantly changing. We can choose to be that rock which resists the energy of change, and over time becomes worn down. Or, we can choose to go with the flow of change, allowing it to take us to new destinations.
Teaching young people leadership skills is, in essence, helping to create change for the broader benefit of others, which ultimately reciprocates back to us. California Youth Connection (CYC) is a wonderful example of creating positive change for the benefit of a larger audience. Advocacy – be it political, social, environmental, et cetera –is about creating and initiating change. If we want our youth to become positive leaders, we need to teach them how to be.
June is the month where many of our foster youth fly off to new destinations. Let’s make sure that they do so as strong, well-equipped, resilient individuals; excited and hopeful for their future.
Jim Roberts is the CEO and founder of the Family Care Network and a 42-year veteran of human services.