For me, it’s the little wins. It's not just looking at the big picture. When one of my students texts me, “I got my essay turned in on time” or “I’m getting an A in Math!” - that’s a win.
I celebrate the little wins because I know what it is to “lose a kid”. I recently found out that one of the young people I work with is incarcerated. He was unhoused for a while. It’s just terrible especially when you’ve worked hard to give them the tools to be successful, but they still end up on the wrong path.
But I know I can't take it personally. Every time I meet my kids I tell them, “My main goal is for you to graduate high school and make sure you stand on your own two feet, but for now, let’s just focus on this week, tomorrow, or the end of the grading period.” Celebrating little wins really motivates us both.
I’ve been with Pivotal as a High School coach for five years now. I worked as a high school teacher for many years. I was also a human resources manager in a training and development department. So, coming from both worlds, I can tap into my education and employment experience to help my students. We're very fortunate to have great partners for employment assistance at the career development unit at DCFS, Work2Future, and other great resources I can share with my students.
I have worked with under-served populations in high school in the past, but with foster youth, things are different in so many ways. They don't get the traditional observational learning experience from their parents. They're in homes with different caregivers. Sometimes, they don't have a family unit to offer them financial or emotional support. There are so many struggles with mental health and then there is the stigma of being a foster youth. Some of them are okay with being known as foster youth, others don't want to even talk about it.
Sometimes we struggle to bridge the communication gap between our youth and their caregivers. As coaches, we are youth-facing. We are the ones working with these young people on a personal level to help them build a better life. So, we get to know them really well: their struggles, goals, strengths, and weaknesses. When they're laughing or crying, when they're being removed from homes, when they're getting suspended from school or fighting with their caregivers, we are the ones who hear all that.
And that is what makes Pivotal a really good resource. We need to emphasize this in the community - with the foster youth, with the school liaisons with DFCS - so they utilize our support more. That's why it's also important to be data-driven, so we can show the evidence-based positive impact we are making.
Sure, all of this is not easy. I have been around high school kids and have kids of my own. Sometimes you can’t understand why they can’t just finish that book or write that essay. With foster youth, there are so many added layers of complexities. But you never give up! You take a different approach and ask different questions. Peel away at the barriers until you can really figure out their motivations. A parent can tell their own kids, “You're going to get out of the house, go to college, get a job and support yourself.” That's not what motivates foster youth at all.
Sometimes it's just surviving tomorrow, surviving next week, getting a visit with their family next month, having someone to eat lunch with at school, or making sure they have clean clothes or shoes. If they don’t finish their essay, it isn't necessarily because they're lazy. There's so much more to it than that. There's also so much peer pressure in school right now; with social media and the unrealistic expectations, it sets.
Moreover, when it comes to their mental health issues, foster youth have such unique backgrounds and stories that there is no single approach that works. There are negative outside influences that are just too strong. I do whatever I can to be a good influence. I check in with them every day and try to meet with them every week. Take them out on walks with my dogs or out to Starbucks or Sonic for a milkshake to make sure they know I am still here, and they love that!
– Laura Phelps, High School Coach