Working with Foster Youth: An Interview with Alfred Arroyos
By Maureen Nelson
Marcos, a lean 17-year-old in jeans and t-shirt, is hanging out with his friends by a mall one Saturday morning. The group is a mix of races: one Latino, one Caucasian and two African American - about the same ratio of ethnicities of all foster youth in the area. A plain white van drives up and they climb in. The vehicle is from the Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP), a service of Contra Costa County Foster Care System in the San Francisco Bay Area. By the end of the day, Marcos will have cooked lunch as part of a class on nutrition, started a resume in a workshop, spoken with an educational adviser on how to apply for financial aid for community college, and met with a counselor to work on a job application. He will also have spent a few free minutes watching TV and playing foosball.
Marcos is a foster child about to "age out" of the system. In six months he will turn 18 and start living on his own. According to the Orphan Foundation of America, about 25,000 young people a year make this transition. To support the 1500 foster youth in Contra Costa County, ILSP offers two programs, one serving 15- to 18-year-olds, and a post-emancipation version, serving 18- to 21-year-olds, with an extension to 24 years old if they attend college.
Recently, we spoke with Alfred Arroyos, an Employment Development Specialist at ILSP. Arroyos has worked with disadvantaged youth all his life and was himself a participant in the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a federal jobs program. Here, we share some of the strategies he uses to reach foster youth, who are often without good role models to introduce them to the world of work.
The Independent Living Skills Program has the lofty goal of helping all participants land well-paid, benefitted jobs that will sustain them through adulthood.
"But, realistically," Arroyos says, "a good portion of our youth are just not ready. They want to be teenagers - the furthest thing from their mind is being on their own, earning a living and getting an apartment."
It's not just that they don't yet have a work ethic - like punctuality, attendance and teamwork - they also don't have the hard skills employers take for granted: reading, writing and math. And though they might be able to put up a Facebook page, they often do not have proficiency in office software - at least not at the level needed in the workplace. Because many foster children shift around to different homes and different schools, they miss weeks or months of instruction. If needed, an ILSP Education Specialist can help them get tutoring.
Arroyos shared a few tips to successfully work with foster youth:
- Take the practice out of the office. Arroyos makes home visits, particularly in the beginning of the relationship. Sometimes he takes the teen and caregiver out to lunch to create a more casual atmosphere and help lower defenses.
Benefit: Potential clients don't have to surmount transportation barriers. Also, they meet in a place where they feel most at ease.
- Adjust your presentation to maximize client comfort. Arroyos wears jeans when he makes home visits; he doesn't carry a briefcase or do anything to flaunt his professional status.
Benefit: Clients may feel less intimidated or ashamed of their surroundings. The youth especially are concerned about image; they say, "Don't come in a county car."
- Respect and value differences; do not assume clients share your life experience. Arroyos knows how a minority feels, but admits he doesn't know what it's like to be a black kid growing up in North Richmond, a mostly African American community known for its poverty, drugs and violence. Arroyos recognizes that experiences vary and all backgrounds need to be respected. This was brought home to him when he was teaching a cooking class and he was surprised to discover that one of the students had never tasted pineapple.
Benefit: Clients need not feel "culturally impoverished" just because their experiences are different from the counselor's. Youth especially are sensitive and have fragile egos - avoid showing strong reactions of dismay to allow clients to reveal their experiences (or lack of them) without being made to feel "different."
- Be willing to become involved. Arroyos does more than just teach classes and send the kids home. He gives out his cell phone number and lets his clients know he's available when they're in crisis. Whether it's helping to solve housing problems or providing recreation opportunities, he makes it clear he cares about them as people - not just numbers to be achieved.
Benefit: Taking a holistic approach - caring about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the client - will allow the counselor to provide support on many levels.
Present and Future Challenges
Every four years, another 100,000 foster youth emancipate. This forgotten subpopulation relies on programs like the Independent Living Skills Program to provide them with guidance and give them a springboard to make the leap to adulthood. Counseling teens and 20-somethings on the verge of independence is thrilling and rewarding no matter what kind of homes they come from. By being faithful to our commitment as career counselors to treat the "whole" client - to the extent we are able - we will steady and launch these new workers, instilling workplace values as well as workplace skills.
Orphan Foundation of America. Welcome to OFA. (2009). Sterling, VA. Retrieved on January 28, 2009 from http://www.orphan.org.
Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. Number of Children in Foster Care, by Race/Ethnicity: 2007. (2007) Palo Alto, CA. Retrieved on January 25, 2009 from http://www.kidsdata.org/topictables.jsp?csid=0&t=2&i=9&ra=3_132&link=&
In 2008, Maureen Nelson, M.A., was an Employment Specialist for Back on Track, a joint program between Goodwill San Francisco and the District Attorney's office, where she worked with young felons, including a few foster youth. Maureen was recently promoted to Business Relations Specialist at the One Stop Career Link Center housed at Goodwill. She now focuses on dislocated workers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org