On families and hope

I spent Wednesday evening and all day Thursday with great community partners at a conference organized by United Way. We all came together to discuss new ways of building family and mentoring connections for vulnerable youth.

Like most people in our sector, I go to many events and I hear a multitude of speakers. This day and a half brought together some of the best speakers I have heard, organized in a way which built on our knowledge and challenged our thinking. (Full disclosure – I was on the advisory committee that helped to organize these events. But it doesn’t automatically follow that I would enjoy them as much as I did!)

At the end of the day, I shifted my thinking about families, increased my understanding of youth’s journey to adulthood and changed my attitude about hope.

When you work in the youth sector, and see the challenges that so many young people face, it can be tempting to focus all of your efforts on the youth and dismiss or judge their families as part of the problem. Sometimes, we think families are relics from the youth’s past, not the key to their future. But as Mark Courtney, from the University of Chicago, told the group, whether we like it or not, all youth have families and if we fail to recognize that, we fail youth. Many vulnerable youth have strong connections to their families and will return to them as they move into adulthood. Stephen Gaetz, of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, said: “Young people yearn for their families.  They know they are missing something.”

Families matter. We ignore them at the peril of the youth we seek to help. Sondra Marcon and Justin Sage-Passant, from Eva’s Initiatives, told us that working with families is complicated. It’s hard. But we’re missing out on opportunities for success if we look only at the problems that families present and not their potential. Family involvement is a protective factor for many vulnerable youth.

Another ah-ha moment for me was when Stephen Gaetz pointed out that our institutional responses to youth are based on a 1950s model, when 16- or 17-year-olds could strike out on their own, get jobs and have a reasonable chance for successful independence. That’s certainly not the case anymore.

All young people are relying more heavily on their parents today than they did 60 years ago. More youth are staying at home into their mid-twenties. Why do we think that vulnerable youth don’t need that same support and guidance into their twenties? We need to focus less on independence for youth and more on putting the supports in place so that they transition successfully to adulthood. We have youth workers and we have workers who help adults. We need to build our expertise around that middle period, when young people are still developing into the adults they will be. There’s great vulnerability there, but also great potential.

And that brings me to my final thought. I’m not a touchy-feely person and I think that hope can be a hackneyed, empty word. But I did feel hope at the end of the day. Bruce MacLaurin, from the University of Calgary, quoted one of the youth in his study who said that he wasn’t hopeless, that he knew his future would be successful. At Burns Memorial Fund, we see every day young people who overcome huge obstacles to graduate from high school and launch into brighter futures. This week, I saw the leaders of our community embrace new ideas of how we can wrap natural supports around vulnerable youth. That gives me hope.

— Michelle Clarke, Executive Director, Burns Memorial Fund

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