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Front Line Staff / Staff Leadership and Management

The Benefits of Working with At-Risk Youth

at-risk youth, shopping cart

Two months ago I finally recognized it happening; I could never forget the needs and the gleam in their eyes.

As I began to pull my supply cart back to my car and pull out my keys to open the trunk a young man yelled my name “Mark!” It was at that moment I realized a seed had been planted, watered, and began to sprout. This was a rare occasion. I had been visiting this site for three years now, the youth there were on probation, had been kicked out of traditional school and have even began to turn their backs on being “law abiding” citizens. These youth were adults in young bodies. With more horror stories than a Stephen King novel and with more street smarts than Google maps these youth grew up navigating some of the worse areas in a few different states. And I was there to plant a seed and guide them towards positive change. (“Yeah right”, so I first thought).

When I was younger I never thought I would be working with teens let alone at-risk teens but as of today, my old stance has become new. In working with these youth I have learned these young people want to be looked at as just that, PEOPLE. Not as children and not as numbers in my after school programs. Not as juvenile delinquents, but as people who deserve to be taught and lead with respect and dignity.

One of the most challenging things about at-risk youth is that they have lived as adults for quite some time.

Most of them have experienced adult lives entirely before their teens. This puts most counselors at an equal field of “life expertise” with these youth. But this also allows at-risk youth to identify with common adult problems such as anger, depression, economic challenges, employment, and even with having children. Under these areas, most of the momentum for the counselors reward is built up during the counselor to youth connection.

Once there is a connection I find that the counselor or staff is able to tap into the heart as well as the person. Then comes that moment when all that “hard work” starts to pay off. You start to get a glimpse of a person who wants to share, motivate others, and make a difference in their lives and in those around them. You start to see a person who responds well to constructive criticism and buys into the program rules. You start to see a person who seems to look like a kid again, expressing joy, laughter, seeking your advice, and contributing to the daily tasks of opening and closing your program. There truly are no words to describe those priceless moments but if I could sum them all up I would say it all pays off when they get it.

There is something priceless about the moment when they get it when they finally identify with hope.

It’s like a fog light that cuts through the darkness of night. You can see their brains working on a breakthrough so big they can’t help but to stop and give the automated response of a smile. Some even repeat out loud what they have just uncovered about themselves. This is where the true rewards of working with these youth reside. I tell myself it’s a heart condition. If their young minds could change, it would only be because they have a change of heart. After the heart changes I slowly start to see their minds change and then their actions and so on….

Looking back, these youth used to challenge every ounce of authority I was given while in charge of them for a few short hours. But with consistency, I have seen some of these at-risk youth giving back to their communities or grocery shopping with their families and it warms my soul. Sometimes it takes years to see that kind of change but I have learned if we camp counselors, group home counselors, school officials and after school leaders stay persistent with watering those seeds; we can see the vine grow and witness the production of positive fruit. And that is one of the greatest rewards of working with at-risk youth!

Two months ago as I grabbed my supply cart and walked out to my car he waited until the last possible minute to reach out when no one else was looking and he yelled “Mark! Wait, I forgot to ask you something…” and that’s when I knew he had a heart change.

For breakfast this morning I had Cinnamon Life with Soy Milk and a cinnamon raisin bagel with peanut butter.

Author: Mark Blackshear

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