Meet Elliott – a former foster youth and active child welfare advocate – and one of the dedicated Life Skills Coaches in our PDX-Connect Program.
Tell us what a Life Skills Coach is and what you do at New Avenues?
A Life Skills Coach works in the PDX-Connect Program which supports foster youth ages 16-21 in preparing for their transition out of foster care. We joke that we teach “adulting” because that is often what youth’s goals are around, such as gaining employment, housing, and education to name a few. My day-to-day looks like meeting youth out in the community either at school, their home or just for coffee. As a Life Skills Coach we focus on what the youth wants and their goals and support them in reaching them, understanding they have a pretty solid idea of what is best for them. We also do a lot of advocacy for the youth we work with while they navigate Department of Human Services (DHS), their foster family and other community supports. More and more, PDX-Connect youth are connected into other New Avenues programs like SMYRC, Transitional Housing, Education and PAVE which helps us support the youth in a more holistic way.
Why did you get involved working with foster youth?
I grew up in foster care in Wyoming and while my experience was mostly positive, my lived experience before care was traumatic and something that I bring an understanding of to this job, as well as the complexity of being seen as a youth but being asked to function like an adult in a broken system. After aging out of care, I got involved in alumni advocacy working with other foster youth and alumni – whether that be in internships, trainings or events- to help try and better the system in multiple states. I continue to do that work, but also wanted to enter into the field being seen less as an alumni and more as professional doing the work of supporting youth. I’ve been able to use my lived experience as a way of informing my professional practice and building my career.
What are some of the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your job?
I think one of the most challenging parts of this job is unplugging when I leave work. I can turn my phone off and not check my email, but turning my emotions and thoughts off is a much harder skill to get down – but it is also vital to sustainability and self-care. The most rewarding aspects of this job are getting to support youth in their goals and being in a position where that is the focus of my work. For whatever reason, this seems to be a space for youth to be themselves, and so I often get to hear about what process a youth is in for figuring out their identity, chosen family, and what they want to spend their life doing whether that is professionally or for fun. Many days I learn new things from my youth, and they help me see the world differently as much as I try to help them do the same. I also feel grateful for working on such an awesome team. On difficult days I feel confident I have multiple people I can go to for support with a challenge, to grab coffee and to laugh. Those moments have also helped me grow more than I expected in this job.
What are some of the ways folks can support youth transitioning out of foster care?
Let youth define success for themselves. As adults we think we know what’s best and what will equal “success,” but at the end of the day a youth with a GED who wants to become a mechanic and never go to college is just as successful as a youth making their way through college. A youth who doesn’t finish high school can go on to be successful in so many ways. So while we know that these things can help, they can’t be the marker for everyone. Their success will look different from each other and require individualized support specific to their goals. Youth also don’t love being told what to do, but they seem pretty receptive to being offered options – especially ones they may not have heard of. So if you know of a resource, share it – and know they may or may not utilize it, but they can’t utilize what they don’t know about. This work would not be possible without a relationship with the youth. Helping them develop healthy connections they may not have had before is vital to their success, particularly those that last beyond foster care. We work with youth to identify and sustain relationships that are lifelong. If you are looking for ways to get involved look into being a mentor or CASA for youth.
For more information on PDX-Connect, CLICK HERE.