The tiny seed that grew into Youth Development was first planted in a foster care meeting. Amanda Reuter, a therapist for Therapeutic Foster Care at the time, noticed an emerging pattern of foster youths asking about sex. But they didn’t have a safe, informative space to discuss it.
She wanted to know what Adult & Child Health could do to help. That question set her new career path in motion.
“And that’s kind of where it blossomed,” Reuter said.
After working on that idea and learning about the options available, A&C received a small grant to facilitate a program called Pregnancy Prevention. In addition to her therapeutic work, Amanda led group meetings and talked with adolescent-aged youths about sexual health.
Learn more about Adult & Child Health’s Foster Care Program by clicking here.
It’s not just about sex
Through many conversations with these kids, more needs kept popping up. Reuter knew she wanted to address them.
“Through youth expressing that there was more that they wanted, it grew,” she said. A combination of organic development and hard work was the recipe for the Youth Development team as it stands today. It’s a group of six passionate professionals who educate and advocate for youths.
The group meets in its youth hangout space, brainstorming and filtering through meeting topics. The newly renovated fourth floor of their office at 603 E. Washington St. in Indianapolis houses the Youth Development and Specialty Service offices. It also includes a relaxing, living-room-type area with couches, a coffee table, games, puzzles, markers and yoga mats.
Paper mache ampersands line the window sill, and a jar of condoms marked, “Please take one” sits atop a bookshelf. Team-building is important here. All of the members work on their own programs. To foster a sense of togetherness, however, they also discuss common topics and help each other solve problems. They’ll then cap it off with a group mindfulness exercise like yoga or meditation.
How does it work?
Youth Development works within a framework of grants. Each member is responsible for only one. They’re funded through mostly federal money for different types of projects. Currently, the team has three grants: IN-PACT, Project I, and the Serve Project.
These programs all have unique specifications, but employees typically lead group meetings. Groups of adolescents rotate through week-to-week programs. Team members travel to schools and residential facilities to lead one-day groups. Their topics include sexual health, goal-setting and community service, among others.
Any adolescent is welcome to join. The team is enthusiastic about making sure every kid has a voice, and they place those kids in the right program at the right time. They focus a lot of their work around learning, sharing their stories, and creating projects together.
“Our overall mission is the same across all grants,” said Angel Crone, lead youth development specialist. “That’s how we’re able to work together.”
In Youth Development, the kids have a voice
Anytime this team steps in a new direction, their mission and vision are always at the forefront. They make sure their role, no matter the project, serves to help youths develop personal, social, academic and citizenship competencies through strength-based methods.
In a way, the youths always dictate where to go next. Grants and projects provide funding and structure, but the team exists to help any young person become the best version of themselves.
“We’re not just focused on one aspect of the youth’s lives, we’re trying to have a holistic approach,” Crone said.
This mindset sometimes means stepping away from the grant structure, such as with their Art Night in June. A foster youth voiced a desire to express themselves through their art. Many other artistic teens agreed. It led to a fresh, collaborative project for Youth Development and another avenue for youths to discover their self-worth.
The Youth Development team takes its role as listeners seriously. “We’ve really been challenging this concept of adultism, and just what youth-led, youth-driven really means,” Reuter said.
The concept of adultism means dismissing young people’s opinions based on their age, the classic ‘because I’m older, I know more than you.’ “We’re trying not to lead with that mindset,” Crone said.
This perspective contributes to a partnership between the youth and team instead of a hierarchy. They don’t fight a losing battle with cell phones. They let kids play music that might glorify questionable morality.
“We’ll play the song, but then we might use that to start a conversation about those topics and discuss what they think about them,” Reuter said.
They refer to group rules as ‘agreements.’ By participating, every person agrees to confidentiality, openness, and respect. This way it’s a choice, a core concept of the partnership angle.
The role adults play
But challenging adultism presents a new set of challenges with actual adults in the youth development mix. “Any group we lead also has a parent component,” Reuter said. They welcome biological parents, foster parents, and any other trusted adults in an adolescent’s life.
“It’s not the work with the kids that’s hard, it’s the work with the adults that surround them,” Crone said, laughing. But it’s true, because this team has the important role of fostering communication between those parents and teens, an eternal struggle, especially about tricky topics like sex.
For foster kids with so many different adults assigned to support them, it can be challenging to navigate every adult’s opinion while simultaneously developing your own. “I think we’re trying to use our unique position of privilege and power, working in a mental health organization, to amplify the youth voice … we work with youth to identify ways that they can be their own advocate,” Reuter said.
Since the team is so young, its larger impact is still somewhat unknown. But the anecdotal support is strong. This past month, a youth called who overcame suicidal tendencies through the Teen Outreach Program and started working on new goals, a former foster child returning to help mentor teens in the “Power Through Choices” group, and a pile of handwritten Thank You cards from a group at a Bartholomew County residential facility.
“Just hearing the youth say, ‘no one talks to us about this, thank you for talking about it.’ That’s my favorite thing to hear,” Crone said.