Do you remember your first job? For many of us, that initial position is something we do part-time as a teenager to earn a little extra money for going on dates or hanging out with friends. But for the youth at Marygrove Children’s Home, that first job represents something entirely different: an opportunity to support themselves when they “age out” of foster care.
Over eighty percent of the kids at Marygrove have been abused or neglected, so they lack the family connections that teenagers typically rely on as they transition to adulthood. When the Marygrove kids age out of the system, they are forced to fend for themselves and start a life from scratch– a frightening prospect for someone who has been living in a group home and doesn’t have a steady job. Many of the youth end up homeless, addicted to drugs, or incarcerated, which has prompted some people to throw up their hands and say these children are hopeless.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In 2013, the Olin student group Unite4Kids met with Mike Baer, the director of transitional living at Marygrove. Mike has been helping kids for over twenty-five years, and he has seen kids go on to college as well as become homeless. Mike believes the difference between success and failure hinges on whether the kids are able to land an entry-level job. “If they can get some sort of income,” Mike said, “then they have a chance to make it on their own.”
Finding that first job isn’t easy. While most teens can surf for jobs on a smartphone or borrow their parents’ car to go fill out applications, Marygrove kids hunt for jobs by piling into the back of a van so a staff member can drive them around town. When the employees at the local fast-food place see five or six kids pop out of a white van, they immediately know it’s “those Marygrove kids again” and tell them there aren’t any job openings. After all, those kids must be “damaged.”
Such stereotypes can prevent people from taking a chance on a youth who could prove to be a very hard-working employee. While it is true that young people who have been abused or neglected face challenges, it is important to remember that these youth are survivors, not victims. They have had tough lives but they haven’t given up on themselves even if others have.
The Unite4Kids team got to see this first-hand when it reached out to Alan Kuebler and Bob Weinstein from Wash. U’s purchasing department. Alan and Bob contacted Aramark, which handles the bulk of Wash. U’s custodial services, and Aramark reps Jeff Barlow and Brian Bilthuis promptly hired a young lady named Maria. It might not have seemed like much, but this new job enabled Maria to successfully transition to living on her own and made a tremendous difference in her life. Jeff and Brian have praised Maria’s job performance and she is now on the path to success.
But Maria isn’t an isolated case. Aramark has since hired two more youths from Marygrove. And with the help of Ryan Rakestraw and the Employment Connection of St. Louis, another Marygrove resident named Jonathan was connected with a job on the night shift at a local hospital. Jonathan did so well that he was moved to the day shift and given a permanent, full-time position. Excited about his promotion, he accidentally blurted out, “I make more money than some of the Marygrove staff!”
Maria and Jonathan have shown that children from difficult backgrounds can move forward. But to do so, they need the rest of us to believe in them. Those who think these young people need our pity, or that we can help them by simply writing a check to a local charity, are mistaken. What these young people really need is someone willing to give them a chance.
Because they are ready to make the most of it.
Blog post by Michael McLaughlin, MBA’14
If you are interested in providing an employment opportunity to a youth who will be aging out of foster care, please send an email to: Michael@Unite4Kids.org
Image: Michael McLaughlin and Ryan Rakestraw