I have the opportunity from time to time to appear on our local TV channel on issues regarding youth health for our City. I’d like to share an interview I did recently about bullying- you might find useful information to share with your youths parents or other community members.
I apologize for the fact that video isn’t embedded at the time of publishing- I will see what can be done to remedy this. I hope you enjoy it.
So, it’s been a tumultuous few months. Our regular readers (if any of you are still around after the shockingly bad way we’ve neglected this site over the last few months) might remember that in September or October we mentioned the arrival of our foster daughter. This was the primary reason for our drop in posts, additionally, we are working very hard to get a youth services non-profit going in our local area so I’m just gonna catch you up today and give you some of my experiences in the hopes that you glean something important from this post.
First, lets talk about our foster daughter. We spend all of the fall with her, making sure she went to school, teaching her social skills, giving her all the love and support we believed she needed to make the right choices. And we saw real improvement. She was attending school regularly. She was having great grades. She was working through grief after the loss of her sister last year. Everything seemed great. It culminated in a wonderful family trip to Chicago for Thanksgiving and a really amazing Christmas day. Two days after Christmas we found out that she was pregnant. At first we dismayed, what had we done wrong? She was sure she had gotten pregnant in September…. yeah, on our watch!!! It was a time of great sadness and grief for us. For how we had failed her and how her life was now completely different from the one she was building while living with us. We then found out that she had been pregnant for much longer than expected, in fact she is due in April. We also found out about a lot of lies, not only about the pregnancy but ongoing in her personal life, she removed herself from family engagement, chores, dinners, etc and so we weren’t able to teach her any further. It was with a heavy heart that we helped her move back home (she was with us voluntarily through a private placement) between semesters. I’m trying to stay connected but all the excuses she had before she moved in with us have crept back in. She’s sick. She’s tired. She has basically shut down emotionally, mentally, physically… it’s so sad to see when on December 25th she was so vibrant.
What I am learning and how it might help you:
I can’t say I’ve learned this yet. It’s a daily struggle. And the optimist, idealist, compassion-driven, perfectionist within me fights this idea every day… but you can’t save everyone single-handedly. Sometimes, they have made choices before you met them or worked with them that have put events in motion that are beyond your control. There are always consequences. Some good and some not so good. I’m still going to be there for her, most likely in the birthing room and all, but I’ve got to put some of my energies which have been spent on her into youth who want help, who want to make a difference. This has nothing to do with her being pregnant. It has everything to do with her shutting down and withdrawing from all assistance, reason or help. We could’ve worked through pregnancy but she has to want to be the best mom she can and make better choices and right now, she isn’t choosing to. It’s another, in a long line of situations, where this isn’t her fault. Someone else is responsible. I’m still here. I’m still ready to help and provide advice and support but she has to be ready to hear it and right now she isn’t. So I have to focus my energies and resources on some youth who are, because this one teen is taking away from many others who are ready to make a change in their own life and in the lives of others.
Next lets talk about how starting a non-profit is going. When I was in the UK it was so much easier. Follow the Charity Commission’s easy to read step-by-step manual and have 5,000 GBP and you were good to go! Not so in the US. Are there ‘easier’ ways of trying to achieve what I want? Yes, if I lie. Or bend the truth. Or add services to our roster that aren’t in the plan just to meet our end goals. (That is one thing that my years of non-profit work have shown me, there are a lot of well-intentioned people, willing to change the vision, mission and goals of their organization to chase funding, venues, transport, community partnerships, etc. and I have always found this practice personally deplorable- I know harsh words but it’s how I feel when it comes to my work- be you and do what you do best no matter what. Update since posting: This is about people doing things and adding things that have no bearing on the needs in their community or in their overall vision just to get grant money *typically* ‘we need money to run our youth club so lets add a teen pregnancy program since that’s a hot social issue right now and has lots of money’). So I’ve been slogging through trying to figure out how to do the 501c3 paperwork for several years. I’m a college educated person, how can it be this hard? So many others were able to get their stuff up and going, why can’t I? Oh yeah, they have 3 board members who are their family. They chose the most basic way to get the application in so they could get approval then changed what they ‘said they would do’ even though they planned it that way all along. They started a religious organization, when they aren’t one. (My city has over 300 religious organizations – churches- in it and only about 150 are even remotely active.)
So I’ve paid Legal Zoom to help get it prepared and it’s been great. Except, oh yeah, I was dealing with our foster daughter right when they sent back the first round of follow-up questions and I didn’t get the paperwork done for an additional three months. I just received the second round and actually got that turned around in 10 days- result!! Hopefully soon my 501c3 paperwork will be on it’s way to the IRS and tax-exempt approval. But that’s not the part that has really stuck with me and grown me.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with and volunteer with some amazing non-profits. But, like with youth workers, they aren’t always great at the paperwork side of things. I decided to try and apply for a federal grant that didn’t require 501c3 status to get something going. I already have a non-profit corporation so I can technically trade, but donations don’t happen as easily without 501c3 tax exempt status. I am so glad… and so sad that I did. It was Pandora’s Box and the rabbit hole in Alice’s Wonderland all in one. First I needed all my policies and procedures in place. So I wrote as many as I could straight away (I’m still faaar from done). I needed my Tax ID number which I thought I’d gotten but hadn’t. I needed a DUNS number (don’t ask!). Got it. Needed a SAMS account, which first needed a bank account (in process) and all of that isn’t even the application for the actual grant! Seriously though, as someone who wants the paperwork side of the non-profit to be above reproach this was the best thing that could have happened.
What I’m learning and how it might help you:
Dreams are hard. Planning is hard. Youth program funding is hard. But all of it is worth it. You will have better services. So go down the rabbit hole. Open Pandora’s Box. What seems like a crap-storm to start with might just be the best thing to happen to your youth program. Like risk management. Daily schedules. Strategic planning. I’m not just talking about starting something new. You may have an incident that happens, or a new supervisor that comes in, that changes the way you need to do business. Do it. Try it. You may (and I believe almost always you will) be glad you did it down the road.
Additionally, this was one of those consequences I talked about from our foster daughter moving out. I added a housing element to our vision to meet the needs of teen mothers in our area, which I had previously been playing with but not committing to. This isn’t going to add more money to us (see notes above), if anything it’s more competitive and harder to get money for this stuff, but it’s a need and our non-profit is about being globally minded but also acting in the interests of the local ‘needs and flavor’ of the area’s youth. This was an outcome from our situation. I got the energy I needed to emotionally heal and refocus my energies in a good way. On something that mattered and will make a difference. Maybe not to our sweetheart, but to others in the future and hopefully will change our City for the better.
Finally, lets talk about self-care. Ah that dreaded word. Avoiding burnout is practically it’s own full-time job in youth work or youth ministry. I’ve been focusing on my family, our puppy (she is so amazingly cute and we will update you on Truffles in the future), our house, my full-time job and my emotional and physical health. I’m eating better (literally, not just good but great!) and it’s helping me deal with crises that come up at work more effectively. I’m taking time to see friends. Read enjoyable books. Cooking food. Taking pictures. Getting to know my neighbors. Learning to love something beyond youth work.
What I’m learning and how it might help you:
There is more to me that just a youth worker. As much as I, and probably you, hate to admit it. Because we get our self-worth from making a difference, instead of just for being us. ‘Us’ is good. What we do might be good too. But it shouldn’t be all of us. We have an emotional, spiritual, mental and physical self that all need more than youth can provide. And we shouldn’t be putting so much pressure on our teens to meet our needs. We are there to help meet theirs!
So there it is. Where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing. I’m making a more concerted effort, in this time of self care, to also write more often on here. I’m not going to make promises I can’t keep but as we transition in our goals and pursuits, we want to bring you along with us. Thank you for your time in reading this. I hope it speaks to someone.
Shae’s written a guest post for Neels over at Drown The Noise, all about her role and vocation in both life and work as a youth worker.
It’s a great read (although as her husband I’m obviously biased!), so go check it out here.
Recently Benjamin Kerns wrote an article about why 5 years is the ceiling in youth ministry. It is a really good picture of what happens in many youth ministries. It has been an experience I’ve witnessed in many youth pastors and youth ministers. I agree wholeheartedly with Ben’s assessment that we need to keep pouring into the next generation of youth coming up through our programs if we want to have a sustainable youth program. His context is that of youth ministry within the church, which lends itself to a steady stream of children turning into teens, teens turning into graduates and so on. However, this isn’t just a struggle limited to youth pastors- all youth workers at some time or another will wonder about their call or vision for the youth work they do.
But when you have other natural breaks in your youth work programs, and other outside factors, how do you know how long is ‘too long’ in a youth work position?
Cut and dry
Many youth workers are contract workers (particularly in the UK and Australia)- they have a set amount of time in which to do their work and if they don’t get more grant money they don’t have a job.
Move on up to that ‘deluxe apartment in the sky’
Youth workers move up into management (the non-faith-based equivalent of moving into ‘real ministry’ in the church)- when you’re too old or tired (or you have a family to support), you move into program management and leave the face-to-face work to the next generation of youth workers.
Show me the money
Government priorities shift and therefore your work focus shifts- if you work for the government, the next new thing (currently in the US it’s obesity) dictates what monies you get, how you can spend your time and sometimes the age and population of your participants.
However, there is another factor- one that is harder to know when it’s time to stay or go.Youth workers who work with disadvantaged or socially-excluded youth and in deprived areas and organizations.
This can be some of the most rewarding work to do, but it tends to take a huge toll on your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. How long can you live and work alongside such heartbreak?
With victims of child abuse, the foster care system, bullying, suicidal tenancies, poverty, illiteracy, hopelessness… the list goes on and on.
How long can you work with…
This isn’t something I can tell you. But I can give you some indicators that you might be ready for something new- or at the very least- a sabbatical.
1. You dread going to group.
2. You get frustrated quickly and easily with routine teenage behavior.
3. You complain about your group when you get home, every time, with little to no positives you can identify.
4. You find yourself distracted at work easily and find it hard to self-motivate in the office.
5. You are looking at job sites- particularly when this happens with increasing frequency.
I know it can hurt when you are considering moving on from a youth work role, no matter what the reason. But being a good reflective practitioner is key to understanding yourself, your youth and the impact you are having on them. Remember to always focus on why you do what you do. It’s probably because you want to make a difference. If your attitude is such that you aren’t able to make that difference anymore, it’s time to think about a break or a switch.
Youth work shouldn’t be about you.
One of the biggest problems that face most youth programs is the lack of funds. Whether it’s a large organization, a small non-profit, government provision or a faith-based organization there just doesn’t seem to be enough money to go around. And the thought of grant writing can be very daunting for many youth workers. I mean really, we do the program bit and it’s a general stereotype (that is correct in my opinion) that most of us hate paperwork. We don’t want to sit at our desk or computer and fill out paperwork- we want to do the work!
Sadly, like exercising or taking the time to go to the bathroom, it’s a necessary evil (that’s just me then that finds going to the bathroom a complete waste of time during my busy day?!).
You never know when you may need a skill like basic grant writing. No, you may not need to write hundreds of grants for millions of dollars. But you may need to help the teens in your program write a mini-grant (this is a way that is becoming more popular to fund projects for youth, by youth) or assist your own fundraising department in their preparation of a grant. You may also be wanting to start your own youth program and go it alone and for that you will need funds (unless you’re independently wealthy).
I recently had the opportunity to attend a grant writing workshop and here are the top three tips I took away from a foundation grant writer:
1. Seek other funding options.
I’ve been learning about this over the years while preparing to get my own non-profit off the ground. You can’t rely on grant funding alone. Firstly, because grants come and go (and are getting increasingly more competitive). Also, most grants now want to know how are you going to use this ‘seed money’ to get your project going and then make it sustainable when the grant finishes. Funders don’t want to see ‘get another grant’ on your paperwork. You need to focus on private donors*, major donors*, streams of revenue, etc. during your current grant cycle.
2. Figure out (before you apply) if your aims meet the funders goals (and if you don’t know- ask).
A lot of grant making organizations will sit down with you before you apply- in the case of my four local foundations they actually require it before application. You need to review their guidelines with a fine-toothed comb and if you have any questions or doubt about your program or organization fitting into their funding goals then pick up the phone and make a connection with a real person and get some answers.*
3. Give them what they ask for- no more, no less.
You know your organization and program so you’re going to be quick to say a lot about it and possibly skim over the grant management aspect of the application. Wrong. You need to do both, equally well and clearly, in your application to be in with a shot. According to the trainer its about 50% or less of a grant application that is the actual project. They really want to know how you are going to manage their funds. Remember- it doesn’t have to be lengthy, as long as you provide what they want there is no need to go on and on and on and on and on and on… well you get the picture. If you think something will enhance your grant or add clarity then include it (or even better- ask a real person at the organization about it first).*
* Bonus tip: There is both a science and an art to grant writing. The science is the basic application. The art is building relationships. You need to build relationships with funders, whether they are foundations, private donors or corporations. You need to keep in touch with them. Share your successes. Be honest about your shortcomings. An email won’t do. You need to get out there and talk to people. Send them notes and updates. If you do a newsletter, drop that in the mail to them. Keep that relationship open. Even if they can’t fund you right now, or in the future, they are going to know people who might be able to.
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