I remember night shifts with chatting with my colleagues when I began my career as a youth care worker in 1992. We often discussed who would be leaving the program first. I thought I would be there for a few years, but certainly would leave in time. Well, apparently time has not yet arrived because I am still there. There have been many changes over the past ten years, both within the program where I work, and with myself.
When I was first offered the job as a youth care worker, I was a young naive 23 year old graduate fresh from a health education program. I did not even know what the job I was offered was about. I knew that I would work as a casual employee filling in when and if necessary. I had some understanding of what my shift responsibilities would be. I watched those around me who were more experienced, and learned; a lot!
In 1994 I decided to go back to school to take my education degree. Still working casual I thought that perhaps I would become a classroom teacher. This dance through the education system reinforced for me how much I had learned in two years of front line youth care. I readily identified that I had learned that children who are struggling socially and behaviourally were important, and the education system I was practicing in did not have the same respect or responsibility towards them that I felt. I reevaluated my desire to be a classroom teacher; maybe that was not for me.
Spring 1996 I was offered a half time position in the new program we developed at our centre that focused on family, not child. This fit for me, after a few years of working in a short term assessment program designed, it seemed, to “fix” children. Children were not fixable in six weeks, and I began to wonder if children were indeed fixable at all without family support and intervention. I accepted that half time position, and still picked up casual shifts as well as substitute teaching a few days each week.
The acting director of that program paid attention to me, and supervised me well. I say that because he supported my learning, and the development of my own philosophy of youth care. He challenged me to identify my own values and beliefs about residential care, and working with youth and families. Often he debated with me about my desire to be a ‘teacher’ and my own issues that were present in my interventions with the children who I was working with. It took time, and some examining of myself, but I have developed into a youth care worker who has faith in the youngsters and families with whom I work. I believe in change, and I use my relationships with these individuals as an agent for the changes that families identify they want and need to make in order to live together more effectively.
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That all said, what do my days look like now? How do I put all that I have learned into practice?
I am fortunate to work in the same program that recognizes the need for consistency in the lives of the children. We believe that this is not limited to children who continue to live with ‘parents’ but should also be actualized as much as possible within a residential care program. My regular schedule has me arriving at work for 7am each weekday. At that time my primary responsibility is to support the youngsters as they transition into their day from sleeping, and prepare themselves for school.
The five young adults (they have told me they don’t like being called youngsters or children) who currently reside within our program have been with us since at least September 2001 so we have developed some routines around wake ups and breakfast time. I will outline those for you just to give an idea of the importance this apparent minutia plays.
What I just outlined is the routine of their mornings. It does not always look like this, but eight out of ten days, it does. The other few days, someone struggles more than usual getting up, they may have had a rough evening. Peer issues, those that always crop up in group living environments; or a stressful phone call from a parent or sibling may have made the transition into sleep different than usual, thus causing their waking to be differently stressful than it usually is. There are other things that impact on a youngsters waking up time such as sickness, physical or emotional. These are all reasons why it is important to have consistency and predictability for the children who are living residentially. It is especially during these times that having an understanding of the whole child, the 24/7 child, the one whose life continues, always is important. Which reminds me of the following story.
After the children leave for school, work time is rather unpredictable. If there is a child back from school then attention must be paid to them in order to properly process their day. Phone calls are inevitable in the program where I work. There is no main office. We handle all the calls ranging from schools to parents to social workers to child welfare specialists. Parents may be calling to process weekends with their families. Teachers and principals call to regularly update us on individual children’s progress. Social workers may be calling to arrange meetings to discuss cases or to inquire about openings in the program.
Most days I spend some time with parent(s) with whom I am working. This is an ideal time to catch up on what has been going on with them since I last spent time with them. Often this occurs within a family home, and when the opportunity presents itself, daily life events are used as opportunities for teaching. Being with families is like being with youngsters, although it is usually in their own home not in residential programs like we are used to.
There are also appointments to attend; Therapists, Dentists, Doctors, Probation officers and court appearances. Key workers take youngsters to these appointments when they can, but if they are scheduled during the day, then I often accommodate.
While my regular schedule has me at work at 7am each weekday morning, and have commitments in the centre until mid afternoon. From that point on I adapt my schedule to provide the support that the youngsters and families need on a day to day basis.
Tuesday afternoons I take my key youngster to her family home to spend time with her siblings. I pick her up after school and get back to the centre in the early evening. Wednesday evenings I attend class. Thursday evenings I take a youngster to his riding lesson, and then spend time with his family (he lives with them full time, and our outreach program is providing support so they may live together more successfully). Friday evenings I often drive a youngster to his weekend home time which is a few hours drive in each direction and some time spent transitioning them once we get there.
Occasionally there are situations which arise outside of my regular schedule that I choose to participate in because they involve the youngsters and families that I am involved in supporting, and I think it is an important function of our job that we are available (within reason) when there is crisis.
If parents are struggling with getting their child up and off to school it is conceivable that I would be at the family home during the wake up time to provide the parents with the support they need to follow through with the expectations that they have set for themselves. If it is bath and bed time that are particularly stressful, my presence during this time may be beneficial. My presence in a family’s home may be prearranged, or I may arrange a time in my head, and call just prior to going there.
I believe in youth care are as a profession and am involved in my provincial association. I am our program’s representative to our regional committee. This involves attending regular monthly meetings and participating in the provincial membership committee.
Again because I believe in the development of strong youth care workers, I have supervised several students who have done practicums in our program, as well as mentoring newer workers in our program. While this is a time-consuming process, it is one which needs to be done well, and with pride. Teaching and supporting new workers is something that we all need to do. The development of strong values and beliefs about change; the importance of family in the lives of children and a strong theoretical base in the youth care approach, is taught in formal training, and, I believe, informally on a consistent basis by being challenged on the floor, in the moment by colleagues.
I have also begun to work on my Masters in Education (Counselling). My commitment to this is based on my beliefs previously mentioned. This requires me to attend classes at least one evening each week. I include this here in my summary of my work life because my program is supportive of my obtaining this training. My supervisor and I communicate on a regular basis about the time commitment, and how the program can continue to assist me in completing this degree. I often work on papers, or required readings during quiet moments in the centre. When necessary, time away from my regular shift is accommodated so that I can attend meetings or complete assignments. It is not only my supervisors who are supportive of this, it is my colleagues. They tolerate my occasional absences, or avoidance of answering the phone when I am engaged in school related activities.
As I reread this summary of my work life, I am aware that I have expressed a lot about who I am as a youth care worker; what I believe, and how I practice. I have touched on my evolution, and alluded to my current focus. If someone had told me in 1992 that I would have a career as a child and youth care worker I would not have believed them, mainly because I would not have understood what that meant.
Now, I cannot imagine my path having been otherwise.