I’m standing in the back of the room watching young men and women who have genuinely struggled through adolescence be introduced, praised, and allowed to bask in a moment of glory in front of their family and their peers. They are here tonight because an organization like Tidewater Youth Services exists in our community. Tidewater Youth Services (TYS) takes on the challenge of youth that the rest of us would probably just as soon ignore—youth that struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges that sometimes lead to expulsion from school, loss of family connection, and sometimes to incarceration or worse.
These are our “throw-away” kids—the youth that we’d rather not have to think about. As someone who has spent a career educating and working with teens, I would be the first to admit that they can be difficult to love. They are prone to bite the hands that try to feed them and the incomplete wiring of their adolescent brains means that they are pretty sure they know everything and need nothing from the adults around them. They are not cute like young children or puppies in animal shelters. They do not tug at our heartstrings (or our philanthropic purse strings). When they tell us emphatically that they want to be left alone in whatever self-destructive tailspin they have found themselves in, it is hard not to just walk away.
But not walking away is exactly what they need and is exactly the void that TYS fills. They operate youth homes and crisis intervention homes where youth can get a mixture of structure, safety, and skills development. Sometimes what these youth most need is some guidance and support in developing skills that they never acquired. These can be communication skills, anger-management skills, the skills of self-reflection and self-assessment, or the skills of self-discipline anchored in a positive life-work vision for themselves.
At Together We Can we have been honored to work with Tidewater Youth Services over the years, bringing our Smart Transitions—Life-Work Portfolio Class and resource materials to the youth in their care. We provide some needed life skills around the importance of personal and work brand or reputation and to help them make a deep dive into career possibilities that actually align with their best gifts, passions, values, and aspirations. But, what we do is small compared to the time and energy that TYS devotes to these youth. They provide art instruction that draws out even the most introverted youth. They use anger replacement therapy to help the most wounded youth find better ways of relating to those around them. They take them on field trips and help them experience more of what life truly has to offer.
This is the work of intervention. These youth are at risk of disconnection. Disconnected youth are defined as being between 16 and 24, not working, not in school, and usually not connected to family or community in any significant way. In crisis, disconnected youth end up unemployed, homeless, incarcerated, or sexually trafficked and abused. TYS intervenes to keep youth with risk factors for disconnection from moving into crisis. In crisis they place an annual financial burden on the community of over $14,000 per youth. But whether your concern is fiscal or social, doing nothing about these youth—ignoring them—just isn’t smart.
As I watch one youth after another accept their awards from various TYS staff after being praised for their efforts and transformation, I can’t help but smile. These are not “throw-away” kids. These are opportunity youth. There is potential in every single young person in that room that it seems a shame to waste. I am grateful that organizations like Tidewater Youth Services exists and that we can play a small part in making their mission successful.