Giancarlo Balarezo

One of my favorite activities we teach in the Life Work Portfolio Course is our “Personal Brand” exercise.  The basic idea is that you brainstorm many of the qualities you feel an employer would want to hire. It doesn’t do anyone any good to try to be all of them at once, or even worse, pretend to be something you’re not.  The goal is, take some time to really figure out what your true core employability qualities are, and how you can showcase them consistently at the workplace and at home.

When we start the brainstorming, most students have a lot of qualities to put on the board. But there is almost always one quality missing that I end up “giving” to them and that word, or quality, is resourceful.  The students don’t always know what it means and ask me to explain. More often than not I tell them to imagine losing their phones—how would they get through the day? Using resources.  After sitting for an hour with portfolio class alum Giancarlo Balarezo, I think I need him to come to all my classes from now on and explain about the beauty of utilizing your resources to their fullest potential.

Giancarlo didn’t always feel like the spokesperson for resourceful youth. In fact, as a typical high school student studying at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, he pretty much felt that there was only one option ahead of him- he wanted to work with computers, so, that meant a hefty degree and lots of schooling. But as we discover so many times, how can a youth be expected to concentrate on their college plan when their home life is unstable and there is constant personal friction to wade through? Thus, at a breaking point with his father, Giancarlo did what made the most sense in his mind—he dropped out of high school at age 17 and went out west to Arizona where his older brother had escaped to a few years prior. He summed up Arizona fairly well—“it was hot and I was loading boxes at UPS all day, not fun.” I had to laugh, as a southwest native myself, he nailed the description of the scenery.   At this point in his story, it already sounded to me like he had to endure much more than any teenager should have to, but then life dealt him another devastating blow and took his brother away from him.

When Giancarlo’s brother died suddenly, he couldn’t afford to stay in Arizona alone, so he came back to the family life he had so desperately needed to leave. It hadn’t gotten any better, especially now that the family was also in mourning. But, faced with the idea of another son slipping away from him, Giancarlo’s father made one phone call that Giancarlo would later attribute to changing the entire course of his life—he called the Adult Learning Center in Virginia Beach and took Giancarlo down to take the GED placement test. Never a bad student, Giancarlo did well in his test and was immediately handpicked to speak to Lisa Belcher, the coordinator for the Foundations Transitions Program, funded by Workforce Development.  As she explained to him, the program would not only help him with continued study for his GED, but also give him the ability to participate in paid work experience, go on college tours, work with mentors, gain career assessment skills, and create and develop a professional portfolio. That sounded good to Giancarlo; that sounded like resources.

            In the first two months of the program he had passed two portions of the GED test. He went to class every day from 8am-1pm and was also working locally at Flex Gym. However, when he had enough time under his belt, he was offered a paid work experience incentive at an array of local businesses.  What stood out right away to him was a position at the VB Recreation Centers as “recreation ops.” He took on the role and began work that would primarily include setting up and taking down various rooms at the Williams Farm rec center. It was then that he had a realization—he preferred more human interaction then his interest in computers might have suggested. He found himself asking to help out with the Forever Young bus run that allowed him to make connections with the seniors that came to the center for workouts. He liked the type of work more. Because of this desire, he decided to appeal to his supervisors and ask for a different role.  They agreed, and he ended up working the front desk and greeting people every day when they came in.

As he told me about this revelation I was thinking once again about a key point we try to make during our classes with students—learn who you are and listen to yourself.  So often in the teens and 20’s we switch from job to job, place to place, and it’s all worthwhile if along the way we’re assessing ourselves and trying to really figure out what environments are making us happy and keeping us satisfied. But it doesn’t always happen.  It is always gratifying that a student actually practices what we preach. In this case, Giancarlo realized he was happier with human interaction, and so, he made efforts to get more of it on the job. It sounds simple, but I have so much respect for him because I know it’s not that easy for many youth.

Flash forward over a year and Giancarlo now works full-time at the Bow Creek recreation center front desk. He continues to build relationships with the patrons there and he enjoys the work.  He has built a stronger and healthier rapport with his family, and his father in particular.  He also has his eye on some more resources available to him. He’s researched the city’s tuition reimbursement program and is excited about enrolling in some computer courses at TCC in the fall so that he can earn certificates that will put him on a path to doing IT work. Giancarlo has interviewed for all of the promotions he’s gotten with a not-so-secret weapon in hand—his Smart Transitions Life-Work Portfolio.  It remains in his car, he tells me, at all times. He has it filled to the brim now with the many certificates he’s earned, as well as examples of the job skills he’s honed at the rec center. He even says that when he helps interview upcoming youth employment candidates, he finds himself gauging how prepared they seem by checking whether they have a portfolio, or even a start of a portfolio, with them.

I can’t help but smile thinking of how far he’s come.  This 20-year-old young man in front of me gives pearls of wisdom that I expect from someone twice his age. He managed to grasp the importance of networks and support far sooner than other youth his age that I’ve met. He talks of preparedness in the face of anything, and he continues to stress to me the importance of resources. And I as I finish my chat with Giancarlo I am thinking over in my head and counting all of the resources he managed to utilize. Lisa Belcher, Workforce Development, the options he had at the Recreation Centers, the Smart Transitions portfolio training from Together We Can Foundation, and now the city’s tuition reimbursement program.

This young man grabbed on to everything that he could because he realized that there was more than one path to the future he wanted. Perhaps his father realized it to when he made the phone call that changed everything. Yet another example of support coming through when we least expect it, but need it the most.

Harvest Bellante, Program Director

Looking Good: A Foster Care Portrait Event

Blaise and Katlyn Burns and Family (along with Stand Up For Kids Executive Director, Mark Stevens) were back to have family portraits made at Together We Can Foundation’s “Looking Good” Portrait Event. Many families are making this an annual event for their holiday portraits and some of our foster youth use this opportunity to have Senior pictures done. This is the 3rd year for this annual event. It is an opportunity for foster care youth, foster families, and families in need to have professional portraits created for the holidays.

Area portrait photographers, Jon and Julie Limtiaco, Ramone Permel, Jen Vetter, and Adelaide Rooney donated their time, energy, expertise, and passion to make great memories for youth and families.

Jon Limtiaco coaching 2 girls on posing.

Adelaide Rooney helping shoot a foster family.

Ramone Permel working that portrait magic.

Jen Vetter making smiles happen.

Thanks to all our volunteers and to the Renaissance Academy in Virginia Beach, Project HOPE, Stand Up For Kids, and Connect With A Wish for making this another successful event.

Jeremiah Stanley and Jason Grant

Jeramiah Stanley ponders for a moment about adult life…and then says quite determinedly, “I’m worried, I think it’s going to slap me in the face.”  The adults in the room chuckle but not him. Meanwhile, Jason Grant sits next to him nodding right along.

For high schoolers, these two actually have a pretty good assessment of what becoming an adult can feel like and I have to give them a lot of credit. It’s a bit a refreshing not to hear a young person shrug and assume that “3 Bugattis” in the garage at age 30 is going to be the norm they should plan for.  And really, it’s these two boys’ grasp on reality and honesty that has me responding- “Well, Jay (Jeramiah,) you’re probably right. But for my money, after working with the both of you for months, I think you’re going to be just fine and in fact, I’d be pretty happy if you guys end up running the world one day.”

That brings a smile to Jason’s face- Jeramiah is still hesitant. “I just worry that none of the adults or parents can tell you what to do or will want to help you anymore when you’re older,” he says.  Again, chuckles in the room from both ladies sitting by their sides.  Jeramiah and Jason both brought their grandmothers-the two women responsible for getting the boys into my class in the first place.  I laugh this time as well and look to the grandmothers, “Let you in on a secret, guys?  Adults loveto help and tell you what to do…no matter how old you get.  These ladies will welcome it.”  At this I finally get a smile from Jeramiah.

Both of these young men really do give me hope- it’s not just lip service while their families watch.  Jeramiah is a junior at Green Run High School and he thinks he’d like to get into computer programming in the future.  He’s got a math class looming over him that feels unsurmountable and yet, he really wants to just pass so he can take it a little easy during senior year and “chill out.” Once the chilling is done however, he worries he’ll still feel a little overwhelmed.  Right now, college just feels like more studying and more stressing. The back and forth in his mind between wanting to take it easy and wanting to pass classes and do well is often the pendulum swing high schoolers are used to.  It can easily feel like going back and forth between two extremes. But as we talk, I see in him much more drive than he’d like to let on. It’s not even a necessity for his field but he’d really like to earn an advanced diploma just to show that he could achieve it.  He figures, why not?

Jason is in 10thgrade at Bayside.  And even though we all do it to every younger generation, I still think it’s amusing to watch Jeramiah somberly tell Jason what he’s in for once he reaches junior year.  Yet I’m as confident about Jason’s future as I was Jeramiah’s.  Jason was at a yard sale when his grandmother ran into Jeramiah’s and before they knew it, both gents got signed up for the portfolio class. Jason describes being nervous at first, but after the first class he got on board completely.  He tells me that he found himself looking forward to class each day and even told fellow classmates what they could learn if they did some career research on  For his part, he took what I said to heart.  He looked further into becoming a U.S. Marshal and at this writing, was still very much committed to the plan.  He also managed to secure a job on weekends just by being friendly and having someone tell him how strong he looked- now he helps a moving company with occasional bookings.

What I like so much about my time spent with both of these young men is how honest and real they are. During our many class discussions, mock interviews, and even just casual conversation, neither one acts like they have it all “figured out.”  In fact, when I suggest that they will be adults at 18 they both scoff a bit and reply that they don’t imagine they’re going to feel like adults. Jason is proud to be a bit goofy and hates the idea of having to act like an adult.  Again, age and experience cause us “old” gals in the room to chuckle.  I assure him that he can still be goofy, and he absolutely will not magically figure it all out when the age of 18 drops. That said, I’m also careful to point out that both men will need to be aware that once they turn 18, any dumb “kid” decisions could cost them dearly in the legal system.  They both nod and suddenly I feel like we’re back to them feeling slapped in the face by adulthood.

Ultimately, I know that with our work there are only so many assurances we can give.  We know the stats and we know how easily one little sidestep can derail you good intentions. But I come back to the terrified young men who sit politely with their grandmothers and give them props for taking them to my class-  Jason tells me that he’s been trying to take my advice about networking and he’s already working to circle back to old teachers to keep fresh in their mind;   while Jeramiah mentions again how happy he is to have his portfolio just in case he has a “brain fart” in an interview and now can be assured to have tangible back-up in hand just in case.

I look at them both being so worried about adulthood and yet open and willing to use the resources they’re being presented to better prepare for it and I firmly believe that that becomes the magic mix of success. If we can instill just enough good, clean, healthy fear into the mind of youth that they actually yearn to learn more and possess the tools overcome the challenges they worry about; and, if we then present ourselves as resources and let them know that at no point will we just assume they should have it all in focus because after all, do we? Well then maybe, just maybe will we deserve the praise and the heartfelt thanks they give us.

Harvest Bellante, Program Director

No Throw Away Kids

no throw away kids

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.