The Life and Journey of Rhiannon: A Series

Part Three: Like a Rolling Stone? Not Exactly. 

Rhiannon is well into the second semester of her senior year at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts and she is in overdrive.  Most high school seniors sort of coast through their last semester. Not so Rhiannon. She apologizes politely for not returning e-mails, texts, and voicemail in a timely fashion and explains that she is in yet another play at Patapsco (Annie), that rehearsals are “late, tiresome, and hectic,” and that she is in a bit of a “tug of war over her schedule with her director, stage manager, and teachers.”  Add to that the fact that Rhiannon carries a full course load this semester including: AVID (a college prep course), Theatre, Math, AP English, and Economics and Public Issues, and that she serves as a teacher’s aide in the theatre department, and well…you get the idea. Rhiannon is “crazy busy.”  Now – as if school and theatre weren’t all-consuming – Rhiannon also works 20 hours (sometimes more) a week at a local Metro PCS phone store. Quite unlike the proverbial rock, this rolling stone gathers plenty of moss. It is as if she is making up for her rootless, itinerant childhood. Rhiannon practically steamrolls through life gathering ‘moss’ in the form of friendships, mentorships, and invaluable experience.  And in the process, she outpaces herself and others, remaining – as she pointed out in Part 2 of this series – “ten steps ahead” in setting goals and making connections.

It was Kyle Beliczky, the New Pathways Community Support Specialist assigned to Patapsco who introduced Rhiannon to the concept of setting goals and who was instrumental in helping her get her job at Metro PCS.

“Senior year is expensive!” Rhiannon griped. “There’s prom, yearbook, club dues, senior portrait, cap and gown. Besides, whenever I get my paycheck, the hands are always out at home,” Rhiannon offered as a way of explaining just how far her paycheck needs to stretch in a family where neither parent works.  “It’s really important to have a job.” Aware that perhaps she has just revealed her softer side – something Rhiannon is not entirely comfortable doing – she quickly added:

“I do this for me. I look at my parents and think, ‘I can’t be like that.’ I made that promise to myself.”

When Rhiannon was close to getting the job at Metro PCS, New Pathways’ Kyle Beliczky acted as a reference and advocate on her behalf. The company guideline is that employees should be 18 years of age. Rhiannon was a couple months shy of her 18th birthday. But Kyle explained what an asset the bilingual Rhiannon would be in a store where most of the clientele is Hispanic.  That’s right. Rhiannon is fluent in Spanish. She got the job. She likes it, explaining, “I’m good at it. I’m tech savvy,” and she refers to her bosses at the store as “mentors and friends.”  Like all her life experiences, Rhiannon will try and parley this one into another opportunity in the future. And she is already looking ahead to college.

“A lot of schools have PCS stores on campus. I want to use the network to try and get a job at college.” Ten steps ahead. She has her heart set on Temple University in Philadelphia. But even with a part time job, Rhiannon will need a full scholarship to afford the tuition, room, and board. And it’s competitive out there. Will Rhiannon even be accepted by Temple? If so, will she get enough financial aid to enable her to attend? Does she have a Plan B? And who will help her navigate all these decisions?

Tune in next time to “The Life and Journey of Rhiannon,” Part 4 to find out.

 

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The Life and Journey of Rhiannon: A Series

Part Two: Attention Must Be Paid

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight…and never stop fighting.    ee cummings
                                                                                                                 

thumbnail_fullsizerenderRhiannon was just 8 years old the first time she and her family were evicted from their home. Plant closings and job layoffs were contributing factors. It was the perfect storm of events that would send the family on a traumatic roller coaster ride of ups and downs, separations and reunions, uncertainty and instability. Things would never be the same.

Like all of us, really, Rhiannon can paint a picture of family life that is a jumble of good times and bad, love and betrayal, and familial role reversals. Her family is at once tight knit and scattered. She speaks of her parents lovingly but does not let them off the hook for what has become of them, and credits Tuesday, her older sister (by one year), for

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Tuesday and Rhiannon

“stepping up to the plate” and playing the adult role through their aborted childhoods. They spent the better part of their young lives in and out of shelters, rectories, and makeshift homes. At one point, the family took up residence in a “roofless, floorless” dilapidated house in Brooklyn Park, where, according to Rhiannon, the family huddled together in the “blue room” – the only room that didn’t leak.  In the beginning, her parents were all about “keeping the family together” no matter what the circumstances, but eventually, as so often happens in these situations, Rhiannon’s parents split up. They went their separate ways and endured their own personal and sometimes hellish odysseys. For a while, the kids ended up in foster care as their parents came and went.  Today, Rhiannon lives with her mother and both parents are still very much in her life. But as Rhiannon likes to remind us, “This is not their story. This is my story.” Indeed, it is.

thumbnail_fullsizerender-3It’s easy to lose one’s way on a life journey such as Rhiannon’s. Even easier to lose one’s sense of self when everyone is telling you what you can or can’t do. Can or can’t say. What, in fact, you can reveal… or must conceal.  But as was suggested in Part One of this series, “hope is a fighter.”  If one can locate, at the center of one’s existence, the ‘still, small voice’ within, it can become one’s greatest ally and guide one along the most challenging and treacherous of life’s byways. Rhiannon has found that voice. It is not always still and rarely small. But it is hers. And attention must be paid.

It is hard to know whether Rhiannon came into the world hard-wired this way or if circumstances conspired to develop the need in her, but the fact of the matter is, Rhiannon craves attention. She knows it and is unapologetic. She does not believe that her current situation means that she should ever settle for less than what she hopes for and expects.

“Some people say that I only think about myself,” Rhiannon explained. “But that’s not thumbnail_fullsizerender-5true. I think about the future. I’m ten steps ahead. And what I learn and what goals I reach can help other kids push forward, too. Somebody’s gotta do it. Somebody’s gotta pay attention.”  What is remarkable about Rhiannon’s self-knowledge is the unadulterated clarity of it. Perhaps even more remarkable (and fortuitous) however, is that Rhiannon has found an outlet for her cravings. The stage. Ever since she can remember, Rhiannon has loved to put on plays and act. She was determined, no matter what stood in the way (geography, support, resources) to attend Patapsco High School and Center for the Performing Arts. It is there she thumbnail_img_1221met her mentor, theater director, Kevin Carlson; there she met New Pathways community support specialist, Kyle Beliczky; and there she found her voice. She comes alive when on stage and has been in dozens of plays in her 4 years at Patapsco including Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in her junior year. This year, she had the lead role in the school play, She Kills Monsters, performed in Patapsco’s experimental, new black box theatre. There is no role too small or unimportant as far as Rhiannon is concerned. This past Christmas, she was only too happy to play Rudolph in the Dundalk holiday parade.

“Acting is my life,” Rhiannon explains with glee. And it is certainly a tremendous outlet for her energy and need for attention.

But just when you think you have this young woman pegged… she reveals another layer.

***

Coming up in further installments of The Life and Journey of Rhiannon: Rhiannon gets a job, plans for college, and decides on a career. Hint: It’s not acting.

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The Life and Journey of Rhiannon: A New Series

Part One: Hope is a Fighter

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Most of the young people who are brought to the attention of New Pathways come from similar backgrounds: economically fragile and emotionally unpredictable homes. The one community they should be able to count on for stability and safety – family – often provides neither. Insecurity inevitably takes its toll, manifest in a thousand different ways: neglect, rage, recompense, repetition…

 

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The sad thing is, a person can get used to anything. The more one tolerates a bad situation, the more ‘normal’ that situation seems to be.  Every kid who comes our way seems to have a 50-50 chance to break the pattern.

 

 

The thing we’ve noticed about the New Pathways kids who make it is their fighting spirit. 26519663 - vector illustration of origami bird ripping paperSometimes fierce. Sometimes just simmering under the surface. Always defiant. They are acutely aware of the way things are and though they may tolerate it for a while, they never accept it. They are card carrying members of The Resistance. Resistance, not to be confused with resentment, is good. Resentment is persistent ill will and is not very productive. It doesn’t lead to change. Resistance, on the other hand, says “No,” refuses to go along, and finds a way to change things for the better.  Resisters very much want, expect… hope for… something better.  And, why shouldn’t they?

Over the course of the next few months, we’ll journey with one such resister who has been23226442 - origami japan paper flying bird  brought into our New Pathways fold. Her name is Rhiannon, so called after the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name. It seems apropos. Like the title character of the song, Rhiannon “rules her life like a bird in flight.” She won’t be pinned down. Won’t settle. And won’t be told who she is, thank you very much. She’ll do the telling. A lover of music, Rhiannon’s father named her after the song, 17 years ago. Rhiannon just laughs. After all, he named her older sister, Tuesday, after a Rolling Stones’ song about another elusive enchantress named Ruby Tuesday who “comes and goes” but “no one knows.”  Like the subjects of both songs, our Rhiannon was never sure just where she would lay her head at night or when she would suddenly have to take flight, because for most of her young life, Rhiannon has been homeless. Despite that fact, Rhiannon has found comfort in the emotional shelter and support provided by both her school, Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts and Pathfinders, the New Pathways community program for homeless youth in Baltimore County run by New Pathways rhiannon-dsc_0665Community Support Specialist, Kyle Beliczky. Rhiannon has graciously agreed to let New Pathways follow her on her journey through this, the last semester of her senior year in high school. It’s both a scary and thrilling time for any high school senior but Rhiannon is game. She is outspoken. Fearless. And ferociously motivated. She is also vivacious, funny, and unabashedly open. Where will her journey lead her? To what heights will she soar? What new terrain will she explore? What challenges will she face and where will she land at the end of the year? Only time will tell, but from what we’ve seen so far, Rhiannon is up to the task. For sure, she will not settle for her current state of status quo and she has the spirit necessary to make change happen. Hope, as it turns out, is a fighter.  14911079 - a black and white version of two small chirping chicks

Join us on the journey. Because every young fighter needs cheering on.

***

Part Two: Attention Must Be Paid

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The Prodigy Project: New Mentorship Program, Brainchild of New Pathways’ Interns

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-12-26-18-pmWe don’t know how an entire generation ever got branded with the label “slacker” to begin with…but we’re here to tell you, the Millennials that hang around New Pathways are anything but! They are self-starters, go-getters, and thought generators! Their mantras are “What if” and “Says who?”  And to them, “can’t”… is just a four-letter word.  They’ve got energy, ideas, and unlimited potential. Take two of our college interns, for example.

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Janell and Brandon

New Pathways’ interns, Janell Bethea (Morgan State University) and Brandon White (Towson University) had an idea. They saw a need for a mentorship program at New Pathways and ran the idea by Associate Director, Nancy Strohminger. In her infinite wisdom, Nancy said, “Go for it!” Actually, Nancy had only gotten the word “Go…” out of her mouth when Brandon and Janell were off and running. Now, if we could only bottle such enthusiasm.

Called the Prodigy Project, and still in its incubation stage, the program is designed to pair up college students from the “Alpha Life” communities (sororities and fraternities) at both universities with our young clients at New Pathways. Janell and Brandon posted fliers across their respective college campuses (virtually and literally), which advertised the mentorship concept and invited their fellow students to join them in a brainstorming session at New 14875448 - abstract grunge background black and grayPathways earlier this month. More than 25 enthusiastic students showed up! On a Saturday!  Over the course of an afternoon, the students shared ideas and pizza and worked out what steps need to be taken to get the project up and running. One of the ideas that came out of the session is to design a survey to be filled out by both potential mentors and New Pathways clients that will serve as a tool to match up mentor and youth. Prerequisites for participation include mentor training and a minimum commitment of time. Co-director of the initiative, Brandon White, currently a senior at Towson University majoring in Family Studies and Human Services, explained why he thinks the program is so important:

“I grew up with my mom in a single parent home. From the male perspective, I know how important it is for young men to have strong male role models. Most of the kids at New Pathways come from broken homes. These young men and young women have both missed out on the benefits that a strong, personal relationship can provide.”  As conceived, The Prodigy Project will pair female youth participants with female mentors and male participants with male mentors. Brandon sees the project as a personal responsibility.

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Brandon

“What you pour in…gets poured out,” Brandon explained. “Everybody needs someone to look up to. The young adults at New Pathways crave that. But they’re at that age where they’re looking for ‘indirect’ advice. They don’t want people to tell them what to do so much as to show them. They’re looking for good examples whose lead they can observe and follow.”

Brandon, age 26, struggled a bit after high school, before finding a clear path. The way he sees it, if he can make that path just a little easier for someone else, he’d like to do.

“I asked myself, ‘What is it that I can do to better myself’?” Brandon explained. “Then I asked, “And how can I leave a clear path for others? I don’t want to just leave footprints. I want to leave footprints others can and want to walk in.”

Brandon and Janell’s target date for launch of the Prodigy Project is January 2017. The youth we serve at New Pathways are lucky to have Brandon and Janell on their side.

So are we.

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Tekeia: Doing Her Very Best

photo Well, we might not yet have a female president, but that doesn’t mean we are lacking for strong, female role models. Take 25-year-old New Pathways graduate, Tekeia, for example. Though Tekeia’s father played a key role at critical points in her life, he did not live with her. Instead, Tekeia was raised by her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, a trio of strong women who served as her advisors and trusted guides throughout her young life. That’s a lot of female empowerment and it seems to have paid off. Today, Tekeia is an exemplar of courage and tenacity and a role model not only to other struggling young women, but to all young people coming up behind her, not the least of which is her own 2-year-old son, 50008255 - strong confidence woman open arms under the sunrise at seasideBlair.

This is Tekeia’s story. Though it strikes some familiar chords common to many stories about growing up black in a single-parent, low-income Baltimore household, Tekeia’s spirit makes her story resonate with a unique and uplifting force.

 

50848045_lEarly on, Tekeia’s mother recognized the importance of not merely education but of quality education as the key to insuring her daughter’s success. The proof was in the pudding. The better the school she attended, the better Tekeia’s grades were. As luck would have it, Tekeia attended one of the better middle schools in Baltimore. Upon graduation, Tekeia won the award for most improved student, an award she is justifiably proud of to this day.

42384064_l“I never won an award! When it came time to announce it, I was sitting there looking around at all the other students wondering who might win. It never occurred to me it might be me,” Tekeia said with residual joy. Her mother could see the obvious difference a good school made and was worried about the high school Tekeia was eligible to attend based on her city address. With the help of friends and a little, uh, manipulation of the system, shall we say, Tekeia’s mom got her into a good county school where, for three years, Tekeia thrived in every way.

“I got A’s and B’s in math,” Tekeia recalled. “That was something!” Eventually, however, the system caught up with them and despite the fact that Tekeia excelled at her current school, she was forced, in her junior year, to transfer to another school. One that corresponded with her address. It was one of the worst schools in Baltimore. Her father tried to help by offering to get her into a different school using his address, which is what happened. But that school was no better than the one she was legally eligible to attend.

47181287 - broken color chalk on dirty and dusty black board,top view.“On the eve of attending my new school for the first time, the TV news reported two stabbings at the school,” Tekeia recalled bitterly. She cried that whole night. “It was not a good school. The teachers were not good. The students didn’t care. It was a mess.”  Though it was a struggle, Tekeia mustered all her will power and courage and graduated from high school with honors. While in high school, she had gone on tours of different colleges.

“Those tours really opened my eyes,” Tekeia said. “They really made me want to attend college.” And so, after high school, Tekeia enrolled in CCBC.

But then her world fell apart. In October of that year, Tekeia lost both her mother and compass-2237861_lgreat-grandmother to illness (which means her surviving grandmother lost her own daughter and mother). This loss caused emotional and financial problems for them both. Eventually, Tekeia would have to drop out of college. She applied to the Navy as a way to get both her education and a career, but was not accepted. Ironically, Tekeia was at sea, nonetheless. Though set adrift, without any clear navigation, she still had her beloved grandmother and her long-time boyfriend, Jordan, with whom she has a son, Blair, by her side. Together, they helped each other chart a new course. It was a difficult and challenging journey until New Pathways and its partner, the Maryland Center for Adult Training (MCAT) crossed Tekeia’s path. Soon, Tekeia was enrolled in New Pathways’ Career Starters program and MCAT’s CNA/GNA certification program.

50243237_l“New Pathways’ career classes and life skill classes were so helpful,” Tekeia testified. Mr. Drake (New Pathways’ brilliant Career Development Coordinator and client advocate, Russell Drake) really stayed on top of everything. Helped me through it all. Helped me shadow jobs, do a good interview, learn how to budget, and a million other things. It makes such a difference when you have people in your corner who really care.  Mr. Drake gave me the edge I needed not only to get into the MCAT program, but to do well in it. And it was hard!”

But the natural student in Tekeia, the one who had done so well in middle school and high school, rose to the occasion.

“We had to get through three chapters in class, read three chapters at night, and take  screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-10-23-29-amthree tests a day! I took notes, I studied, and I did it! I didn’t fail one test! Not one!” Tekeia said, barely hiding her glee. As a result of all her hard work and effort, Tekeia became certified not only as a CNA/GNA, but also as a medical technician and in first aid and CPR as well. That is quite an accomplishment.

“I know!” Tekeia answered in response. “And, I got a job instantly.” So impressed with Tekeia were the folks at New Pathways and MCAT, that when the Patient Care Technician (PCT) certification program was introduced, she was one of the first people they called. They had her at “PCT”. A PCT certification is a step up both in responsibility and in salary from a CNA/GNA. Not surprisingly, Tekeia graduated with flying colors from the program in September. Today, she has a full time job in the oncology department at Howard County General Hospital. In her “spare” time, Tekeia is back in college at Howard County 38410939_lCommunity College studying for her nursing degree. She and her grandmother still live together, along with Jordan, Blair, and her grandmother’s foster child. She and Jordan now have two cars to take them to their separate jobs. And they just became engaged this month. So, the road ahead is looking good for the whole family right now. For their son, Tekeia and Jordan just want him to be the best he can be.  And as for her own dreams? Tekeia would like to work as a nurse practitioner in pediatrics one day. No doubt that day will come sooner than later. Our money is on Tekeia. But for now, she’s just happy to hit the books.

A powerful role model for all of us.

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Alex: Home Again, for the First Time

For most of us, home is the place from which our life journey begins. Not so Alexandra. However, home may be where her journey – or at least this leg of it – finally ends.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlexandra – or Alex as she is called by most –  has lived in more places in her young life than even she can keep track of. Yet none of them, by any stretch, could be called home. At the tender age of six, Alex was spirited away to what would be the first in a long string of foster homes. In the beginning, she was sheltered with her two triplet sisters, but eventually she was separated even from them, moving from one bad situation to another by herself. There was the house where she shared a bedroom with 5 other children, 3 of whom were boys. There was the house whose windows were so thick with nicotine and where the air was so full of smoke from her foster mother’s cigarettes, that Alex could barely breathe. There was the house run by an alcoholic who fed her one meal a day consisting of a piece of bread and cheese. There was the house where she was only allowed to bathe once a week, the one where her shoes never fit, and the one where she was forced to do all the household chores like an indentured servant. And there was verbal and physical abuse along the way as well. Alex has none of the happy childhood memories that most of us love to recount over and over again as time goes by. Instead, she developed a simmering anger towards the system and an implacable mistrust of…everyone. The way she sees it is, “If no one is going to look out for you, then you look out for yourself.”  This meant standing up for herself in a way that to others came off as ‘mouthing off,’ which more often than not got Alex in trouble. Finally – her breaking point she calls it –Alex was sent to a ‘group home’ which, in reality, was nothing more than a ‘lock-up facility.’  She was not sure how much more she could take. But, like many of the young adults we meet at New Pathways, Alex also developed a keen sense of self, an inner strength she drew upon to forge a different path for herself, and the unwavering determination to do what must be done to get there.  By age 18, Alex had attended as many schools as foster homes she’d lived in. Her education was one of fits and starts. Undaunted, Alex eventually got her GED and a full time job as a medical assistant.  She saved enough money to buy a car. She even lived in it for a while and – in a repeat of an earlier chapter in her life – sustained her life on one meal a day.

“I’d go get a chicken sandwich at McDonald’s. That would have to last the day,” Alex explained without a hint of self-pity.  And so, she made her way.

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Now, Alex’s life was not without a smattering of positive influences. A Catholic middle school where she learned important values. A court judge who took particular interest in Alex and her plight and did not give up on her.   And New Pathways.

By the time Alex arrived at New Pathways, she was still gainfully employed as a medical assistant. New Pathways provided an apartment for Alex to live in and – because Alex had a job and did not need the monthly stipend allocated by New Pathways – put Alex’s stipend away in an escrow account for her to access upon leaving the program.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“New Pathways helped me complete my journey,” Alex said. “They taught me so much about personal finances and budgeting, bank accounts and savings accounts, planning and thinking ahead.” There is something perhaps even more important that New Pathways taught Alex.

“There are two people that I can’t thank enough. Nicole and Tonya. They taught me to keep my mouth shut,” Alex laughed. “Well, what they taught me was, ‘Not everything needs a response.’ I went from running my mouth to not saying everything that came into my head. It was a valuable lesson,” Alex admitted.  Through New Pathways Alex also developed invaluable social, communication, and conflict resolution skills.

“Those skills have been a big help in almost every life situation including work and financial negotiations,” Alex confessed.

New Pathways also helped Alex move into her own apartment through their NICHAC   program (Now I Can Have a Cat), a process where only eligible New Pathways clients take the next step to independence by finding and moving into their own apartment in the neighborhood of their choice while still under the care of New Pathways. The last step Alex would take before aging out of the foster care system and truly being on her own.

Though Alex is not yet at a point in her life where she is willing to embrace the word ‘trust’ as regards any of her relationships, she does admit to a sense of faith and gratitude. Especially towards New Pathways.

“I have faith in them because they had faith in me,” Alex explained.

Now 21, Alex is pursuing an associate’s degree while continuing to work full time. She has saved enough money to put a down payment on her very first, very real house. And  so, earlier this month, Alex and her 5 cats moved in to their very own place where they will create many happy memories together.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Or shall we say… home.

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot

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Mind the Gap

51561017 - the sign " mind the gap " painted on train station's platform edgeThe practice of taking a “Gap Year” between high school and college has become increasingly popular with graduating seniors in the United States. Those who take a gap year generally view it as an opportunity to explore the world, experience exciting new opportunities, develop a sense of ‘self,’ and become a little more independent before settling down to another four years of academic challenges in college. For these young adults, a gap year is something freely chosen, thoroughly enjoyed, and – quite often – funded by parents.

46209719 - the white man with no face over dark backgroundBut for those students who experience homelessness during their high school career…every year is a gap year. Although, to be sure, a completely different kind of gap year and one which is neither freely chosen nor enjoyed in any way. Giving whole new meaning to the phrase, “mind the gap.” In fact, the kind of gaps these kids experience wreak havoc on their otherwise promising young lives. These gaps do nothing to advance their chances for success 42454384 - black gap in a pile of booksand can, in fact, undermine their sense of self. The gaps they experience – both academic and social – are many: valuable school days lost, the safety of home torn asunder as families are separated indefinitely, important friendships cast adrift as the homeless teen moves from place to place, and invaluable opportunities and advantages missed out on due to such factors as cost, transportation, or time.  They are the kind of opportunities that, for the most part, we all took for granted growing up. Something, for example, as simple as getting a driver’s permit is beyond the pale for a homeless youth who wouldn’t dream of asking his parents to help pay for it.

31067104 - women lying on beds in homeless shelterEarly on, New Pathways recognized the needs of this particularly vulnerable population of disconnected youth and decided to do something about it. Proactively. In 2015, New Pathways created a new program called Pathfinders, designed to serve homeless high school students in Eastern Baltimore County. Funded by Baltimore County and in cooperation with Baltimore County Public Schools, New Pathways provides much needed support, counseling, advocacy, and other services to 30 eligible students and their families 53556461 - make it happen new ways positive thinking proactive conceptthroughout the academic and calendar year. During the summer, New Pathways works in partnership with the Y in Central Maryland in support of the Y’s New Horizons summer internship program. For five days a week in the morning hours, New Pathways provides critical soft skills, life skills, and job readiness training to the county students enrolled in the Y program. In the afternoons, those same students then go off to their various summer jobs; jobs procured by the Y.  Through this circular relationship, the Y, the schools, and New Pathways maintain much needed continuity and service to students throughout the year.

32959472 - empty classroom with chairs and desksBut it is during the academic year when those services are most critical. Under the eminently qualified direction of Community Support Specialist, Kyle Beliczky, New Pathways has made the difference between success and failure for 30 students this past year and hopes to do the same for at least as many – if not more – in academic year 2016-2017. According to Kyle, the program’s goals are twofold: one, to make sure that every student enrolled in the program meets or exceeds school attendance expectations and two, to successfully complete their current grade and graduate to the next level. For seniors, that goal extends to college and/or employment in the coming year.

On the surface, the goals seem fundamental. Nothing could seem like a more basic 12608716 - long deep crack isolated on white backgroundresponsibility for a high school student than to stay in school. But if you are homeless and moving from place to place, getting to school is not as easy as it sounds. Yet, when a young person is absent from school, he or she not only misses out on the important academic lessons that are so critical to success in adulthood, but they also miss out on all the extracurricular opportunities, programs, and supports that can help cement that success. The gap can become so wide that they risk falling right through it. And of course, if they fall so far behind as to not graduate, the chances for a successful adulthood decrease exponentially.  In reality, achieving the program’s goals requires a remarkable amount of dedication, vigilance, and advocacy. And it is fair to say, no one is a more passionate or dedicated advocate than Kyle.

57090358 - fill the gaps, red rubber stamp with grunge edges“You have to understand,” Kyle explained. “These kids can feel so alone. It’s a very deep and personal trauma to watch your family struggle and to come to school and have to act normal, as if nothing is wrong. It takes a tremendous toll on a young person.” To have one’s parents and family be otherwise engaged or, worse, absent from the process at a critical stage in a teenager’s life when there is so much to learn, to be exposed to, and to take advantage of, can be devastating for a teen. It doesn’t mean, however, that that teen has to go it alone. The New Pathways Pathfinder program helps fill in those gaps. During the school year, Kyle can be found at one of 5 county high schools participating in the program, engaging in one-on-one weekly meetings with each student, offering counsel, addressing academic and personal goals, providing career development skills, and connecting the students with much-needed community resources.

“Most of the students simply don’t know what’s available to them, what resources are out 55010251 - hands holding cardboard with know your rights on white backgroundthere, and what their rights are in terms of those resources or how to access them,” Kyle explained.

On any given school day, Kyle serves as a benevolent go-between, working with teachers and staff  -who may not have the complete picture about what a particular student is going through at any given moment – and the student and his family. He connects students with academic tutors. He helps each student access food banks, housing services, day care services and utilities support, and shows them how to understand bus routes and fill out job applications, so they can get to school or a job from their temporary housing location. And yes, he even helps them get their learner’s permit.

34421749 - grunge stamp with text on the best champion vector illustration“Essentially, my role is to bridge the gap between all the support options and the kids and to keep all the key players on the same page,” Kyle said. A juggling act that requires diplomacy, patience, and perseverance.  And Kyle doesn’t just “call it in.” He thinks each student is served best by developing personal relationships with those who can help them. So, when Kyle isn’t in school, he is usually visiting one of the many support service programs in the area on behalf of one student or another.

By all accounts and partners, Pathfinders has been an unqualified success. All participants in the program did indeed stay in school and were promoted to the next grade level. All 8 seniors in the program graduated, receiving their high school diploma with the rest of their class. Seven of those graduates will be attending college in the fall.  The eighth has a job lined up. All participants reported that the program “positively reshaped their worldview, increased their motivation, and removed barriers,” allowing them to “focus on the future.”  Kyle has great hopes for the continuation of the program.

KYLE

Kyle Beliczky

“The capacity to expand is unlimited,” Kyle stated. “The need is great and with enough funds and manpower, we could easily double our capacity this year. There’s no reason why in three years we couldn’t be in schools throughout Baltimore County, not just the east side.” Kyle is optimistic. Though funds and manpower may indeed be slim, Kyle would like to see the program go statewide in 5 years.

“The thing is, at New Pathways, we identified a need that no one else had identified. There isn’t anything like this out there.”  Nor anyone quite like Kyle. With an advocate like him, anything is possible. He does, indeed “mind the gap.” He minds it very much.

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Financial Literacy 101

38340990 - financial literacy on green puzzle on white background.“Because no one taught me,” was the straightforward answer given by Community Support Specialist, JanQueshia Gay, when asked why she teaches financial literacy to the young students in her care at New Pathways. This skill gap in her upbringing forced JanQueshia to teach herself about money management as a young adult. She learned mostly by trial and error and made more than a few mistakes for which she admits she is still paying. JanQueshia wants her young charges at New Pathways to avoid the pitfalls and risks she encountered when striking out on her own, indicating a refreshing transparency which serves to build trust between JanQueshia and her students. JanQueshia and the other Community Support Specialists are absolutely right to stress the importance of financial literacy at New Pathways.

Of all the skill gaps the students at New Pathways need filled- including academic,  13779784_lsocial,and other life-skill gaps –  perhaps none is more important for long-term stability than financial literacy. Disconnected youth are less likely than other more “connected” youth to have access to financial and money management education, yet are perhaps the segment of youth most in need of those skills. Why? Because, at least starting out, disconnected youth are usually low-income earners and therefore more likely to be impacted by economic factors which make it difficult for them to manage their money and build savings.

12567960 - close-up picture of a credit cards as a background.New Pathways understands the need to teach these struggling young adults not only the very basic financial skills of budgeting and saving, but also the critically important concepts of accessing mainstream banking and establishing and maintaining credit.

“Many of our students really didn’t understand the concept of what it means to have credit,” JanQueshia explained. “Most of them thought having a credit card was like having free money.”

JanQueshia and the other Community Support Specialists and Career Development 5463219 - credit score and magnifying glasscounselors at New Pathways quickly dispel their students of that misconception. At the same time, they do explain the importance of establishing credit as soon as possible and begin the process as early as age 20. Their goal is to make the youth ready to stand on their own by age 21, when many of them will age out of the foster care system. Most of those who do, will not have an emotionally or economically stable support system to fall back on. No parents, grandparents, or favorite uncles to co-sign an apartment lease or bank loan with them. They are truly on their own. Establishing and maintain credit (and how to read a credit report) gives them a foot up.

“By the same token,” JanQueshia continued, “we don’t suggest they establish credit as a frivolity. We emphasize that, for most of them and for a long time to come, their credit card is not to be used for “wants” but only for “emergencies.”

This is where learning to create and maintain a personal budget comes in. For the 1%, well, if they want something, they buy it. For most, it’s a question of balancing priorities and delaying gratification. For many, however, managing their money is simply living paycheck to paycheck with fingers crossed that there will be no emergencies.

654955 - pink piggybank made of ceramic isolated on white with clipping path“It’s even more basic for the kids here,” JanQueshia stated. “We teach them to manage their money not paycheck to paycheck, but week to week. We teach them to create a ‘needs vs. wants’ list.” Essentially, most of them only have enough money for necessities and even then, they must establish priorities. “We’ll instruct them to buy their formula and diapers one week, their meats the second  week, then their paper products another, and so on. They really have to learn how to make things stretch and last. And believe me, it’s hard and very stressful for them.”

And what about savings? Is that a topic that is even broached with these young adults who live on very limited incomes?

“Absolutely,” said JanQueshia. “It’s vitally important for them to begin now and to 21081447 - financial literacy road sign illustrations design over whiteunderstand that even a little bit adds up over time. Each student has a personal savings plan. It’s different for each one depending on their income. Some can only put $5 away a week, others $50 a month. But we stress the importance of it.” In addition, New Pathways also teaches them about taxes and tax forms.

While leaving New Pathways with a basic understanding of the principles of credit and debt, budgeting and saving is no guarantee for financial success, being able to make informed decisions about one’s personal finances is a very good beginning for all our graduates. And why New Pathways promotes financial literacy as a necessary tool on the pathway to a safe, secure, and successful adulthood.

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May: National Foster Care Month

foster-care-monthMay is National Foster Care Month, a time when we are encouraged by all those working with and on behalf of foster children and their families to raise awareness of and create interest in the complex web of issues related to the subject. And there are many. Though New Pathways has expanded its programs to champion the cause of all disconnected youth, we have deep roots in the foster care community. Serving young adults who are aging out of the foster care system has always been an essential focus of our work.

23706946_lThe foster care system was established in the early 20th century in response to the needs of thousands of orphans and other displaced children. At the time, a state-run system was thought to be better than, for instance, placing a child in an institution. Over the years, there has also been a great deal of support for keeping children in their own homes with a biological parent and siblings whenever possible. But of course, it isn’t always possible nor in the child’s best interest to do so. The problems – including abuse and neglect – experienced by a child whose family life is fragile and vulnerable are the reasons why a child is placed in foster care to begin with. Still, it has never been considered the ideal solution. Despite the fact that there are an overwhelming number of generous and committed foster care parents, consider the following data obtained from the National Foster Care Coalition:

  • 20778533_l copyIn 2010, over 27,000 youth were emancipated from foster care without being reunified with their families or being adopted
  • Children with foster care experience are diagnosed with PTSD at more than twice the rate of US war veterans
  • Over one third of youth in foster care are age 13 or older
  • 25% of youth who age out of foster care are incarcerated within 2 years
  • Only 50% of foster care youth graduate from high school

Those in foster care are truly a vulnerable population. But those who are ‘emancipated’ from or age out of foster care are in peril of becoming a thoroughly forgotten demographic, falling drastically behind or worse, falling through the cracks altogether. We all know from our own experience and our children’s experience that simply turning 21 does not alone make you an adult. Young adults 45009510_lespecially need the continued love and support that family customarily provides. But when that is not possible, it is up to the rest of us to step in. Organizations like the National Foster Care Coalition, The Children’s Bureau,The Children’s Defense Fund, The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and others believe that supporting and advocating for the positive development of children, youth, and their families is the collective responsibility of us all.  New Pathways agrees and we are happy to be a part of a movement that works towards those goals and to offer Maryland’s disconnected youth a pathway to success, safety, and security.

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Jamal the Great

To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it…who is to say that is not greatness?
William Makepeace Thackery

ENDURANCE 7451949_l

Can the words of an early 19th century, British, middle-aged, white writer possibly resonate with the 21st century, primarily African-American, disconnected youth who pass through the doors of New Pathways today? Maybe. But if not, perhaps the words of the late, great, African-American, 21st century poet laureate of Maryland, Lucille Clifton, will. She wrote:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model…

…what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my one hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

 Both are testaments to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of great difficulty and seemingly insurmountable challenge. Both are reminders to “keep on keepin’ on” against all odds.

It is safe to say that the young adults enrolled in New Pathways have seen more than their fair share of hard times and still…they endure. Take New Pathways graduate, Jamal C.

4photo[2]Neglected by his drug-addicted mother, disowned by his imprisoned father, and bullied at school for simply being who he is, Jamal pretty much grew up on his own, fending for himself and his younger siblings, making it up as he went along. Together they endured being left home alone for weeks at a time, electricity shut-offs due to unpaid bills, and too many meals at soup kitchens and shelters. Eventually, Jamal began to play hooky, missing more than 100 days of school in 8th grade. Though barely in his teens, Jamal already saw the writing on the wall. If he continued along this path…he would have no future.

None of us can change the circumstances into which we are born. But at age 14, Jamal had an epiphany:

“All of us have the ability to walk away from stuff,” Jamal realized. Like, ‘just say no’ it’s a simple premise. Simple… but by no means easy. In point of fact, it took tremendous courage to do what Jamal did next.

“I put myself in foster care.”  The hardest part was leaving his two younger siblings,  Marvin and Marcus, behind with their mother. It broke his heart but he knew it was the only thing he could do at that time.

13269338_lFoster care was not much better. It was a lonely time. “Foster care kids are never really treated like part of the family,” Jamal explained. At least, that was his experience and it is a common lament among foster kids. Still, he made the most of it. He knew it was his only chance at survival. Jamal went back to school – on a fast track – and graduated from high school in 3 years. A master chef at heart, Jamal then went on to get a degree in Culinary Arts from the Baltimore International College (now part of Stratford University). During that time, Jamal’s social worker introduced him to New Pathways.

“I’d always been independent,” Jamal explained. “I had to be. I grew up fast and was used to fending for myself.” So the independent living program at New Pathways seemed like a good fit and Jamal adapted to that part of New Pathways quite easily. What was harder for Jamal to accept and adjust to was all the care and concern he received from everyone there.

“They were too friendly,” Jamal said with a laugh. “I mean, I just wasn’t used to people being so welcoming and helpful.”  When his roommate offered to help move him in, Jamal wondered what his game was. When another resident teen offered to have dinner with him, Jamal assumed she was hitting on him (she wasn’t).  And the staff reminded Jamal of ‘parents.’

37447478_l“Good parents,” he emphasized. “At New Pathways, they treated me like I was their own. They gave me the foundation I never had. They taught me life skills, coping skills, money management, and financial planning. They taught me how to set aside my anger. To ask myself where I want to go in life, and to keep asking all the right questions ‘til I got on the right path. They gave me a second chance at life. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be alive today if it weren’t for New Pathways.”

By 21, Jamal had graduated from both New Pathways and the culinary institute, was employed full-time as a chef and was living in his his own apartment. He is still good buddies with his New Pathways roommate and the other friends (residents and staff) he made during his time there.

Still, nothing could quite prepare Jamal for what came next.

Though out on his own and in a far better environment, Jamal had never lost touch with his many other siblings. Of particular concern to him were the two young brothers he had left behind, Marcus and Marvin. One day they called him, crying and begging Jamal to take them in. It was a gut wrenching conversation and a nearly impossible decision for a 21-year old young man, just starting out on his own, to make. He turned to his friends and advisors at New Pathways for guidance. Their answer:
1photo“You can do it, Jamal. You’d be the best thing for them.” And so, when most young men his age are still in college and partying hard, Jamal took on the responsibility of raising his two younger brothers, becoming more like a father to them in the process. He moved to the county so they Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 3.39.38 PMwould go to good schools, got them into sports and other activities, and kept them on the straight and narrow. It has been 8 years since the two boys, then in middles school, moved in with Jamal. Today, Marvin, the oldest, is in college, works full time, and has his own apartment. Marcus still lives with Jamal, plays varsity football, will graduate from high school this year, and plans to attend college. Jamal is like any other proud parent. His apartment wall is covered with diplomas and citations that the three of them earned over the years.

“I am so grateful I had the chance to take Marvin and Marcus in,” Jamal said. “I mean, it was hard and there were times when I worried if I’d make ends meet, but they wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise.”

As for himself? Where does Jamal see himself in another 10 years? He hopes to own his own restaurant.

“A breakfast spot. I’d call it ‘Good Morning!’ And I’d yell ‘Good morning!’ to everyone who came in the door. Even at 8 o’clock at night! It’d be all fresh food and the kitchen would be open so they could see me crack the eggs!”  Jamal said with a big grin. Listening to this amazing young man who turned his own cracked and fractured life into something sunny side up, you can’t help but pray that his wish comes true.  Still, he understands the challenges involved.20386540_l

“I’ve been told that ‘life is like a race. It’s hard. It takes commitment. It takes endurance. But when you cross the finish line, you’re going to be very, very happy.’ That’s true,” Jamal continued, “But I feel that when I complete one race, I begin another. There’s always a new challenge. Always another finish line to cross. And you can’t always see it. But at least I know I’m headed in the right direction now.”
To paraphrase, Thackery asked, ‘To merely endure, to keep on keepin’ on…can that be called greatness?”

One only need look at the courageous life and  shining example of Jamal… to know the answer.11965658_l

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Posted in Baltimore, Baltimore Youth, Barriers to success, Disconnected Youth, Foster Care Services, Job Training, Juvenile Services, Life Skills Training, Maryland Youth, New Pathways, Opportunity Youth, Pathways to success, social barriers, Success Stories, Uncategorized, Workforce Development | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment