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Higher Education: Homeless Youth Pursue Happy Careers

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Jasper rushed into the front office the other day, more pep in his step than usual.

Sarah knew right away what to ask: “How did it go?”

Jasper played coy. “What? The interview?”

She nodded. His job interview, the one he had an hour ago, the one he’d been talking about all morning. Yes, that interview.

“Hmmm. Let’s put it this way,” he said as he unfolded a slip of paper from his pocket.

Sarah read the slip and smiled. “Is that a start date?”

Jasper beamed.

For Jasper, having his first day of work means many things. For one, he is relieved from the weight of worrying about an income source, and for another, having this job will allow him to meet the criteria to move into a larger space at the Step Up transitional living program. Most importantly, it means that he is making progress.

Progress looks different for every single person who comes to Stepping Stones. Some of them already have jobs, so starting a new class is their idea of moving forward. But because the Step Up program requires that they start work before they move on to Step Two, those who have not yet found a job are laser focused on meeting that milestone.

Much to their joy, August was a big month for progress in this department!

Only a month ago, Jasper, Emmett, Jonah, Fiona, and Jill were in the final days of Step One. Getting a job was the only thing holding them back from moving forward in Step Up. All of them were hoping to hear back soon on some job applications and had started taking soft skills courses online to help prepare them for their first day. By participating in these skills to pay the bills they simulated scenarios that taught them how to communicate effectively, stay positive, relieve stress, and manage their daily tasks. It’s the kind of education that too many people take for granted, and a good deal more never really receive–the subtle art of managing grown-up responsibilities.

They also worked to make sure their resumes put their best foot forward in the job hunt. Working with them, I noticed two important things: one, that none of them were writing a resume from “scratch,” that they already had a strong start before coming in. Second, that it only took a couple of questions for them to share their forever job–a dream they wanted to achieve long-term. Getting some work in the meantime was just a stepping stone.

For instance, Emmett wants to become an interior designer. During his resume workshop, he came to the realization that a job opening at a hardware store would be a good starting point. Jasper has a deep love of foreign language and history and dreams of teaching English as a second language. After he gets some more work experience, he wants to become certified to teach abroad.

Jonah wants to own his own mechanic shop someday. Fiona and Jill both want to be teachers.

One month later, and they now all have moved forward in their careers either by landing a new job or by starting classes in a field they care about most.

After landing his new job, Jasper credited his resume. “They looked at my resume and were like, you’re hired.” I told Jasper he is selling himself short, that I was sure his charming personality and work ethic were a big selling point, too, but his statement does show the power that putting their achievements on paper can have.

Too often, young people come to these workshops convinced that there is nothing they can write to show experience. Feelings of insecurity make it difficult for them to even remember the name of places they worked, and they fret over what to include. A funny thing happens once I ask them to look over a list of 30 work-related action verbs and identify just three verbs for what they did at their last job. Usually, they wind up highlighting ten or more as they start to take stock of their experience.

It turns out their last job was not just cleaning or cashiering, but collaborating, training, facilitating, assisting, engaging, and learning. And then we discuss what each of these actions meant to them, what new skills they earned on the job, and before long they are populating the resume with a list of abilities they did not realize they even had.

During one of these resume workshops, a young man mentioned driving a fork-lift at his last job. Once I told him that I’ve never used a fork-lift, he got animated as he told me about that experience, how forklifts work, how he got his certification. Clearly, it felt good for him to be an expert on something an older adult knew nothing about. Then I told him to add it to his resume.

August has been a wonderful time for these young people to see the seeds they planted earlier this summer grow into hopeful new chapters. In August alone, five got jobs, two passed their GED, and four started school.

Jonah really stole the show this month by doing all three in one week. To be fair, he’d been working hard on all of these goals for a long time, but his rewards came flooding in all at once, first as he started work, then by passing the math portion of his HiSet exam, and finally by getting accepted into an automotive program at Nashua Community College (NCC).

Fiona and Jill share a dream of becoming preschool teachers. They were thrilled to enroll in an apprenticeship program early this summer and start classes through NCC this week. They look forward to being placed in a school soon where they will gain first-hand experience. For Fiona, this is a dream come true, and for Jill, who has already had some experience working in a preschool setting, earning these credentials will make it possible for her to ensure job security, in addition to giving her the skills to become a phenomenal teacher.

By starting school, Fiona is taking a step that a few months ago she did not consider possible. At first she only focused on getting a job, any kind of job at all. She put her happiness second to her needs, like so many do, and did not even think about pursuing the career she wanted. Once she was signed up for this program, though, a spark returned for her. She began to discuss long-term plans like saving and investing, and purchasing equipment for her other passion, music. She is no longer strictly in survival mode but starting to imagine a future where she can achieve more than punching a clock to get by– a profession of personal fulfillment.

After signing up for class, Kathy asked her why she hadn’t considered doing this before.

“I didn’t think I could,” was her response.

Fiona’s sentiment is extremely common among youth who have experienced homelessness and trauma. Many of their backstories have been defined by people in their lives telling them no or that they can’t.

But at Stepping Stones they come to an important realization.

Yes, actually…I can.

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