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Sweet Rewards


But not just any cupcakes. These cupcakes are special, and not just because they are confetti cupcakes covered in Reese's pieces but because they are celebratory cupcakes!

What are we celebrating? Haley becoming a high school graduate. Suddenly, her future had so many possibilities–higher paying jobs, college, graduating to the next level of Step Up.

But first, she baked some cupcakes.

This isn’t unusual; in fact, it’s part of a little tradition that began earlier this year. Staff made a simple deal with the homeless youth at Stepping Stones: if they hit a major milestone, they got to pick any flavor of cupcakes they wanted and bake them at the drop-in center.

It wasn’t something any of the staff thought would turn into a big deal, but boy, were we wrong. These young adults are serious about their cupcakes!

It started with Nicole getting her GED. After months of hard work, she finally could don the cap and gown Rebecca brought in for her, stand in front of the Stepping Stones sign and show the world she was a high school grad. Nicole may have actually been a little reluctant to pose for the photo, but she happily rushed to the kitchen to prepare her choice recipe: Maple Bacon cupcakes.

A month later, when she moved into her apartment–her first home ever–she upped the ante with an even more unique recipe: Mountain Dew flavored cupcakes with little Doritos sticking out of the top. That was a blast to the past for the 90s kids on staff, but also a hit that was scarved down by the youth at the drop-in center almost as soon as they came out of the oven.

That second piece is arguably the most important; though these cupcakes are a reward for their individual hard work, the whole group benefits, and not just because they get to lick frosting off their fingers.

Nicole’s hard work inspired others. Not long after, her good friend Ashton hit two milestones in a row by earning his GED and his driver’s license. So he baked a double-batch of carrot cake muffins. Only a few weeks later, Emett graduated high school. Ding! Cinnamon Toast Crunch cupcakes are ready to be frosted! His good friend Jonah followed next by earning his GED. Then, Jonah celebrated his acceptance to an automotive repair program at Nashua Community College by making Lemon Meringue Cupcakes. Yum!

Each of these flavors is as unique as the stories that brought these young people to Stepping Stones in the first place. The kids who are celebrated on cupcake days come from as far away as Chile and as close by as the Nashua Children’s Home. They have trauma and hardship in their backstory, but with each success they can add another commonality: resilience. These celebrations are not just about them reaching one milestone, but rewarding them for their patient dedication to sticking to a goal and seeing it through–a major achievement when your journey starts without having a place to rest your head at night.

The story of how Haley got to her cupcake moment features more than a couple major pits and valleys. Watching her climb out of them has been very inspiring, and her peers agree. Almost as soon as she earned her GED, Haley applied to an LNA nursing program at St. Joseph Hospital. Since then, momentum has grown among the other kids in Step Up to achieve their long-term goals. Josh, for instance, has made great progress in the independent living program without losing any steam at his job, where he continued to work even while he was homeless. For a while, work and Step Up were the only two balls he was able to juggle, but with Haley’s success he started to ask about entering the same nursing program.

Likewise, Fiona and Jill are following in Haley’s footsteps as they both work their way through school and job-shadows for their careers as pre-school teachers. By the way, Jill already has her cupcake flavor all picked out, even though she has a few months left of her program. That’s why Rebecca keeps a book of cupcake recipes in the coaching office–as the youth thumb through it, their future milestones become as tangible as the colorful recipes on the page.

Giving these young people something special to look forward to is all part of the framework of Stepping Stone’s mission; a key component of helping youth become self-sufficient adults is rewarding them for their hard work along the way. This method has been pivotal to all kinds of success–not just the big three: housing, jobs, education– and sweet rewards shape healthy habits and behaviors. For instance, young people in Step Up transitional housing get to earn “house points” when they are caught taking initiative, being helpful, kind, and fulfilling their daily duties. The benefits are immense, and not just because the Step Up residence hall suddenly takes on the magical feeling of Hogwarts. Since implementing this approach, the youth have engaged in friendly competition, been kinder and more respectful to themselves and others, and cashed in their points for a variety of different snacks and prizes.

Why is celebrating achievement so important? One answer is illustrated by something that happened right after Haley earned her GED. The first person she called was a member of her family. After she gave the news that she was officially a high school graduate, that family member really let her down. “Yeah…so?” they said. But when Haley got off the phone and told the staff and her peers the big news, the drop-in center erupted with whoops and cheers. Our praise did not reverse the negative vibes she got from that initial phone call, but it got her to smile and be proud of herself.

And Haley needed to feel good about herself, because she had no time to lose. The next day, Kathy drove her all the way up to Concord to get her diploma in hand, so she could make the deadline for her LNA program. When Haley got accepted, she was a sight to behold: no one had ever been so happy to try on scrubs!

Almost as happy as she was to bake cupcakes.

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