Turning 18 is a true right of passage for some teenagers, but for others it can be just the opposite, especially if they’re in foster care or still live with relatives and simply have no guidance or support as they journey into adulthood.
Such is the case for three young women who say it’s unlikely they would be succeeding on that journey if it weren’t for a program that keeps them accountable, but independent.
Youth Villages is a private, nonprofit organization with a mission to help emotionally and behaviorally troubled children and their families through intensive in-home treatment plans, residential programs, mentoring, adoption and foster care and specialized crisis services.
Another program, Youth Villages’ Transitional Living, has given these women opportunities they might not even have known about, much less attempted, without it. TL, as they call it, focuses on those kids who age-out of foster care or young adults who need help with what direction to take in life.
Olivia Steinmann, 18, now attends East Tennessee State University, but there was a time she didn’t think it was possible. She’s the second oldest of nine children in her family. Her mother died two and a half years ago, and her father checked out emotionally. “I had a job waitressing … he left the kids with me a lot,” she said. After school or work, Steinmann did homework and took care of her siblings.
Eventually, the children were removed from the home, but returned 10 months later.
“I heard about Transitional Living in June before I turned 18,” she said. “I was really excited. Once I turned 18 I got into the program; they helped me make sure my finances are in order, help me apply for life insurance” and get prepared to enter college.
“It gave me peace of mind, really. Anytime I need to talk, I can call and talk” to her counselor, Audrey Covington, she said.
“I’d just be really struggling,” Steinmann said. “I was headed in this direction anyway (school) but it would not have been a smooth transition. I really love the program just because it’s helped me so much and making sure I was supported and secure.”
Youth Villages is “another family” for Steinmann, she said.
“Audrey (Covington) texts me a couple times a week to see if I need anything. If I need something, they’re there to help me.”
Covington and fellow counselor Jai Gervin said the success of the kids in the program is also their success. “I’m happy when Olivia passes a test,” Covington said, like any proud parent would say. They meet at least once a week to chat, grab a bite to eat or talk about any issues Steinmann is having. Steinmann knows that Covington has her back.
Megan Centers, 21, is one of Gervin’s cases. Their working relationship goes back further than Youth Villages. The two met when Centers was in high school at the Alternative Center in Johnson City. That’s when Gervin worked as director of the leadership and resilience program in the school system doing similar work with teens.
Centers credits Gervin with her being able to obtain a high school diploma to become the first in her family to actually graduate from high school. She said her siblings have their GEDs, but Centers is proud that she finished high school.
She said Gervin also helped her weigh her options after high school, but Centers chose a route not suggested by her counselor. She started school at Tusculum College, but it wasn’t long before Centers realized she should have listened to Gervin.
By November 2010, Centers had dropped out of Tusculum, moved to South Carolina and then back here. That’s when she started the Transitional Living program.
It’s taken her a while, and more than once in the program, but Centers said she has her life on track. She joined the Tennessee National Guard through the early-entry route and is already learning how to be a soldier. She’ll head to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., next year for basic training.
Amber Jones has finished the Transitional Living program, but still leans on her counselor.
“Even though I’m no longer with Youth Villages, I still talk to them on a weekly basis. I still feel like I’m in constant contact with them,” the 21-year-old ETSU senior said.
Jones said she’s pretty sure the bachelor’s degree she’ll receive from ETSU in May would be out of her reach without Youth Villages. She was in foster care at 16 with her younger sister. After moving around to several foster homes, they finally had a good match with a Bristol family. Her sister now has a permanent home, but when Jones turned 18, her foster parents were not obligated to continue providing for her.
While they never kicked her out on the street, Jones knew she had to find her own way.
DCS connected her to Youth Villages. “I was lost as to what I’d end up doing. DCS referred me to Youth Villages because I was flunking out of college.”
The additional support was a lifesaver for Jones.
“I’ll graduate in May with a social work degree. I don’t know if I’d be as successful” without Youth Villages, she said.
A Transitional Living program can be completed in less than a year, but if a participant needs longer, they keep working their plan, said Amy Willingham, Youth Villages Transitional Living supervisor. “The typical program is nine months. We’re fortunate we have lots of leeway. It’s a very individualized program, tailored for the unique desires and goals of each individual,” she said.
“If we have a youth or young adult that reached all their goals in five or six months, then great, we’ve done our job. If we have a youth that needs us for a year or two years and that’s when they discharge successfully, then great, we’ve done our job,” Willingham said.
Youth Villages has locations in 11 states and the District of Columbia. The Transitional Living program began in 1999 to help young adults. According to a 10-year study of the program, more than 5,000 young adults have participated in TL. The organization’s website, www.youthvillages.org, indicates the program “significantly reduces the risk of homelessness, poverty and illegal behavior among the young adults served.”
Statistics from the 10-year study showed 86 percent lived at home or in a home-like environment 24 months after discharge; 77 percent reported no trouble with the law 24 months after discharge; and 83 percent were in school, graduated or employed 24 months after discharge from the program. “We tailor what we’re doing to the unique goals to that particular person,” Willingham said.
The program participants aren’t the only ones involved who benefit. “It’s why I get up in the morning, because of the successes these kids have and knowing there are kids that need us to be the guardrails for them,” Willingham said.
Gervin said her job isn’t a job.
“It’s never a job. A job is something you have to go to. For me this is not a job. I absolutely love what I do,” she said.