Bridging the Gap from Foster Care to Independent Living
Chelsey Conroy has empowered young adults in The Villages’ Older Youth Services (OYS) program for nine years. As an OYS Independent Living Case Manager in our Fort Wayne office, Chelsey helps bridge the gap from foster care to independent living for young adults ages 16-23 years old.
Chelsey’s desire to grow the potential of each youth she supports is evident in the stories she tells. “I’ve watched kids grow and been with them through their highs and lows. When young adults are doing well, we may only hear from them on occasion or when we check in. But when a young adult is facing a challenge or major life change, we hear from them much more, up to several times a day. I don’t necessarily give answers but help them process the situation. When you don’t have a connection with your parents or other caring adult, where do you go?” OYS case managers are sometimes these kids only support system, encouraging personal growth through teachable moments.
It is also important for these young adults to think through how they will acquire housing and transportation and pay their bills once they turn 23. (OYS participants age out of the program at 11:59 pm the night before their 23rd birthday.) Chelsey encourages her youth to focus on critical thinking skills and logical consequences. There is not a specific formula or curriculum to follow. Each young adult is different. “You meet them where they are and continue to assess their level and readiness to learn, but financial literacy begins as soon as possible.”
In addition to assisting youth with their educational and employment goals, Chelsey and the entire OYS staff coordinate mentorships, classes, and trainings with experts in several fields including finance, healthcare, culinary, and more. One class may focus on how to set up a checking account and create a budget. Another class might be a cooking class for affordable, healthy meals. “We also provide classes that promote taking care of their physical and mental health, such as yoga.” It’s not always easy to get youth to attend these classes. “We typically provide gift card incentives. Our youth love gift cards!”
Encouragement and guidance with social interactions in various environments is also emphasized. “Our staff often go out to eat with OYS participants. Many have not been exposed to sit down dining and different cuisines. They love trying new foods. We can also build rapport with them by attending painting classes, movies, sporting events, and other outings they may not have experienced throughout their lives.”
For Chelsey in particular, her dog Bella has contributed to strengthening trust. Bella accompanies Chelsey on most visits and brings a calming presence to the meeting. “The youth allow Bella to cuddle on their lap. They take her on walks. And while petting her, they often open up about the challenges they are facing.”
It is important to recognize all OYS participants have experienced trauma and numerous other barriers, but as Chelsey states, “these individuals are not broken, as sometimes I think is the stigma society places on foster children. I’m part of showing young adults in my care they can develop healthy relationships through a responsible voice and advocate for themselves.”
Upon being asked what we could learn from how she approaches her work with young adults, Chelsey humbly shares that “Kindness is kindness. Purpose is purpose. We are all placed on this earth for something.”
Well said Chelsey.
The Villages is one of five Older Youth Services providers contracted with the Indiana Department of Child Services. The Villages services 20 Indiana counties in the Elkhart, Fort Wayne, and Terre Haute areas. For more information visit DCS: Older Youth Initiatives.
Interested in supporting older youth through in-kind donations? Visit The Villages Amazon Wish List: Amazon.com