How do Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and partners create positive change? We work through and with our communities, especially our young people. As far as we’re concerned, they are the catalysts for transformation!
Today, we visited Jessi Hedlund, Higher Education Liaison and PALS Coach at Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS). A long-time partner with Nebraska Children’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI), our older youth initiative, the CPCS works with us to administer services to young people.
Our primary demographic includes youth and adults between the ages of 14-26 who have experienced foster care, human trafficking, homelessness, juvenile justice, or probation.
Thanks to their resiliency, these young people are capable of some incredible things. With some help from CYI and partners’ supports, including our partnered coaches’ LEAP strategies, these up-and-coming leaders can hone their talents even more.
As part of CYI’s Postsecondary Career Pathways track, CYI coaches implement LEAP strategies to support young people who experienced foster care in succeeding at their career-related and educational goals.
We’re glad to say that Nebraska’s young leaders’ reputations precede them.
“We [knew] about the wonderful young leaders in the [CYI] program, so we wanted to use CARES Act dollars for those students to work in community learning centers across the state,” said Jessi.
BSB has implemented many projects with support from CARES funds that build the youth workforce while enriching out-of-school-time education and making up for lost learning during COVID.
Dakota Staggs, Beyond School Bells Program Coordinator, said that CARES Act dollars continue to allow the team to expand and enrich afterschool programming.
“We can do this in basic ways like [paying] wages or utility assistance through Stabilization grants, but also nuanced ways,” said Dakota.
Dakota said that thanks to the funding’s versatility, BSB has been able to help children make up for learning losses due to the pandemic over the past year and a half.
Dakota said that the timing for this collaboration with CYI was ideal.
“Even before the pandemic, we had seen the benefit of older youth teaching in afterschool,” said Dakota.
Dakota said that although the pandemic has thrown curveballs in afterschool programming, BSB and CYI tackled some of the issues.
“Challenges in the last 18 months disrupted learning, compounding stress in both students and afterschool staff,” said Dakota.
“Now an unprecedented labor shortage has further emphasized that need and opportunity for more hires,” he said.
Dakota said that he’s glad for CYI and BSB’s meeting of the minds.
“Through amazing partnerships like CYI, BSB has prioritized engaging and employing older youth in afterschool and out-of-school time education to meet the needs of students and afterschool programs alike,” said Dakota.
Nebraska Children is a partner-driven organization. Aside from working with our communities, our various initiatives also team up to create positive change.
When Sara Riffel, Connected Youth Initiative Vice President, and Jeff Cole, Beyond School Bells’ Network Lead, began discussing how they could best work with our young people, they saw opportunities for leadership and learning.
After providing all CYI participants with two weeks of intensive training, the centers took over and supervised their internships.
From there, Jessi said that they managed to recruit eight talented interns that they spread across two Title I Lincoln-based schools that offered summer enrichment programs.
Jessi said that the number of engaged young leaders is a significant success indicator.
“Seven of them were offered positions with Lincoln Public Schools,” said Jessi.
Jessi said these internships provided CYI participants the opportunity to work with Lincoln Public Schools students. These internships were an intentional and career-building initiative.
“We understood those young people who experienced foster care only knew the careers of the people they interact with,” said Jessi.
“So, we wanted to encourage them to explore careers they might have interest in, in addition to [supporting them] in how to put their experience on a resume and tailor it.”
Having witnessed these successes firsthand as a coach, Jessi said that this endeavor was unique.
“I’m excited because from what I’ve seen before coming to CPCS is that there are so many internships, but the only paid ones are for tech and business,” said Jessi. “Many of our youth are interested in human services, and these opportunities are usually unpaid.”
Jessi said, “These young people don’t have parents to lean on for housing, food, and transportation, so this was a nice way to get paid professional experience and make a living wage and have a learning component. It pays well!”
For the remainder of the summer, Jessi said she was pleasantly surprised.
“I was so nervous for [the interns] to start with summer. And then I asked them how things were going and ‘What is the most challenging thing?’ I’m expecting all these crazy responses. And they said, ‘The kids just love us so much; we’re so popular, so we find it hard to know how to divide our time.’ I was like, ‘You’re breaking my heart!’’’ said Jessi laughing.
Dakota said that he’s particularly compelled by how CYI participants were able to support students.
“Interns in the CYI program can fill this role with their knowledge and lived experience that enriches educational experiences for youth facing challenges of all kinds,” he said.
Despite the fun, the young leaders engaged in reflection.
“We encouraged them to reflect on their experience as an opportunity to see how [this internship] can help them relate to kids in ways that other staff may be unable to,” said Jessi.
“We hit home that these schools are Title I schools, so the districts are in communities with high levels of poverty and diversity.”
Jessi said that her team ensured that before the interns worked with LPS students, the young leaders became aware of the value of their lived experiences, as challenging as they were.
“We positioned our young professionals to value their experiences, whether they were in foster care or homeless,” said Jessi.
“It was a positive [aspect] that allowed them to connect with kids on a different level. Our participants would coach the staff on how they could better relate to the children in the center.”
From there, Jessi said that many of the CYI participants positively impacted many children, even those acting out.
“There was one young lady, who, when I interviewed her…said she was nervous applying [for the internship] because she never had a job that wasn’t through a family connection,” said Jessi.
“She stayed quiet throughout the leadership and diversity training, but halfway through the summer, she told us a story about a little girl whom the staff described as ‘a terror’ for misbehaving.”
Jessi said that the staff at the community learning center found out the girl had been removed from her home and placed in foster care, hence her acting out.
“The young woman shared her experience with the staff. She said, ‘This is what I went through; this is what I wanted adults to know.’ She was able to connect with the child. The girl still misbehaved, but she listened to [the young leader’s] redirections a bit more, and the staff was grateful for the lived experience,” said Jessi.
Dakota said that he agrees-there is no resource so valuable as experience, especially when the interns had endured challenges and successes alike through experiencing foster care.
“The interns’ leadership in choosing to work with and teach their younger peers further connects students to afterschool experiences that we know lead to better educational and personal outcomes,” said Dakota.
Dakota said that this partnership was a win-win.
“While filling a need for afterschool programs, interns also gain real-world skills like communication and leadership, and in some cases gain professional insight that might instigate a career in education,” he said.
We’re happy to report that one young person even decided to change her major because she loved working with students so much!
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include another PALS coach’s insights or emphasize their contribution to these resilient young peoples’ lives.
One Lincoln-based PALS coach, Alisa Pritchett, was instrumental in assigning these young people to their internship positions. As a coach, Alisa worked with several young people in the program, so she shared how LEAP strategies support CYI participants.
“So many of the youth I work with had the strengths needed to match the needs of [this internship] program,” she said. “I was thrilled to have a few that were interested and available.
Alisa said the individual relationships that she and other coaches form with young people contribute immensely to their success.
“I was able to work with the youth on a one-on-one basis to point out their strengths and encourage them to believe that they could be successful in the program,” said Alisa.
Throughout the interns’ work, Alisa said she offered guidance to help each leader grow.
“Checking in during coaching meetings, we would troubleshoot time-management with school and work, but mostly I would listen to the youth’s success stories, where they saw themselves making a difference,” she said.
Alisa said she enjoyed witnessing the heightened sense of value the young people gained through working with children, building careers, and sharing their lived experiences in the foster care system.
“They were acquiring a new sense of pride and confidence that we could elevate into all areas of their goals that extended beyond this [internship] program.”
From there, the LPS students continued to bond with their new friends.
“One young [leader] likes to draw, so she was known as the artist at her school. Kids would form lines so they could sit with her. She would draw an outline, and they would take it and color it in,” said Jessi.
Jessi said the LPS students coached their young supervisors to try new things, even activities they may not initially like!
“One day, the kids convinced a young woman to play kickball. She doesn’t usually like athletics, but she had a blast, and now she spends so much time outside all day! I find it pretty cool how perspectives and attitudes change,” said Jessi.
Jessi said that these positive impacts have lasted well into the school year.
“In this round, the kids are in school, so the [CYI participants] are helping with homework and modeling good study habits. That [behavior] is the model for the afterschool program. The participants must practice these good habits, so they have to enforce them. So, this practice is good to articulate! It’s like, practice what you preach,” she said.
“One young person said that he’s still working on the Rubik’s cube with [a student]. He started on September 30, and he is still doing it!” said Jessi.
According to Jessi, although these young people don’t always see their impact right away, they are every bit as valuable.
“They don’t always see that they’re using their experience as a former foster youth or a person of color,” said Jessi.
But in the end, Jessi said many of these experiences come full circle.
“For example, one young lady showed a lot of leadership potential. She’s a senior in high school but enrolled in Economic Development classes at Metropolitan Community College, so she wants to be a teacher. I had her help me plan and facilitate our last professional community meeting so she could have the experience of presenting to peers,” said Jessi.
“She did a great job and put together a terrific presentation. I’m sad to say the participants loved hearing from her more than me!”