NRCYS: Everyday Heroes Helping Super Heroes

Conference emcee’s, Lacy Kendrick (left) and Emmie Brunelle (right), performing as heroes at the Teen Conference Late Show.

The Independent Living Crusader, Agents of C.R.I.S.I.S., Mystery Girl and the Heroes Ball…it sounds like the latest best-selling thriller novel. But when Outreach staff members from the National Resource Center for Youth Services (NRCYS), foster care youth and their adult sponsor are added in, it becomes something more.

NRCYS has been helping Oklahoma foster care youth transition into independent young adults for more than 20 years through the Oklahoma Teen Conference. Matt Ferree, Oklahoma independent living specialist for NRCYS, says that most of the conference attendees are 16-18 years old, are currently in an out-of-home placement and their adult sponsor.  Many of the teenagers have a long list of home placements, either in shelters or group homes.

“They have a different definition of family than most of us and they’ve probably gone through a lot of instability,” said Ferree. “We take an approach to the work as if they are no different than any other high school youth. Every young person needs the same group of skills and resources.  We are the resource they don’t often have.”

The conference, a collaboration between NRCYS and the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS), focuses on helping foster care youth learn about the seven key elements of independent living: health, housing, education, employment, essential documents, life skills and permanent connections. Ferree pointed out that NRCYS hosts numerous workshops and events throughout the year, each focusing on one of the seven elements, but the conference focuses on all elements across a three-day period.

“I would say it’s an empowerment conference,” Ferree said. “We want young people to feel like they could depend on themselves for meeting their needs and that it’s up to them to access resources and be successful.”

Who Will Answer the Call?

This year’s conference theme was “Who Will Answer the Call?” focusing on finding the super hero in yourself. Ferree says that even though DHS gives them direction on the programming to be featured at the conference, NRCYS is given a lot of creative liberty on delivering the content in a fun, engaging way.

“We are very intentional about every aspect of the conference,” Ferree said. “We try to build it from opening session to closing session and make sure that everything relates. The final product looks good but it’s a labor of love.”

The conference program was designed as a comic book featuring “Mystery Girl,” including a full storyline of original copy, as well as photos of the event venue transformed to reflect the classic comic book style. NRCYS also produced videos to open certain sessions, showcasing the Independent Living Crusader and her sidekicks trying to stop the Agents of C.R.I.S.I.S.

The conference sessions also reflected the theme by having small group interactions (the Super Teams), and the Hero Academy, which included workshops, motivational speakers and recreational activities “to help the recruits learn what it means to be a hero.” Not to be left out was the Heroes’ Ball, which Ferree says was the highlight event for most of the teens.

“They put on movie makeup; everyone got materials to make their own cape, utility belt and mask,” Ferree said. “You get to see their creativity and strengths as they work on their costumes, things that you never would’ve thought a 16-year-old would come up with.”

Ferree says it’s interesting and rewarding to watch the teens during their activities and sessions because he gets to see them discovering their own roles, strengths and talents. He says the conference staff will often ask participants what strengths they will bring to an activity before it starts and then, by the end of the activity, they have discovered strengths they weren’t aware of possessing. In addition to the participants discovering new things about themselves, they also have the opportunity to be around other people who have shared experiences similar to theirs.

Bridging the Gap

Along with a staff member from NRCYS or other social work program, the Super Team leaders included one youth professional who had gone through the foster care system and successfully transitioned into independent living. According to Ferree, having these foster care alumni in a leadership position is a great benefit to NRCYS and to the conference attendees.

“We have this idea of positive youth development, of putting young people in leadership roles and trusting them to do what we would sometimes reserve for adult professionals,” Ferree said. “They are listened to a bit better because it’s a teenager speaking to a college kid that might’ve had the same experience as them. It can be a powerful tool.”

Natalie Houtz is a youth professional and foster care alumni who led a Super Team at this year’s conference. Houtz aged out of the foster care system and was told about the conference through her education specialist. She attended her first Teen Conference in 2008 as an observer and soon realized she was going to be dedicated to the cause.

“The team at NRCYS found out that I was willing to develop the skillset of training and facilitating,” said Houtz. “I wanted to give back to youth who were still in foster care and help them be able to do what I am able to do and more.”

According to Houtz, the conference team strives to find creative ways to develop life skills in teenagers without lecturing to them and that it’s because of that creative element, the conference is unlike any other event she has ever worked with. She cites the “above and beyond” creative efforts of the NRCYS team as one of the factors in making the conference so successful.

“The staff at NRCYS are so intentional about empowering the youth and really enable you to one day be in the position I’m in where you can advocate for yourself and others and you can articulate what you’ve experienced and learned in an interesting way.”

In addition to helping NRCYS create an unforgettable and educational experience for the youth, Houtz acknowledges that her experience alongside the NRCYS staff has made a big difference in her life, too. They have helped her build a skill set that she uses in her career each day, form important networking relationships and not only mentored her but helped her learn how to be a mentor herself. Houtz finds value in each lesson she has learned and the work continues to be humbling.

“Because I am six years out of foster care now, it brings me back to reality to sit down with a teenager and hear his or her story,” Houtz said. “To hear ‘I am a teenager and there aren’t homes for teenagers,’ those sorts of things are a reality check.”

TeRessa Kaemmerling, assistant director of NRCYS, says the conference isn’t the only chance that foster youth have to be around foster care alumni and independent living resources. The Oklahoma Independent Living web site is full of listings for services related to the seven IL elements, ranging from emergency housing to guidance on higher education.

“We can help them with work uniforms, education, tutoring, supporting them to get through high school and, once they achieve that, help them get into college,” said Kaemmerling. “We also have a team that goes into group homes, shelters, hospitals, etc. to meet with youth who are about to age out.”

In addition their services for in-care youth, NRCYS also has offerings available to foster youth who have aged-out of the system, including the “Yes I Can” program.  This program is available to youth who have just left DHS custody and assists them in living as well adjusted, active members of society. Many of the young professionals leading the Super Teams at the conference had assistance from the Yes I Can program and many of them also sit on panel presentations, speaking on the transition out of foster care and what their needs were once they are in the greater society.

None of the services provided by NRCYS are required attendance for the in-care foster youth or the foster care alumni, but both Ferree and Kaemmerling say their programs are extremely beneficial in helping youth in transition into independent living. Kaemmerling noted they often market NRCYS services to foster homes, hospitals, group homes and other locations that might have youth in need.

Conference emcee, Emmie Brunelle, showing off the Teen Conference tokens.The Shared Experience

Ferree says that each conference brings its own challenges; this year’s included organizing, assembling and dressing 12 mannequins in super hero costumes.

“For the last day we bring together a representative from each small group to do a panel discussion. That’s always a cool thing for me, to listen to what those young people say that they’ve discussed,” Ferree said. “You hear about this group development process that happens with people who don’t know each other but had this shared experience.”

Ferree says that while NRCYS provides the workshops, food, speakers and activities, it’s really the teenagers and their adult sponsors who make the event so successful.

“It’s such a cool event for us because it wraps up a year’s worth of work and is still a starting point for a new year. But the youth go home hopefully carrying something with them, some form of personal change that is going to benefit them.”

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