Life After Foster Care: 3 Reasons Why Authentic Youth Engagement Matters

Life After Foster Care: 3 Reasons Why Authentic Youth Engagement Matters

How might the lives of former foster youth be different if they could benefit from the support of peers who shared a similar journey? How might programs and policies for youth who have exited care be improved through amplifying youth voices? What does authentic youth engagement look like? 

These were questions at the heart of a recent (Re)Connecting Youth learning exchange. Over five days, youth and adult representatives of Doncel, a national civil society organization in Argentina, traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to learn from and share experiences with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation (NCFF). 

The event bookended a learning journey that began in May when an NCFF team visited Buenos Aires for an immersion in Doncel’s youth engagement activities. Over eight years, Doncel has nurtured a robust body of care leavers known as the E-Guide, which over time has championed youth rights, delivered services, and influenced policies. Beyond these accomplishments, the E-Guide serves as a support group for members and their peers both inside and outside of care. Says E-Guide Coordinator Jesica Esprobieri. “The E-Guide is a family you choose, that you never had.” 

What I take away from the E-Guide is the genuine human connection that members have.

Sara Riffel, Associate Vice President, Nebraska Children Connected Youth Initiative

“We have many programs with youth ambassadors, many of whom don’t know each other even though they are working towards a common goal,” said Sara Riffel, Associate Vice President of NCFF’s Connected Youth Initiative. “What I take away from the E-Guide is the genuine human connection that members have. It’s a missing piece for us and offers an opportunity to grow and connect as an organization with our young people.”

Supporting Care Leavers in Argentina and Beyond

Watch as youth and adults from Nebraska Children travel to Argentina to learn about Doncel’s approach to authentic youth engagement. 

What are the benefits—and barriers—to authentic engagement among former foster youth? Below are three takeaways from the Doncel-NCFF exchange. 

1 - Peer networks nurture healing and a sense of belonging. Peer groups and networks among former foster youth offer safe spaces where youth can share their journeys and support one another in navigating obstacles. “Sharing our stories helps us to heal and grow,” says Jasmín Pérez, who joined the E-Guide four months ago after exiting care. Founding E-Guide member Yamila Soledad agrees that creating spaces for peers to share their experiences is critical. “It’s important to look at your past and to use your story to see how powerful you are,” she says.

Sharing our stories helps us to heal and grow. 

Jasmín Pérez, E-Guide member

Former foster youth in Nebraska who welcomed their Argentinian peers to Omaha commented on the enduring bonds among E-Guide members. “In the system, we’re taught not to trust, to be closed off and not to open up,” said NCFF Young Leader Raeven Bigelow. “This experience taught me to be vulnerable.”

Bobbi Taylor, also an NCFF Young Leader, agreed. “As Americans we close ourselves off,” she said in reflecting on her time spent with E-Guide members. “I didn’t have any fire because I learned to close myself off and not talk about my feelings or experiences.” The E-Guide has succeeded in creating a safe space where members can be vulnerable and share their emotions. 

While exchange participants acknowledged the importance of peer-to-peer support systems, they also emphasized that such networks need to be youth inspired and youth driven. “The first step is fostering a strong group identity and ensuring voluntary participation,” said Dana Borzese, Doncel’s Director of Operations. “It can’t be an obligation.” To gauge youth interest in building such a network, NCFF hosted a focus group among former foster youth participating in its programs and E-Guide members. 

Staff from NCFF and IYF pose for a photo with former foster youth in Nebraska and Argentina, who participated in a focus group aimed at exploring opportunities for greater youth engagement benefiting youth both inside and outside of the State’s foster care system. 

2 - Peer-to-peer coaching offers consistency and trust. Former foster youth possess in-depth knowledge and lived experience when it comes to navigating the system and accessing available resources. With the right training and support, peers can serve as skilled coaches.” It’s important that youth see that their problems are part of a larger societal problem around which they can work together toward shared goes,” says Borzese.

In making the case for peer coaching, care leavers in Nebraska cited the needs of youth in care for support from their older peers, and the heavy caseloads and high turnover rates among case workers. While peer coaching could help bridge some of these gaps, the type of training youth would need remain to be determined. For its part, the E-Guide has developed curricula and tools that it uses in conducting outreach to youth within residential care facilities.

3 - Youth engagement contributes to better services and policies. Being part of a cohesive group helps nurture a shared vision of the future. Youth who have exited care excel at identifying gaps and flaws in the system. From 2015-17, E-Guide members worked closely with Doncel staff to advocate for legislation in Argentina guaranteeing youth who exit care at 18 financial support and mentoring for up to three years. E-Guide members testified before Congress and were instrumental in passing the law. Youth in Nebraska have also contributed to a number of legislative victories. The task now is to engage even greater numbers of youth as advocates at the local- and state-level. 

“The exchange taught me that the biggest impact comes from youth and young people working to raise awareness and make a difference,” said NCFF exchange participant Khalil Jordan. “Before, I used to participate but I didn’t really want to. Now I want to go to events, to speak and communicate with other youth, and build a space for young people to become stronger and do bigger things.” 

Based on the exchange, NCFF’s Connected Youth Initiative (CYI) is exploring how to take its youth engagement efforts to the next level. Plans include establishing a statewide youth advisory board to guide efforts. Advisory board members would receive leadership training to build their knowledge and skills, and work in tandem with CYI staff to explore the feasibility of launching a formalized peer coaching initiative within the State. 

"There’s real power in youth coming together to overcome barriers," said Lincoln Arneal, NCFF Director of Leadership and Engagement. "It's a question of knowing when and how to create such opportunities. We’re excited about working in partnership with our youth to explore what authentic youth engagement could look like here in Nebraska.”

Authentic Youth Engagement: 10 Steps to Consider

1. Efforts to engage youth need to be youth-driven. In 2010, Doncel invited a group of care leavers to co-create a web platform for youth transitioning out of care. From that experience, the youth formed strong bonds and the E-Guide was born. While Doncel continues to provide support and engage the E-Guide in its programming, the group serves as an advisory body that partners with Doncel to deliver on shared goals. 
2. It’s important to define individual roles and responsibilities, along with group norms. E-Guide members have created job descriptions (e.g., General Coordinator, Workshop Coordinator, Advocacy Coordinator, Workshop Facilitator, Communications Leader) to clarify roles. Group norms also exist to ensure members respect each other’s viewpoints, alert one another when unable to attend meetings, etc. The E-Guide has adopted a horizontal structure, emphasizing group decision-making by vote.
3. Communication is key. E-Guide members stay in touch and alert one another to activities through a closed Facebook group and WhatsApp. The E-Guide meets weekly with Doncel to plan and coordinate activities. Members also convene as a group at least every other month.
4. To sustain the group, attention must be placed on the recruitment and orientation of new members. New recruits to the E-Guide must undergo six hours of orientation trainings and participate in at least three workshops delivered by their peers in residential homes. Recruits are also observed to ensure they possess strong listening skills, are empathetic to their peers, and are open to diverse tasks.
5. Youth benefit from ongoing training to address specific needs. Over the years, Doncel has provided training to E-Guide members in core life skills (e.g., time management, teamwork, decision-making), leadership, project management, and strategic planning. Members have also received training in public speaking and whether and how to share their stories with the media. 
6. Youth engagement in addressing the needs of foster youth needs to be carefully planned. E-Guide members develop an annual workplan and budget, created in close consultation with Doncel. Activities include in-person workshops at residential care homes, research about relevant issues, and trainings with youth who have exited care.
7. Youth have an important role to play in shifting the narrative around foster youth. One of the most important tasks carried out by the E-Guide is to raise awareness of the realities of facing young people transitioning out of care. The E-Guide maintains a web platform and is active on social media, with members agreeing to select media interviews. 
8. Youth are uniquely equipped to research the issues that impact them. Together with Doncel, E-Guide members pursue research projects that allow them to generate vital data and knowledge that can be used to inform policymakers and society at large.
9. Youth need spaces to call their own. Doncel provided E-Guide members with office space as the group was forming. Members now meet at one another’s homes, while they raise funds to secure an independent space to call their own.
10. While youth need to demonstrate a voluntary commitment to participate, they also need to be compensated for the delivery of services. E-Guide members in Argentina are paid by Doncel to lead trainings/workshops for their younger peers, with Doncel building these activities into its donor proposals and relationships with such organizations as the U.S. Embassy and UNICEF. Members have also been paid to conduct surveys and collect data to inform Doncel’s larger advocacy agenda. That said, fundraising for its activities remains an ongoing challenge for E-Guide members.