HRI’s Children’s Program Social Services intern, Genevieve Franks, introduces us to YEP.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” To many, this question may sound trite and tiresome. It’s something that adults ask children as a way of making conversation. To others, however, simply asking this question is a daring declaration of freedom. Many of the young immigrants we serve have already escaped violence in their home countries and survived perilous journeys to the US. Hopefully, they are on the path to gaining permanent residence. In the meantime, the security and opportunities of their new life here finally allow them to begin thinking about their futures again (finally engaging in legal proceedings with HRI in order to secure permanent residency allows them to ask this question again.)
Two weeks ago, the conference room at HRI was filled with the sound of Spanglish along with songs from Maroon 5, and the happy scent of donuts and coffee. Seven young adults from Central America sat at a table, sketching out their life goals on huge pieces of paper while chatting about the price of tuition. It was the second session of HRI’s pilot Youth Empowerment Program, a free five-week intensive workshop designed for clients near the end of high school who are interested in exploring educational and professional opportunities.
Over ten sessions, these clients will spend time reflecting on their goals, identifying the barriers which they face in achieving them, and learning specific information that will help them overcome those barriers. The curriculum and program materials were written entirely by HRI’s Children’s Program Case Manager, Elisandra De La Cruz, with assistance from the Social Services intern (that’s me!) This extensive curriculum includes mock interviews, job training programs, a college applications and essays workshop, financial planning, guest speakers from the clients’ chosen career fields, and discussions on self-care and balancing responsibilities. Each of these components are woven together toward the program’s ultimate goal: empowering young men and women to strive for success no matter what their immigration status may be.
The idea for the program was born when Elisandra, noted a persistent need among her youth clients. As they neared the end of high school, these clients faced a fork in the road where their next step was not clear. Many wanted to apply to college and earn a degree, but were unsure of how they would be able to pay for it without the status necessary to apply for federal financial aid. Others were working minimum-wage jobs, unsure of how to become qualified to work in a field where they were passionate, motivated, and better-compensated.
HRI consistently recognizes the incredible potential and tenacity in these clients. This summer, HRI recognized an opportunity to encourage this potential and respond to the clients’ emerging need for more structured, guided instruction on how to navigate the many options available to students after they complete high school. By organizing a program designed to address these specific concerns, Elisandra hoped to be able to inform them more effectively and create a safe space where clients were free to discuss their doubts, questions, and hopes for the future in a group of their peers embarking on the same journey.
After just two weeks of the program, that community had developed to a remarkable degree. The fourth session ended with clients remarking on each other’s strengths– things that they didn’t even recognize in themselves. They agreed that it was difficult to advocate for themselves and recognized that being authentic to themselves and proud of their heritage are truly impressive qualities that could help them stand out and succeed in their future careers.
These clients are not young children, and we at HRI are not merely making conversation when we ask them what their career and professional goals are. However, the opportunities now available to them allow them to once again ask the question: what do they want to be? Although their answers vary, these young men and women are united by their tenacity and their desire to serve the community and give back to their new country which has offered them a second chance. In ten years, I have no doubt that a teacher, a nurse, a business owner, a pediatric surgeon, and a police officer will be standing where these clients now sit and sketch, dreaming of their future.