Does Your Youth Program ‘Work’?


mwilson2013This spring and summer hundreds of human service agencies around the country are engaged in a highly stressful annual ritual: writing grants they hope will convince federal funders that their programs for runaway, homeless and street youth are worth supporting.

Writing grants is difficult and writing excellent grants is more difficult still — something like a high-wire act where the wire keeps disappearing beneath you. You’ve got to maintain focus and balance, answering all the RFP’s many questions while continually guessing at what the agency is really looking for, and more to the point, what the person who ends up reviewing your grant will really be looking for.

The stakes, of course … well, it’s a high-wire act, right? The price of falling is very likely some version of program death.

So it’s good to pause a minute and remember that what we really do can’t be reduced neatly to a set of numbers. What we really do is earthy, human, and essential.

That’s why I so appreciated this short piece from my colleague Doug Tanner. In it he reflects on the true value of the shelter experience for a young person who once came into his care.

Studies show that short-term sheltering has a positive impact on homeless and at-risk youth – that’s nice, but all they had to do was ask a youth worker who has experience in them. Here’s a good example.

Once a few years back the bridge shelter I managed was asked by the child protective care system to take a young woman (17 years old) who was pregnant and had juvenile diabetes. The care and monitoring that was required to help her stay healthy and deliver safely was highly detailed and specific. It required regular testing, careful monitoring of her and baby’s health, nutrition and medication, both oral and injections. No foster care family could do it and her family was unable to do it.

It meant a lot of extra work, taking on a huge liability, and working closely with the other youth in the shelter to keep them aware of what was going on but not feel neglected themselves. Despite some reservations, the staff at our little bridge shelter took it on as a professional team. I’ve never been so proud of a youth worker team. They succeeded in guiding this young person to a successful birth and she and baby were in excellent health the last we knew.

The shelter, however, was closed a few months later. It turned out the state didn’t think the kind of care the program provided was truly necessary.

Is he angry? Maybe a little. Lots of great programs — programs that do truly heroic work with kids — won’t get funded this year. Why? There’s not enough money. (Or at least in the right places, but that’s another story.) Competition for federal money can get so difficult that it essentially becomes Darwinian, with only the most sophisticated agencies with the best grant-writers left standing. But that’s about the race for dollars, not about the importance of what you do.

By the way, this is not to discount the very real and lasting benefits of taking RFPs seriously — of using them to bring your programs up to current evidence-based standards, and of using them to remind yourself of what’s expected of you and how you need to be accountable for meeting those expectations.

But while you’re doing that, hang on to what you know to be true about the value of what you give young people who have nowhere else to turn. That knowledge, more than any federal funding, is what keeps your program running.

~ Melanie Wilson


Posted in funding

2 reactions to “Does Your Youth Program ‘Work’?

    • Our agencies function because of extraordinarily committed staff who extend themselves each day in the interest of providing quality care to meet the individualized- and sometimes critical- needs of youth and families. Acknowledgment of such dedication to a mission is not necessarily found in funding decisions or priorities. We have to ensure acknowledgment iand reinforcement of the importance of such care n other ways.

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