In a recent teleconference, Sarah Gross focuses on her origami, an ancient Japanese practice of shaping paper into art. On the other end of her video call young people ages 9-17 make their own paper sculptures while simultaneously sharing their fears, hopes and dreams.
Sarah is an Advocate with Gloucester-Salem, NJ Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc., a community-based alternative to youth incarceration and congregate child welfare placements. She’s one of thousands of neighborhood-based YAP Advocates in 29 states and the District of Columbia mentoring and advocating for young people and families in their homes and communities instead of in facilities. The goal is to help youth and families develop individualized service plans that identify their strengths and connect them with tools to achieve their goals.
The young people with Sarah in her video session came to YAP through child welfare systems referrals. Most of them are temporarily living with “resource home” foster parents until a permanent placement with a relative is secured — or for older youth — an independent living placement, is available.
“Whatever each young person’s plan is, we try to help them think through the plan, set specific action steps to achieve the plan, advocate for that plan with their caretakes and service providers, and support them throughout the process. Each youth in the program has different strengths and comes from different backgrounds, experiences and belief systems. Therefore they are each working on very specific and individualized goals,” Sarah said. “As Advocates, we typically see the youth we are working with multiple times a week, so we try and bridge the gap between the case worker, therapist and other providers, who do not see them as often, to provide an understanding of the youth’s current needs as well as continuity of care. One youth recently shared with me that with YAP, she feels she can be herself; that’s why the mentoring works and is also why she enjoys participating in the program. She feels heard, valued, genuinly cared for and encouraged during a difficult time in her life.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah and her fellow Advocates were confronted with their biggest collective challenge ever. They would have to continue to enage and build trust with the young people at a distance, while keeping them on track with their life plans.
“It was panic mode; fight or flight,” Sarah said. “Fortunately, I have a background in running youth support group meetings and I was familiar with video conferencing, since it is something we utilize a lot in my full-time job at a national financial firm. One of the challenges was getting the youth, as well as their resource home [foster] parents, to buy in to a new way of connecting. The Advocates in our office took time to remember why they chose this type of work and why it was more important than ever to provide the families in our program the needed social and emotional support during this unprecedented time. Prior to the pandemic, many of our families already felt isolated, discouraged and alone. We all worked together to figure out new ways to support the youth and families so they could continue to have their basic needs met, stay healthy, and feel secure so we could continue to work with them on achieving their goals.”
Working with her fellow Advocates, Sarah found ways to provide virtual homework help. She also took to YouTube where she discovered ways to connect and engage youth. She took them on a virtual trip to Paris, helped them plant their own garden and taught them how to make homemade ice cream.
“It is a challenge to think of and prepare new activities each day that can be done through video conferencing, keep youth motivated, and encourage them to participate,” she said. “We created an incentive program that allowed them to earn points during each mentoring session and then choose items at the end of each week.”
One day, while planning a teleconference with the program participants, Sarah was reminded of a story from her childhood. Adopted from Korea as a baby, her parents kept her connected to her Asian roots by exposing her to art and culture from her birth continent. It was during one of those experiences that Sarah heard Sadako and the One Thousand Paper Cranes, a Japanese legend promising that by making one thousand origami cranes, one’s wishes will come true. She recalled learning how the story inspired a girl with leukemia from atomic bomb radiation to make origami cranes in her quest to live.
“They [the YAP participants] were touched that she passed away and that her story came to represent world peace,” Sarah said. “They asked if it would be possible for them to work together on future sessions to make one thousand origami cranes.”
Sarah ordered special paper and delivered it to each of the youth’s homes. In the following days and weeks, they met as a group and worked towards making one thousand origami cranes. In the process, the young people continued to form a bond of trust and solidarity with one another and began to talk more candidly about their lives.
“The group activities give them something to talk about and look forward to each day. The youth enjoy spending time together,” Sarah said. In addition to working on making origami cranes, the youth have also learned how to make ninja stars, turtles, flowers, dogs, all kinds of oragami.”
Sarah said the experience has made it easier to engage the young people in other virtual activities – ones that build life skills, help them discover new interests, and give them a chance to explore education and career opportunities.
Meanwhile, as she continued the incentive program, the young people’s points built up quickly. That’s when Sarah noticed another benefit of the origami exercise.
“Instead of using the points for themseves, they wanted to share their rewards with others,” she said. “On Mother’s Day, they asked to use their points to buy gifts such as flowers, tea and lotion for their guardians and caretakers. The youth felt proud and excited to have an opportunity to do something nice and meaningful for others who care for them.”
“By nature, we are creatures of habit, find comfort in consistancy and resist change,” Sarah said. “Due to the pandemic, we were all pushed to become more creative and innovative in the way we delivered services, because it was important. Through artwork and other activities, the youth learned there are healthy ways to cope, express their feelings and take their minds off stress. Even through video conferencing, the YAP Advocates continued to expose the young people we serve to new things they would never experienced otherwise, while empowering them as they developed essential practical life skills that they can use as they continue to face adversity and challenges throughout their lives.”
For more information on YAP, please visit www.yapinc.org and follow the organization on Twitter @yapinc.