Last month’s National Volunteer Week acknowledged the generous contribution of volunteers all around the country. One such role at Tipping is that of ‘Lead Tenant’, an out-of-home-care placement option providing medium-term accommodation and support to young people aged 16-18 years who have been placed away from the care of their families. The responsibilities of this volunteer position include acting as a positive role model and providing general direction, encouragement and informal support to the young people within the household.
The following story is from two recent volunteers Jake and Bethany about their experience as Lead Tenants…
Working with young people who are vulnerable…
We all want to live in a world that is safe. We all long to be happy.
These are two of the most uniting feelings across the world, through every culture. But what do you do when you have never known safety, in the same way you and I most likely feel safety?
Over the past 13 months, my partner and I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of Victoria’s adolescents, who are deemed to be ‘At Risk’.
We were placed in our position to learn from them and support them on a journey towards successful independence. These are the kids that have been removed from their family homes, but have also found no suitable foster environment, and ended up in residential care. Their young lives have been hard – often times abusive – and so the child struggles to fit into a normal society.
Working as live-in volunteers with The Tipping Foundation, we have worked one-on-one with children close to aging out of government care, providing a share-house setting in which these teenagers can learn the basic habits of self-care and responsibility. We act as a model of normal, stable lifestyles, and we maintain healthy relationships – which commonly these children haven’t seen up close.
What we have learned most during our time with Tipping is the sheer other-worldliness of developmental trauma. There is nothing to compare.
For example, a child who has suffered abuse or trauma during their critical stages of development will, more often than not, live at a heightened awareness of threat. Their brain is programmed to react quickly to anything that might pose danger. For some of these kids, a sharp bang, for example, may be considered a threat, and thus the trauma in their brains will react very differently to the situation than our brains would. For others, hearing people argue may cause the same reaction. For another, the thought that someone is displeased by you can do the same. Everyday home-based activities – the things you and I grew up doing without a second thought – can create so much fear for a child whose childhood has been disrupted and upturned by trauma.
Doing the dishes, for example, we have found can really challenge the young people we have lived with. Not because of the task itself, but because firstly it represents a home where people and property are consistently cared for, and secondly because this tells our young person that they should have respect for themselves by looking after their home environment.
We aren’t just teaching tasks. We are the process of helping restructure their brains to understand that they actually mean something to the world.
We may be living with 16 and 17 year olds, but we are teaching them the basic self worth and care that everyone else learned about at a younger age.
And yet, in many ways, these kids are far more street savvy than we would ever be. They know the darker sides of our ‘safe’ community, and it doesn’t scare them. They often have a good grasp on how the legal system works. Travelling interstate at the drop of a hat, and making trades for technology are some of the ways these kids also have learnt how to survive, and thus it is an easier option for them than it would be for you or me.
Making a bed, however…sadly, life never really had the chance to teach them that.
Ultimately, the kids we have worked with through this year, and the others we have met along the way, have great potential. They have the power to do so much good in the community. They can be fearless, and they know how to stand firm.
The biggest problem with these kids is not the kids themselves. They get walked away from far too early for being considered “difficult” or labelled as “trouble makers”. It is with this abandonment that these kids find it so difficult to succeed in life. How can someone, whose dreams are crushed at almost every turn they take, have any sense of self worth, or any desire to get better, or to achieve something fantastic with their lives?
It is not an easy task to love and care for these kids, let alone live with them. But the rewarding moments you receive, knowing you’re actively trying to help these kids succeed, certainly outweigh the negatives.
If you want to make your community better, safer, more loving… start here. Start with these kids.
It takes someone with a big heart to do what we do, but we know there are people out there wanting to see the best in these kids, just like us. And our only advice is to find out more information about it all, if you were interested! Give it a go, and see what you can do to help.
The Tipping Foundation (incorporating VISTA) is one of Victoria’s most established not-for-profit providers of disability and community services for people with disability, and for young people who are vulnerable. The Lead Tenant program provides a safe, semi-independent living environment where young people are supported by Lead Tenants who provide day to day guidance and mature role modelling. For more information please visit our Work with us section.