Redefining Family in ILS

Perhaps most of us would define our family as the group of people we grew up with, usually ancestral. For our youth who have aged out of foster care, the concept of family as we know it may not apply.

Jane Doolan
Jane Doolan

The 18-24-year-olds in our Independent Living Services (ILS) Program often do not have the luxury of maintaining long-term supportive relationships with biological family members. In their world, having a “mother” and/or a “father” to depend on often is a foreign concept. It is not unusual for our youth to remain estranged from their biological parents, sometimes not knowing their fathers, or unaware of their mother’s whereabouts, additionally, wondering what ever happened to their brothers or sisters. As one who has worked with this group of young adults for over six years now, I am not shocked to hear commentary such as, “I haven’t seen my mother since I was seven,” “I recently found my brother on Facebook,” or “Last I heard, my father was in jail”.

Although no longer surprised, I am deeply saddened upon the realization that our youth, often times, are going it alone and at such a young age. Who is there I wonder, when they wake up in the middle of the night from a terrifying dream? When they are at their lowest emotionally, who is the first person they want to call for encouragement? Isn’t that often our Mom for most of us? Imagine the void, the utter depth of aloneness without ever having that option.

It can be said, that “Family isn’t always blood.” Many of us can relate to this concept, but in reality it comes a close second to how society commonly defines biological family. However, this is what we, our staff and I, as the primary supportive adults for our ILS youth, have to go with. We take over for a while, working hard to re-establish some level of trust and the inter-dependency that is necessary to gain momentum along the spectrum of healthy development.

We present ourselves as the consistent and unconditional force in the lives of grown children who have experienced very little consistency, plus excessive disruption and chaos when they needed a stable home. Some of our youth were fortunate to have good foster parents, those surrogate parents who stuck it out with them through the challenges, the pain, the continuation of let downs and uncertainty. This can, and has, made all the positive difference for some. However, for those who were not as fortunate, we are there.

Over the years I have witnessed countless moments of connection between our staff and our youth, as well as our youth with each other. Those brief moments may leave a lasting impression, and perhaps linger in the mind on those disheartening days and long, lonely nights.

Recently, during a Family Event (monthly events that we host for our youth to come together for education, fellowship and food), I saw a young woman gesture to a young mother holding a fussy baby, that familiar hands out/fingers fluttering pose that we have seen our aunties and grandmothers do when offering to assist a distraught parent. I was impressed by the maturity of that reflexive response, as well as the look of relief on the face of the young mom.

Youth were asked to state their personal strengths as part of the exercise this day in learning more about resilience, transition and healthy relationships. To no surprise, some youth struggled to identify a self strength. But there was no struggle for others in the room, their peers and case managers, to share descriptors of encouragement, sincerity and warmth. Again, the expression on the face of the recipient, affirmed, “I DO matter.” “Someone sees the good in me.” We all need that.

Right before the event, one of our case managers took a call to her phone from a young man who reported that he passed his driver’s road test. Do you remember that day? I do, and the first person I wanted to tell was my Mom. I knew that her voice would reflect a proud smile, well aware of the meaning of that milestone for me. On cue, our case manager responded the same as any mother would, “You did it! I am so proud of you,” as the story drifted off into details of the momentous experience.

After the event, I watched as the young women all mingled around the kitchen table, chatting as they helped with clean-up and packing up leftovers to take home, ensuring everyone had some. Again, there was a familiarity in replicating the traditions that we grew up with around food and family gatherings.

So, it’s about family. It’s about being there when the world feels too big, too harsh and too lonely. It’s what we are honored to do.

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