Life Skills for Homeless Students
When “Jasmine,” a bright and talented homeless high school senior working with Outreach turned down the offer of a free college education, case managers in the Outreach G.O.A.L. program knew they had to understand why. Felecia Hawkins, Manager of G.O.A.L. (which stands for Graduation, Occupation, Address, and Lifestyle) knew the phenomenon wasn’t limited just to Jasmine; she was seeing many students who were very gifted but weren’t making use of their talents or taking advantage of opportunities to use them.
“We came to understand that the disconnect between our youth and their opportunities was how they feel about themselves,” explains Hawkins. In Jasmine’s case, she could not imagine herself in college, and she found the prospect too overwhelming to consider. “Through the G.O.A.L. program, we facilitate our students getting vital services they need, such as housing, identification documents, food stamps, and health care,” continued Hawkins. “That support is crucial, but it isn’t enough. Our youth need to be able to see themselves as capable of success.” This epiphany led Hawkins to create a 12-session Life Skills Curriculum to use within the G.O.A.L. program.
The curriculum, which Outreach offers to G.O.A.L. high school students in four different districts, focuses first on Identity. According to Hawkins, “We tend to identify with the people and conditions around us. Through the curriculum, we work with students to rethink who they are, to separate their identity from their circumstances. We want them to say, ‘I have God-given talents. I am something more than a victim of economic disparity, violence, abuse, or drug addiction.’”
Other elements of the curriculum are Goal Setting, Financial Literacy, Respect (for self and others), Career and Education, Volunteerism, Handling Conflict, Cultural Competency, and Values and Principles.
“We help the students understand that their decisions are directly connected to their values,” notes Hawkins. In the goal-setting sessions, students learn to start their days being organized. “That’s what successful people do,” says Hawkins. “We’re helping our students to see themselves as successful.”
The Life Skills Curriculum is part of the broader G.O.A.L. program, designed by Outreach at the request of the Indiana Department of Education to improve the graduation rate for at-risk/homeless high school students in Indianapolis. Outreach offers G.O.A.L. in the Indianapolis Public Schools and in Pike, Washington, and Lawrence Townships. With four case managers (two for seniors and two for grades 9-11), Outreach provides a wide range of services, all connected with the four key program aims of Graduation, Occupation (career readiness), Address (stable housing), and Lifestyle (healthy choices in nutrition, activity, and behaviors). Case managers help students obtain birth certificates, Social Security numbers, Medicaid coverage, food stamps, bus passes, and other important services. They provide educational support by helping with financial aid forms, taking students on college visits, and helping them apply for scholarships.
“We work in tandem with out partners in the schools,” emphasizes Hawkins. “They refer students to us, and they provide meeting places. We definitely feel supported and welcomed by the schools, especially the social workers who refer directly to us. We’re able to do some things that school employees cannot, such as drive students to medical appointments, so we complement each other. We appreciate the work they do, and we feel appreciated by them.”
It’s not all work, however. A big part of G.O.A.L. is helping homeless students have many of the same fun high school experiences as their peers. “We’ve taken trips to museums and the aquarium in Chicago, gone to the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, taken hot air balloon rides, and had many other fun activities that our students would not have experienced otherwise,” Hawkins shared. In addition, seniors get to participate in Senior Picture Day, made possible by photographer and stylist, Andrea Smith. Thanks to Smith and dozens of volunteers, students have their hair done, get to choose a new outfit, and have their senior portraits taken.
The capstone to the G.O.A.L. experience is the Graduation Celebration at the Outreach Program Center. Thanks to publicity provided by local Christian music station Moody Christian Radio, well-wishers from all over central Indiana send cards and gifts to the graduating seniors. An Outreach board member personally plans and puts up all the decorations. Students entertain the crowd with a talent show. The highlight of the event is the presentation of a new laptop computer to each graduating senior. “Our students all look forward to this celebration,” says Hawkins. “It gives them something to aim for. Each year, I’m overwhelmed by the generosity of individual donors and sponsors who make it possible for Outreach to host this event.”
Hawkins shared that the main needs of the program are more volunteers to help with events such as Senior Picture Day and the Graduation Celebration, as well as resources for internships, job shadowing experiences, and mentoring. Hawkins feels that the basis of the G.O.A.L. program is helping students learn how to turn disadvantage into strength. She sums up her message to her students this way: “It’s totally up to you (to overcome your difficulties). There’s not one person who doesn’t struggle. It’s the human experience. You have experienced it earlier than most, but you’ve also learned how to overcome it. Whatever you need is deep within you. You just have to do the work of digging it out. You have to trust that there is good fruit that will come out of that.”
Article by Gigi Nichols – Outreach Resident Writer