Raising Youth Leaders: From Appreciation to Action | Columnists

We all want our children to thrive, with the access, support and opportunities to reach their full potential.

Building and maintaining the network necessary to ensure our children are safe, healthy, well educated and on the way to a bright future is no easy task. Every day, across our state, this type of mentoring, guidance, listening, and support takes place in youth-serving programs.

Youth workers, people who dedicate their professional talents and time to caring for our children and youth, are essential to the success of our children. Together with parents, family members and friends, they weave together individual support networks for each child.

It is well established that investing in youth programs produces meaningful and transformative change for children, families and communities. Youth programs are spaces for learning and growth that both reinforce academic learning and provide more flexibility than most classrooms. These programs can enhance a child’s social participation, create and strengthen positive social networks, and provide safe places for experiential learning. More than two years after the massive disruption caused by the pandemic in the lives of children, these opportunities and benefits are even more important.

“Youth Worker Appreciation Day” is celebrated every May, reminding us to appreciate the youth workers who have shaped our lives and the lives of our children. Take a minute and think about these influential and important role models – after school service providers, scout leaders, coaches, case managers, counselors and coaches. Maybe they gave you encouragement at a time when you needed it most. Or they talked you through a tough time. Maybe they encouraged you to dream bigger. Or not give up. Or defend yourself. Youth workers may have taken care of your children when you were at work, reached out to them when you were having a hard time, introduced them to new ideas and experiences, and showed them that they were seen and valued.

Now is the perfect time to support youth workers, not only with our appreciation, but also by making the decisions and investments that enable them to do their best. These invaluable positions are often underfunded, part-time, unstable, and/or lack professionalization, which is the norm in many other careers. At the same time, the positions often require high levels of education, empathy, and flexibility.

It’s time we turned appreciation into action for youth workers by:

• Ensure a “pay our employees first” approach that invests in attracting and retaining youth-serving professionals

• Improve their health care benefits, paid vacations and retirement options

• Invest in their continuing professional development opportunities, and

• Offer them help by maintaining self-care and mental health support services

The way our community takes care of its children is partly reflected in the way we take care of those who support the growth and development of our children. Caring, supportive adults with education, training, and experience in youth development help our children and youth navigate the complex and often bumpy road to adulthood. We should validate the incredible impact of youth workers not only with our words but also with our deeds.

Tami Silverman is President and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She can be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI.

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