Youth support specialist plays roles of big sister, friend, mentor
Stacy Johnson spends a lot of days working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
At 23 years old, she's responsible for assisting people who are about her age, listening to their problems, guiding them through school, helping them find pocket money.
Even she when leaves her job at night as a youth support specialist with Allegheny County's Department of Human Services, her work isn't the kind that comes to a neat finish. She sees herself as a surrogate big sister for the former foster children she serves.
"I don't think I ever do break away," she said. "I go home, and I get phone calls, text messages all the time."
Johnson of Penn Hills was a foster kid herself. Her job is to keep young adults connected with the county's system while they attend college or seek work after they are too old for foster care.
Her work is part of a recent shift in philosophy at the department to keep working with youths through age 24. The Independent Living Initiative, which begun three years ago, has 1,023 participants. Johnson and other county workers provide the type of support that most fresh-off-to-college students get from their families.
Without that support to keep them focused and engaged in their communities, their outcomes might not be so great. About half of foster children don't graduate from high school, and half struggle to find work and support themselves once they turn 18 and leave institutional care, according to a report released this month by the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.
Many former foster children struggle with depression, substance abuse and arrests. County officials said they saw this happening and decided it was better to spend money up front on a program to ward off chronic problems.
"We were seeing young people leaving the system without high school diplomas, without any formal plan, without any idea what they would do when they turned 18," said JoAnn Hannah, the transition program manager. "They're encouraged to stay and try to do something concrete before they go.
"They know they have a place. It is crucial that they stay. This is their support system."
The Human Services Department budgeted $1.5 million for the program, supported by three local foundations and a national one. Johnson is employed through the Pittsburgh-based Great Lakes Behavioral Research Institute.
She travels frequently. Her life's ambition, and part of her work, is to help reform the foster care system, so she travels to Harrisburg several times a month to give statewide advocates first-hand perspective on the system's strengths and shortcomings.
She visits with 17 students in the mentorship program she directs, and that means trips to colleges throughout the region, including Mansfield University in Tioga County.
She does a lot of prodding to make sure students are ready to apply for jobs, with resumes and appropriate clothes to wear to an interview. She has honed a sales pitch to recruit former foster children to join a youth advisory board she chairs, telling them they can earn a little money helping other kids and work to improve the system.
Coleman Smith, with whom she met at Penn State Beaver, committed to working on Johnson's advisory board this summer. Smith, 19, of Wilkinsburg had trouble keeping his grades up when he started at Penn State, but they improved after county workers convinced him to concentrate on classwork and not basketball.
Now, he said he wants to do well for those who have spent so much time caring for him.
"I just want them to think I'm doing real good," Smith said. "I don't want them to think I went to college and became a complete nutball."
He wants to work in a crime lab after college, and Johnson agreed to find him a mentor.
When she was an undergraduate student, Johnson spent summers at her foster parents' house in Penn Hills. She bounced around from home to home during her teenage years and didn't move in with them until she was 19.
Today, they remain her refuge. She spends Sundays there — the only day she really breaks away — and keeps her cell phone turned off in order to relax with them. She's still a graduate student, and applying for law school, so having them in her life gives her a source for guidance, retreat and refreshment, she said.
It's the type of safety net and sense of family she wants to create for the young adults in her program.
"That transition into adulthood is difficult enough on your own when you have parents," she said. "When you have to do it by yourself, it feels almost impossible to do it in a healthy way."
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