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What summers working construction taught me about youth in care

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When I got into university, my parents and I made a deal. I would pay for tuition and they’d pay for my books and let me drive to school in the old car we inherited from my zaide. Even for a privileged 18-year-old like myself, this was an exceptional arrangement.

All I needed was a job.

My so-called work history consisted of two summers as a camp counsellor and several months of part-time employment at my uncle Moyshe and aunt Doris’s menswear store. I loved those two, but there wasn’t anything majestic about the place. If you were looking for practical suits that stank of cigarette smoke, their store was for you.

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So there I was: inexperienced and kind of lazy, my greatest ambition in life to hang on to my title as the family ping pong champ. If I was going to find work, I’d definitely need help.

“Ma? Can I ask you a question?”

“Your father already gave you your allowance. The answer is no.”

“What? No, Ma, it’s not that. Can you call your friend “Mr. Home Builder” about a summer job in construction?”

“You want to work for him? Sure! A little hard work will be good for you. I’m calling him right away.”

And so it began. My parents called a successful contractor friend who seemed conveniently in need of unskilled labourers and after I, the son of two of his closest friends, applied, he gave me the job.

For four straight summers I worked on his construction sites throughout the city. Once they knew I was a union member and a friend of the boss, my fellow construction workers welcomed me like family. I never worked or laughed as hard in my life as I did doing at this summer job, and, best of all, I was able to keep my end of the bargain and pay my tuition.

I’ve since moved on from construction, having changed career directions several times before landing on social work, with a focus on young people who grew up in foster care.

Aging out of the System

When youths who’ve grown up in this system turn 18 – around the same age as I was when I needed that summer job –  they “age out” of the foster care system and are often compelled to leave their foster families or group homes.

At this point, we, as a province (their official “parent”), ask them to live on their own. We ask them to go to school, find an apartment and a job, manage their finances, buy groceries, do laundry, shop for and cook all their own meals. It’s an awful lot to ask of even the most well-adjusted and privileged 18-year-olds, let alone those who have grown up in the foster care system.

Sure, some financial supports are available to these youths. They sometimes receive help with tuition and other basic benefits until they turn 25, but rarely does it prove to be enough money.

And, in any case, money isn’t the only factor. Not surprisingly, these young people often struggle enormously, bereft of the notion that someone has their backs, that they won’t end up on the street.

Province-wide, only 44 per cent of this cohort finish high school. In the Jewish community, that number is closer to 80 per cent.

The Pearl Project

We need to send the message to these youths that we as a community have their backs. The province may have officially assumed the role of parent, but it’s the job of our Jewish community to encourage, support and guide these young people in the same way our families did for us.

As part of that effort, Jewish Family & Child’s Pearl Project is launching a summer internship program whereby a business, organization, individual or group in the Jewish community will offer a young person a 10-week, paid internship with a dedicated in-house mentor to work with, train and support our youths in a field of interest to them.

We are asking you – either as an individual or with your company or organization – to step forward and learn more about how you can get involved with these internships and create positive change in a young life. 

“Mr. Home Builder” and so many others helped me. I’m betting someone helped you. There’s no reason we can’t offer the same kind of support to this resilient, capable, forward-looking group of young people. 

Sheldon Howard is a youth advocacy worker at Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS) in Toronto where he is co-ordinator of The Pearl Project.