By the time John was 17 years old, he had bounced around between semi-independent living programs and foster homes for years. In one of his foster homes, another foster youth destroyed paintings John had created. Then his entire wardrobe was stolen. John spent many winter nights outside because the owner of the house wouldn't provide him with a key.
So, he didn't know what to expect when his caseworker assigned him to Lighthouse Youth Services, a transitional living program in Cincinnati, Ohio. He received a caseworker and a life coach. The caseworker successfully handled the minutiae that enabled his transition and helped him with his basic needs. The life coach provided him with emotional support and became his "mother figure" long after he graduated from the program.
"My role is to give an extra set of ears and hands to help with issues like budgeting, cooking, relationships, apartment issues, job issues," says Merry Paul, 54, an administrative assistant at Lighthouse and John's life coach. John is now 21 years old and Paul continues to talk with him by telephone once or twice a week.
Life coaches are paid mentors matched to support youth after they leave care.
Though Lighthouse has a formal aftercare program that works with youth as they leave care and after leaving care—particularly with financial hardships after they have graduated from care—more informal approaches to aftercare like life coaches have also been very successful. Life coaches have been particularly helpful for high risk youth, like those with mental health issues or substance abuse problems, who need ongoing emotional support along with assistance with their basic needs.
Lighthouse began using the life coach approach 9 years ago, according to Lighthouse director Mark Kroner, when the Hamilton County Children's Services Department kept approaching them with youth, but were unsure about whether the youth were able to live in an independent setting without acting out or running away. Lighthouse came up with the idea of hiring a part-time person outside of the program to visit with the youth. In most cases that worked, and now when a youth is assigned to Lighthouse, he or she is routinely assigned a caseworker and a life coach.
"We have used it for all different types of situations," says Kroner, for example, for youth who were going through a suicidal phase. "If a youth is acting out in school, the coach can go to school with the youth. It has given us a lot of flexibility."
Kroner sees life coaches as an extension of aftercare, not as a replacement for their standard aftercare program. And, he says, the expenses of having a life coach are minimal.
"Group homes average $170 a day. Our independent living program is $62 a day, plus a life coach at $24 an hour for an hour a day. It is actually cheaper," says Kroner, adding that youth often fare better as a result of the individualized attention.
Having a life coach eased Eric's transition to independent living. Because social services had removed him from his home when he was 15 years old, after his mother couldn't handle struggling to raise five children in a lowincome apartment, having a nice place to live was important for him. When it came time for him to look for an apartment, he chose one in a nice area near a university, with plenty of other young people around. His life coach helped him with his budget to make sure he could afford the place.
"We looked at several different scenarios based upon how much money he made. I said, 'If you only got a job making $8.50, this is what you have.' I am a very visual person, so I made a lot of lists and visual reminders," Paul says.
More importantly, she prepared him for the unexpected. She told him to budget and save enough money to pay his rent and other expenses for 2 months, in case he ever loses his job.
But she also helped him with intangibles like learning boundaries at his job at Home Depot. Paul explained to him appropriate ways to voice his opinion.
John says he is motivated to keep working and saving because he knows what it's like to live in low-income housing. Now he doesn't have to compete for the bathroom with his siblings, and he knows that his belongings will still be there when he gets home. And if things don't go according to his plan, he knows that he can always call his life coach and talk with her about his problems.
"She helped me believe in myself. She taught me that I can do whatever I want to do," he says.
While John benefited from having a paid mentor or life coach, other youth reject the fact that everyone in their lives—teachers, social workers—are people who are paid to help them. Some programs, like Panhandle Community Services, a transitional living program and FYSB grantee in Garing, Nebraska, have utilized nearby faith-based programs to find lifelong mentors or life coaches.
Seventeen-year-old Rhonda came to Panhandle Community Services to escape an abusive boyfriend and begin regaining custody of her young son, who had been taken out of the home by social services because of the violence. Director Vicky Lawton teamed Rhonda with a "mentoring mom" from a nearby faith-based organization that routinely volunteers to mentor youth in their program.
"The mentoring mom would just come and pick her up in a van and they would go out and just sit and talk," says Lawton. "They spent a lot of time just breaking through that trust thing."
Rhonda has since regained custody of her son, married, and given birth to a new baby, but she and the mentoring mom stay in touch and talk once or twice a week. This helps staff at Panhandle because the mentoring mom then keeps them informed on how Rhonda is doing.
"Whichever staff is assigned as the caregiving staff will call and try to follow up on things that the mentoring mom has told us," Lawton says.
Having a life coach or mentor helps the staff to follow up on youth long after they have graduated from the program. At the same time it gives youth the feeling that their connections are more "like a family."