Social support and skills development for disadvantaged young people

I had a dream last night. A big one. I dreamt of an ideal world, an ideal children’s home. Which was empty. It was closed. But the reality is very different. There are still more than 23,000 children in foster care. This article was written as part of a collaboration between Experience Academy and Mindset Psychology.

I have been working with disadvantaged young people as a trainer since 2019, as a childcare worker in a foster home in Budapest from 2021 and as the manager of the children’s home from the end of 2021. It is my conviction and experience that the disadvantage these young people grow up with is unimaginable for many of us. The last time I had to call a taxi for some reason and the driver asked me where I was going and why I was going there, he told me that yes, he had grown up in a place with a foster home next to it, and he had seen the ‘institutionalised’ from a distance: they were loud, rowdy and generally cursed a lot. I’m used to having two options: to educate them by force, tell them about it, or just say that my experience is different. Because my dream and reality are very different. Ideally, professionals working with young people, with children are trained and educated, with a trauma-informed approach to those entrusted to them.

What was at first a half-baked idea has this year become an unavoidable event in the annual planning of the Academy of Experience. This year marks the third edition of the ALAP! camp, which this year, as in the past, is organised through community fundraising. Even when we were dreaming about it – at the start – we knew and saw the need for the camp. There was a need for young people growing up in foster homes, in state care, to experience full worry-freeness. This has always been our banner, and we could not have found a more important and relevant goal. Since then, we have witnessed countless miracles, revelations and connections. In the first year, as a joke, we made a wall space with A4 sheets of paper, with the children’s faces and names on the top. This became the kind wall: sheets of paper that the young people take home as treasures after the 5 days – full of affirmations, memories, kind messages: proof that they are important, respected members of society. This is not always the attitude they encounter.

Being separated from your family is a traumatic experience, and we now know that irreversible effects on the nervous system.

These are, for example, the behavioural patterns that the taxi driver saw: impulsivity, behavioural and attention problems, attachment difficulties can develop in such children and young people (Bruce Perry’s The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog made it clear to me.)

Many of the young people in state care are early school leavers, often absent from school or unemployed due to lack of qualifications and education, further reducing the possibility of social mobility and integration. They experience all the difficulties of being disadvantaged at an early age, lacking a secure family background, being neglected in their environment, and often abused in their original families. In addition to shaping society’s attitudes and helping families, there is a huge need for social support for young people to help them overcome the disadvantages they suffer from the moment they enter foster care.

Today, it is perhaps ALAP! we are hurt in relationship and heal in relationship.

It is heartbreaking how much these young people’s lives lack healthy connection, caring, and often even a mother’s touch. A few weeks ago I found myself in the children’s home with my much loved “children”. I noticed that one of the boys had all kinds of adolescent bumps on his face. I offered to steam it off, clean his complexion, it would look very pretty. So we opened the occasional beauty salon, he sat in my “beauty chair”. At the end of the long process, he smiled at me, asking me, does he look good now? I said sure, and asked if it was uncomfortable or if I had caused any pain. Her answer was: “No, of course not. It was so nice that you touched my face, it was very gentle”.

How many times have I thought, standing in the living room of the children’s home, as the children went up and down to do their business, that this is not normal, not natural, that they are here. They didn’t choose each other, they didn’t choose the adults who cared for them, they didn’t belong here in the children’s home. Just as they did not choose to live in an artificial environment, separated from their family: without a mother’s touch, a father’s kind word, a brother’s laugh. However, I have also experienced that it is often really necessary to remove children from their familiy. Some parents I have not met once in the last few years because they have not looked for their child. There are parents who are truly unable to take good care of their child. That is how these children grow up and enter society at a huge disadvantage. Without a safe and proper pattern, without a nurturing and caring family.

Young people in care often experience social stigma in the form of prejudice-driven discrimination. Stereotyping can be a further barrier to integration, entry into the labour market and independent living. They often feel excluded, which can cause them a range of mental and emotional problems, but they are also part of society as a whole and therefore have the right to be useful members of it to the extent of their potential.

Many of them have talent, determination, creativity and strength. These are the qualities we (also) seek and strengthen in them through the camp experience.To give an example, last summer at camp, a teenage boy climbed to the top of the Pamper’ pole’, anxious and fearful of the challenge, without a word. (It’s a high-rope element, trained trainers provide the kids with alpine gear so that when they reach the top of the pole, they straighten up, give themselves and the trainers holding them trust, and jump off) It was liberating and deeply touching to watch this young man’s face as he nodded with every step, every encouragement. For himself. And he jumped. He trusted. He believed  Because we hurt in relationship and we heal in relationship.

The experiences at Camp ALAP! can help these youth to manage their own difficulties and improve their quality of life, reduce their anxiety, regulate and manage their emotions more consciously.The many eyes on them during the trials, the attention, the internal and external reinforcement, will increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. Through the community of peers, intimate moments and conversations with trained trainers and volunteers, these children improve their relationship quality and learn healthy ways to communicate and manage conflict.

It matters what they see from us. It matters if they can experience being a child. It matters if there are moments and days in their lives when they are loved and accepted as they are. It does matter if injustices are lifted, even for 5 days. It matters what are our messages to them; about them. It matters if we acknowledge that some people don’t start out in life the way we do. Because it can be a cathartic and life-changing experience for them to know that there is an arm in the air to catch them.