Pandemic poses challenges for Youth Villages’ LifeSet program

COVID-19 complicates young adults’ transition to independent living

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 08, 2020 9:28 AM CT | Published: September 07, 2020 4:00 AM CT
<strong>Youth Villages' LifeSet program participant Mose Frazier gives his younger brother Lamar Frazier a haircut Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in their Orange Mound home. The pandemic has made life tougher on the 131 young adults in Youth Villages' LifeSet program that assists the transition into adulthood. </strong>(Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Youth Villages' LifeSet program participant Mose Frazier gives his younger brother Lamar Frazier a haircut Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020 in their Orange Mound home. The pandemic has made life tougher on the 131 young adults in Youth Villages' LifeSet program that assists the transition into adulthood. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

It might sound like a pretty basic list: finishing high school or earning a GED; applying for scholarships and starting college; finding and maintaining suitable housing; finding and maintaining employment; applying for medical insurance; learning essential financial skills, and building and maintaining healthy relationships.

That’s not even the complete list. And notice, it’s already long.

Everything on that list, and more, is central to the Youth Villages LifeSet program and the effort to help young adults transition to adulthood coming out of difficult situations – everything from aging out of long-term foster care to having been in the juvenile justice system.

Add the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix and the results can severely threaten that chance at success.

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“The LifeSet kids were losing housing, jobs, their support systems,” said Patrick Lawler, Youth Villages’ CEO. “We found out they needed help paying their bills, getting mobile devices. They needed more support because they were already out there living on the edge before the pandemic. And of course, there’s fear and anxiety.”

Christen Glickman, Youth Villages (YV) federal policy manager based in Washington, says in March as the pandemic gripped the country, a survey of young people participating in the LifeSet program found a quarter of them anticipated losing a job and 10% “feared they would run out of food in two weeks.”

Additionally, FosterClub surveyed “transition-age-youth” 18 to 24 nationally and found 50% of those who said they had lost work and filed for unemployment benefits reported not receiving them. Thirty-seven percent said they had family (legal or chosen) they could rely on during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis created an instant crossroads. And for many, a daily challenge of how to get from Point A to Point B.

“And a lot of them are dependent on public transportation and it was harder to get places to get goods,” said Avery Duncan, regional supervisor for the Memphis LifeSet program.

The program operates in 18 states, and in Memphis it serves 131 clients and has a staff of 20 specialists.

Clients sometimes made decisions they’d rather not make.

“Some of them went back to parents or distant relatives they didn’t want to be with,” Lawler said.

Even if they landed someplace that wasn’t compromised, it still might have meant taking more responsibility on their young shoulders. That has been the case for 17-year-old Shylann Gunn, who is a sophomore at LeMoyne-Owen College.

She is staying at her grandparents’ house and they have their hands full running their own business. So, care of her younger sister and 2-year-old brother largely falls to her when she is not taking chemistry and anatomy courses online.

“It’s a doozy,” Gunn said.

 In pursuit of happiness

Shylann graduated Kingsbury High School at age 16. She’ll be 18 later this month and is holding strong with a 3.8 GPA in college. She entered the LifeSet program more than a year ago.

“I was dealing with severe anxiety and a moment of depression,” she said. “And then going to college at a young age made me nervous.”

Last spring, the pandemic forced her out of her dorm. Now, she is taking courses virtually that are meant for in-person classroom instruction.

“Chemistry and anatomy are very hands-on,” she said. “You can’t really see the process.”

But she soldiers on.

As does 19-year-old Mose Frazier. He came to LifeSet from the juvenile justice system.

“From when I first received his case, he’s really made a lot of progress,” said Rebekah Fields, the specialist assigned to working with him.

Frazier is on track on get his barber’s license through the Tennessee College of Applied Technology next month, provided he passes his final exam. He also is about to start taking an automotive vocational course.

“I want like two trades, one as a main and one as a backup,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, Fields and Frazier have been meeting virtually. While they talk, she can watch Frazier cutting hair on a mannequin in preparation for his test.

He made his first attempt at cutting hair when he was in middle school. On himself with a $10 pair of clippers.

“I gave myself a real messed-up haircut,” he said. “I tried to do a fade, but it was like I had a bowl on top of my head. I had to go to school like that and I got checked.”

Although he made progress from there and even made money cutting hair while attending Whitehaven High School, he has since learned there is more to it.

“You basically learn the bones in the head, the skin texture, hair density,” he said. “Hair-cutting is the easiest part.”

Or was, until the pandemic hit.

“On Wednesdays (before pandemic), we’d cut the homeless people’s hair, able to get like 10 different people, all types of haircuts,” Frazier said. “So, that was a loss.”

Frazier is living with his mom and moving forward day-by-day. Fields says when she and Frazier speak, they don’t spend much time talking about choices that landed him in trouble.

“We discuss goals,” she said, “where do you see yourself in five or 10 years.”

And where does he see himself?

 “A barber,” he said, “on my way to my own shop.”

No giving in

“There’s definitely been more things to overcome, but this group of young people is very resilient,” Duncan said, speaking to the way LifeSet clients have navigated the pandemic. “We’ve done a lot of education, such as the recommendations from the CDC, to help them keep themselves safe.

“This period in any young adult’s life is full of transitions. For the young adults in LifeSet, it’s even more challenging because they don’t have the same family support or number of adults they can depend on.”

Because of that, Lawler called upon Glickman to push for federal legislation that could help LifeSet clients and other kids aging out of foster care and similar situations.

On Aug. 7, U.S. Reps. Danny Davis (D-Illinois) and Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana) introduced a bipartisan proposal to support the child welfare system as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The “Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act” (H.R. 7947) would, among other things, increase funding and create temporary flexibility for programs targeting older foster youth.

“It’s been a roller coaster trying to get it across the finish line and Congress has been on recess,” Glickman said, adding she remains hopeful: “First Lady Trump tweeted about it. I think it’s got legs.”

Glickman notes, too, that $1,200 stimulus checks, authorized by Congress through the CARES Act in March, almost never found their way to LifeSet clients.

“Generally, pre-pandemic, a lot of people didn’t know much about foster care,” she said. “And now people are aging out of foster care and may not be eligible for health care during a pandemic, and a lot of youth with guardians never got a stimulus check.”

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None of this, however, suggests anyone with Youth Villages – or the LifeSet clients themselves – accepts defeat. 

The other day, a young woman in college had a break-in and her laptop was stolen. Because she’s taking all of her courses virtually, this was an emergency.

So, Duncan started working the phones to find a laptop at an affordable price. After locating one in Collierville, she planned to pick up and deliver it herself.

Progress gained is a precious commodity for these young people. Not only practically, in the present, but for self-confidence as they stride into an ever-changing future.

In that way, the COVID-19 pandemic is merely a mid-term they’re never going to forget.

“I feel like I’ve grown from this experience,” Shylann said. “It’s been very tough, but I’ve learned I can take on a lot more than I thought I could.”

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Youth Villages LIfeSet Patrick Lawler COVID-19 Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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