In more recent years there has been a surge in out of school time services for youth. Such services include but aren’t limited to mentor, art, recreation, and academic enrichment programs. Many people are familiar with agencies such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the YMCA. When asked about the services these organizations provide we can probably articulate the descriptions very well.
However, if one were to inquire about the employees running these programs several questions may arise. Who are these people? What is their educational background? Are there specific competencies one must have to work with youth? As many who work in this field may know, youth development professionals come from a variety of backgrounds-Social Work, Psychology, Education, Business sectors, Law and many more. Many of us probably didn’t even begin our college education in pursuit of becoming a youth development professional. Better yet, many of us are failing to identify ourselves as professionals.
Commonly, people working with youth during the out of school time hours are regarded as youth workers. While we do work with youth in a variety of capacities, this phrasing fails to lend itself to the core and depth of work we do with young people. More importantly, it fails to validate our work as professional, intentional and meaningful.
I have been in this line of work prior to graduating college. Through the years I have participated in several hours of training and research related to youth development. After realizing television news wasn’t the best place for me I went back to grad school in pursuit of an education that would support my desire to work with young people and help develop them into successful adults. Unfortunately, it seems that there is a general lack of knowledge and respect for the work of a youth development professional. Often times I’ve heard from friends and others that working in an out of school time program is just babysitting and couldn’t be difficult. After laughing hysterically I proceed to identify the many competencies a youth development professional must have. Not only are we responsible for the physical safety of young people, but also the development of specific assets that contribute to their growth as a productive and contributing citizen. We work hard to provide supportive environments and opportunities for positive engagement and interaction. All of which are developed through strategies and activities that go far beyond babysitting.
As this field continues to grow and standards for programs and services are being developed as funding sources grow, “youth workers” are being urged to further develop skills and take advantage of professional development opportunities. To this end, I believe a “youth worker” who is making a commitment to enhancing her skills and build her capacity to better serve young people deserves the recognition as a professional. Moreover, institutions of higher education need to commit to developing programs of study that specifically address the education needs of a youth development professional.