Everyday Champion: Melissa Webber

This story is a part of our Everyday Champions series. Helping youth succeed takes commitment and action from our whole community. Everyday Champions are people who are committed and who act in small and big ways to support youth in central Indiana. Do you know someone who you think would make a great Champion for Youth? Click here to get started.

Everyday Champion Melissa Webber is a tireless advocate for the youth in her care, an excellent collaborator and a supportive mentor to her staff. As Supervisor and Case Manager with Interact Family Services, a therapeutic foster care agency, Melissa feels that she was put on earth to do the work she does, and she lives it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Melissa is always looking out for the children’s best interests even if that means she loses sleep several nights in a row,” says Jennifer Troesch, Interact Case Manager. “As a supervisor, Melissa is very supportive. She is full of innovative ideas on how to deal with difficult situations in a therapeutic setting. Melissa attends any type of meeting where she is able to find outside sources that may assist the children in our care and she is diligent about providing this information to the case managers and foster families of Interact.”

Jennifer recounted the following story of Melissa’s skill in resolving issues and determination to ensure that children in Central Indiana have a place to call home.

Several weeks ago, Melissa received a call at 11:30pm on a Saturday for an emergency placement of an Autistic child who had been physically abused and was at a local hospital. Melissa immediately found a home for this child and did not hesitate to transport this child from the hospital to a foster home in Anderson, IN.

Melissa stayed at the foster home until the child and family were stable and she did not return to her own home until 4:00am. She was then on the phone with the foster family at 7:00am Sunday morning assisting them with how to handle specific needs of a child with Autism. For the following two days, Melissa was on the phone with the family every few hours assisting them with the difficulties they were having. She then was able to identify another home that had specific training with children with Autism.

What is your profession or vocation?
I work as the Supervisor and carry a caseload as a Case Manager with Interact Family Services, a Therapeutic Foster Care Agency. I have worked with both children and adolescents for 20 years, who have had mental health issues, developmental disabilities; among other problems.

I believe as a nation all adults must work to help the youth in our communities, because one day they will be the ones we as aging adults will look to for making the decisions that will impact our society.

I try to spread the word to not only the people in our field, but to everyone I meet, that it is their responsibility to reach out to our youth and in any way they can help make a positive impact on at least one young person they know.

How are you an Everyday Champion for Youth?

This is embarrassing! I have been working with youth for so long that I know it was what I was put on this earth to do. I try every day to talk to someone about their role as an adult to be a positive influence in a youths’ life.

It does not matter if it is someone I am working with professionally or someone I meet at the grocery store; I always try to work in a conversation how adults must stop complaining about the problems with the young people these days and start becoming a part of the solution; even if that means just sending a positive message to the young people in their extended family.

What impact do you hope to make on youth?

I want all the youth in our community to understand that they ARE the future of this country; no matter what they decide to do with the rest of their lives that they need to lead the way.

I also want to make the youth I work with understand that even though their lives to this point have been a real challenge that is not a barrier to becoming a responsible and productive member of this country. I always let the youth I work with, who constantly complain about how unfair life has been to them so far; that while I sympathize for what they have been through; I will not accept that as an excuse for not trying to reach their goals and dreams.

What’s one thing that you wish an adult had told you when you were a young person?
That life is not always fair; but that everyone on this earth carries their own burdens. And, even though you may not readily see another person’s problems, we all face challenges and must never use those challenges to stop dreaming and trying to reach our goals.

What do you want to do next to support youth?

At this time; I want to continue to help the youth caught in the foster care system to find permanency in their lives. I also want to help change the view of the general population that we as adults are responsible for how the next generation goes on to lead this world.

And I thought children were the #1 priority

I am frequently asked by a variety of folks “what is the number one problem facing children and youth in our community today?” That’s always a difficult question to answer so I have been doing a lot of thinking about that topic lately and I have come to the sad conclusion that the #1 problem seems to be the inability of the adults who have the greatest impact on their lives to make good decisions.

Over the past several months we have seen the following:

  • cuts in education spending from elementary schools all the way up to colleges. So while young people are told education is the key, we are not going to make the necessary investment needed to help them open the doors to opportunity.
  • proposed cuts in libraries. See above.
  • rising numbers of children who died as a result of abuse and neglect at the hands of the parents who are responsible for the safety and well being. It is tough to grow up well if you aren’t even safe and nurtured in your own home.
  • increasing obesity rates. Young people are told to be more active but we cut funds for gym classes in schools and recreation and sports programs in our parks while we consider a significant investment in a local professional basketball team.
  • the withdrawal of our state’s application for a significant amount of federal funds to support education because the state superintendent of public instruction and leaders of state teachers’ unions cannot get along. Young people are constantly told they must learn to get along with others in order to be successful in the world but a different set of rules must apply to adults.
  • a national debt that continues to rise to threatening levels, a debt that will become the responsibility of our current generation of young people–and likely the next as well. Yet we are not providing them with the tools and the education they will need to build wealth to pay our debt back.

Unfortunately, I could go on and on. I used to proudly say that I have 30+ years of experience helping children, youth, and families in our community. But at times I have begun to wonder if somehow I have failed miserably because things have not seemed to improve a lot over that time. If children and youth are really our Number One Priority, then we have to get rid of all the excuses and really be about solutions. It takes all of us, working together; I refuse to believe we can’t do it.

Threatened library closings will have a significant ripple effect

Ever since Andrew Carnegie built hundreds of free libraries across the U.S. around the turn of the twentieth century, our public libraries have been a quintessential symbol of the American Dream, of equal opportunity and the potential for self-improvement.

When Carnegie was a boy living in poverty, his employer allowed him and other working boys to use his personal library. Carnegie was always grateful for this chance to self-educate and better himself (an opportunity that was denied to many boys of his social class in those days). He felt so strongly that after he made his fortune in the steel industry, he donated millions to ensure that others would always have the same opportunity in their communities.

It seems that the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library finance committee may have lost sight of this sacred charge with their recent proposal to close six IMCPL branches in some of Indianapolis’ poorest neighborhoods. The Glendale, Brightwood, Flanner House, Fountain Square, Spades Park and West Indianapolis branches are all on the chopping block as the IMCPL board struggles to deal with an anticipated $1.5 million deficit. Closing these branches would instead result in a $220,896 surplus—-but at what cost?

First, of course, we must acknowledge the 55 jobs that will be lost if these cuts are made—-55 jobs that will be particularly hard to replace in this economy, and that will have a ripple effect on the families that are affected and their neighborhoods.

But the impact of these misguided cuts goes much farther. As I mentioned, most of the branches slated to close are in low-income, economically depressed neighborhoods. Many people in these areas don’t have computers or Internet access at home, as so many of us now take for granted. They rely on their local libraries (which provide free online access) to search and apply for jobs, do homework, and participate in the 21st-century global community. The ripple effect could reach thousands of adults and children who will have a much harder time getting online once their local library disappears, broadening the “digital divide” that keeps many low-income people off the Internet.

To get more insight into the possible effects of closing these branches, I decided to visit my closest branch, Glendale. I confess that it had been a while since I entered a library for pleasure; grad school and then a busy job (and a decent library of books and digital media at home) have largely kept it out of my mind. But I always loved going to the library when I was young, and it wasn’t hard to convince my husband to accompany me on a quick trip.

The Glendale branch is located in probably the most well-to-do neighborhood on the list, so my report may not be completely representative. But for a library that is slated to be closed, Glendale seems to be thriving. During my visit on a recent Thursday evening, every computer station was full, and numerous patrons were seen walking through the stacks and enjoying the library. The happy sounds of small children attending an educational program floated through the air. My husband and I were pleased with the CD collection and found several interesting choices to check out. It was quite a pleasant visit and I was glad we went.

During my visit, I also observed dozens of flyers for just about every kind of youth program imaginable–tutoring, after-school programs, mentoring, social etiquette training, you name it–as well as lots of information about basic aid and services for adults and families in Spanish and English. It struck me that our libraries are much more than just a place to go online and check out books. They are also public space, a place to exchange information about community resources, a place to connect with others and learn something new about yourself and your potential.

As a staff member of MCCOY’s Early Intervention and Prevention initiative, I see libraries as a great way to reach families who could benefit from services that help prevent child abuse and neglect, keep kids away from bad influences, and promote self-sufficiency. If these libraries are closed, our efforts to reach these children and families in time will be that much harder.

The IMCPL board will make a decision about closing these branches as early as June 10. Public forums will be held on Monday, May 10, and Wednesday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the Library Services Center, 2450 N. Meridian Street, to gather public input before the Library Board considers final approval of the plan. If these libraries mean anything to you and your community, if you value equal access to library services for everyone, please attend one of these meetings and make your voice heard.

Everyday Champion: Nate Faris

This story is a part of our Everyday Champions series. Helping youth succeed takes commitment and action from our whole community. Everyday Champions are people who are committed and who act in small and big ways to support youth in central Indiana. Do you know someone who you think would make a great Champion for Youth? Click here to get started.

Everyday Champion Nate Faris, Certified Arborist and Youth Tree Team Director at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), has developed a truly outstanding Youth Tree Team, an innovative program that combines environmental improvement efforts with workforce skills development. Youth work three days a week to water, mulch and prune trees planted by KIB volunteers around the city. They spend the fourth day on some enrichment activity, from visiting college campuses, meeting landscape professionals, learning how to open a bank account or rafting down the White River.

“With a background in both scouting and youth ministry, he knows well what motivates teenagers and is neat to watch in his role,” says Linda Broadfoot, KIB Vice President of Development and Public Relations.

According to Linda, the following story is just one example of the impact that Nate and the Youth Tree Team have had on our community.

As a high school freshmen, Jake had gotten into some disciplinary problems, and his future prospects looked dim. Jake’s teacher handed him a flier about the Youth Tree Team. Although he was worried that trouble he had gotten into would prevent him from being considered, Jake was accepted. He spent the summer watering, pruning, mulching and staking newly-planted trees and getting paid for his meaningful work to help our environment. Jake came back to KIB each summer in high school. After 3 years as a member, Jake became a Leader in summer 2009. He served as a guide and role model to his teammates, and an inspiration to everyone at KIB. Jake’s a freshman again, in Landscape Architecture at Purdue. Jake credits Nate and the Youth Tree Team with showing him a path where that interest could lead to a career.

What is your profession or vocation?
I am a Certified Arborist and I direct the Youth Tree Team program at Keep Indianapolis Beautiful. I hire high school youth to work in crews to water and care for newly planted NeighborWoods trees in Marion County, Indiana.

How are you an Everyday Champion for Youth?
I think I am a champion for youth by both setting clear boundaries with youth and, at the same time, befriending them. I aim to make good use of the creative tension between being a friend of youth and being an employer of youth. Such a situation allows for youth to feel both valued for who they are as well as invested in and responsible for their crew’s work, and the work of the Youth Tree Team program in general.

What impact do you hope to make on youth?
I hope to give high schoolers a great first job that gives them life skills (punctuality, responsibility, teamwork, leadership), job skills (proper tree and plant care), connections to local green-collar job (landscape architecture, tree care), and experience with the environment (rafting on the White River, learning how to identify tree species).

What’s one thing that you wish an adult had told you when you were a young person?
I value the work you are doing, and you are on the right track.

What do you want to do next to support youth?
I want to make connections with local green-collar professionals–landscape architects, tree care specialists, etc.–in order to connect youth with meaningful jobs when they have graduated from our program.

“Self-Sufficiency”- What Does It Mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary self-sufficient is an adjective that means, “able to maintain oneself or itself without outside aid; capable of providing for one’s own need; having an extreme confidence in one’s own ability or worth”. Self-sufficiency is “the quality or state of being self-sufficient”. The Early Intervention and Prevention (EIP) initiative in Marion County has as one of its goals to “promote the welfare of children and self-sufficiency of families with children at risk of abuse or neglect, dependency, or delinquency”. But what does promoting the self-sufficiency of families really look like?

In a recent survey sent out by EIP to solicit community responses for the development of the EIP three-year strategic plan a series of questions were asked regarding the concept of self-sufficiency. The first question was about the development of a common definition in Marion County of self-sufficiency. Respondents agreed that a common definition for self-sufficiency should be developed (44% strongly agreed and 50% agreed); however, they had many comments regarding the following definition that was proposed:

“A family’s ability to meet the basic needs of the members (including social, emotional, financial, medical, educational, transportation, housing, etc.) and/or the ability to identify unmet needs and identify and access resources.”

Comments included such things as: “I like the comprehensive nature of this, I’d be tempted to include food or nutrition.”… “This is ok as a very basic definition, but it can be interpreted in so many different ways that I question its efficacy.”… “I would include safety and cultural tolerance.”… “Who defines the baseline for meeting ‘basic needs’?”… “It’s a good definition of “Family” self-sufficiency, not self-sufficiency in general.”

Additionally, out of 129 responses 62.7% of the respondents agreed that there is a discrepancy between what self-sufficiency means to families and how it’s defined by the programs they may access. 3.1% did not agree there was a discrepancy, 28.6% did not know, and 5.4% did not respond. Comments were varied and included the following: “I think there is not a standard measurement among agencies.”… “Yes, because every family’s idea of self-sufficiency is different.”… “From my experience of working with families, self-sufficiency is only viewed from a financial perspective.”… “I would say the discrepancy lies with the education of the families. They may not know what the word self-sufficiency means there for are unable to define it or understand an agency’s use of the word.”… “’Self-sufficiency’ for an organization or services that has a middle-class or above operational culture is likely to define ‘self-sufficiency’ differently and/or lack sensitivity to how non-middle class families define ‘self-sufficiency’. For example, illegal practices to secure housing, money or transportation could be considered “self-sufficiency”.

What do you think? To weigh in and provide insight into the development of the EIP strategic plan please complete the survey so that your voice can be heard.

For more information about the Early Intervention and Prevention (EIP) initiative visit our website at www.mccoyouth.org or contact Shanna Malott, Early Intervention Community Coordinator at 317-921-1233 or [email protected].

We Won’t Get an Educational Return without First Making an Investment

If we want to prepare students to win, we adults have to be willing to invest the resources that it takes to achieve victory. House Bill 1135 allows Hoosier students who earn a score of 3 or higher on an Advanced Placement Exam to receive college credit toward a degree if they attend an Indiana public institution of higher education. What will it take to make this a “win-win” for students and our state? Read full article.

Better Advocacy Means Better Coordination

A recent survey conducted by MCCOY asked youth development professionals what they saw happening in their agencies – what challenges, from their perspective, do young people struggle with today? And what are the issues that don’t necessarily get the attention the “bigger” issues do, like teen pregnancy, drugs and violence? A consistent theme was a general lack of support – from young people’s homes, schools and communities.

And what is missing from current advocacy efforts for young people and the issues important to them in central Indiana? Coordination. Coordination that galvanizes the existing energy youth workers have and helps them make connections between public policy and direct service. Often times, adults who have the potential to carry powerful messages are hesitant and don’t fully realize their ability to influence public policy.

Finally, the assumption that young people can’t speak out for themselves was debunked. People already working closely with youth on advocacy and policy issues at the state level reported that young people are “exceptionally interested in advocacy… they ‘get it,’ and have an understanding of how things work.”

MCCOY will continue to explore ways to improve coordination of local and regional advocacy efforts, while ensuring youth build an even stronger voice for themselves. What do you think some of the barriers are to better advocacy for young people?