Steps to Life: An Opportunity for Children to Find Themselves
Photo: Rob Austin
It is a late spring afternoon inside a community room at Salem Lutheran Church on Chicago's south side where Steps to Life, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), is under way. Several teenage girls are practicing a dance routine. Nearby, some adults carry on a conversation with a group of teenage boys. The aroma of a spaghetti dinner being prepared wafts out from the kitchen.
To a casual observer, the scene looks like a typical after-school program, and in many respects it is—except the stakes are much higher for the students who participate. It is a lifeline for children in foster care who have been exposed to traumatic situations beyond their control. Students like Michelle*, 15, who was removed from her mother's care at a young age and has lived in several foster homes. She's a poised young woman who smiles easily, but she will be the first to admit this wasn’t always her demeanor.
“I was immature,” she says. “I was a know-it-all, and I thought I could say whatever I wanted to say. I used to get into fights.”
Michelle has been attending Steps to Life for four years and with its support, she turned the corner at a critical time in her life. “One day I decided, ‘Get it together,’” she says matter-of-factly. “I didn’t want to be another statistic—dead or in jail.”
Michelle credits the compassion and understanding of the Steps to Life staff for helping her deal with the traumatic events in her life, encouraging her interests, and showing her hope for her future. “A child knows when someone cares,” Michelle says. “At Steps to Life, they care, and they show you.”
LSSI is one of the largest foster care providers in the state, caring for more than 10 percent of all foster children in the Illinois child welfare system. Steps to Life helps at-risk children in LSSI's foster care program with activities and support designed to impact, empower, and challenge them to constructively build character for positive life achievements. Weekly meetings are geared toward various age groups—Little Learners, boys, ages 6 to 8; Boys Group, ages 8 to 12; Girls Group, ages 8 to 12; and the co-ed Teen Group, ages 13 to 18. While the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services applauds the program, no additional funding is provided to implement the services. Steps to Life is funded solely by LSSI and charitable contributions.
“These kids deserve for us to give 110 percent,” says Patti Zullo, a Placement Stabilization Coordinator at LSSI's Augustana Open Arms location in Chicago. “We are their last hope.” Steps to Life participants are conventional kids in many ways, yet their lives have been touched by experiences that are anything but typical. As children in foster care, they have been exposed to disturbing situations that can range from abuse and neglect, separation from families, and violence at home and within their communities, to parents with alcohol and drug addictions. And while the goal for children in foster care is to find stable living placements, many have lived in multiple foster homes, creating a thread of uncertainty that runs through their lives.
Zullo's role is to find the best fit between foster children and foster parents. She also facilitates the Steps to Life group for girls ages 8-12, working with girls like Michelle before transitioning them to the Teen Group. Zullo recalls Michelle's volatility, but over the years, she's seen the positive change Steps to Life has made in the teenager's life.
“Michelle has worked hard. She learned how to advocate for herself. She’s blossomed into a young lady,” Zullo says with the pride of a parent. Indeed, Steps to Life staff treat the kids in their program like their own children.
Part of the work between the kids and staff happens at weekly gatherings. Teens meet for two hours each week, while the younger groups meet for an hour. LSSI staff pick up the participants from school and take them to the meetings, where a snack is provided. Important discoveries—for children and staff—happen in these group meetings. “The group setting mirrors their school environment and real life,” Zullo says. As the group sheds light on each child’s needs, staff can address underlying issues that might contribute to problems they are having, whether it’s fighting at school or being disruptive in their foster homes. The program includes a school liaison, who is closely involved with any meetings or plans regarding each child’s educational needs.
Zullo says Steps to Life provides the intervention that can make a profound difference in the lives of the children in the program. She reflects on this when she reads about teens and young adults who commit acts of violence, and thinks about how positive intervention could have made a difference. “When I look at the climate in our communities and the violence that exists, I think about kids who fell through the cracks,” she says. “For each child I interact with, I want them to know that they matter.”
Children and teens are involved in Steps to Life voluntarily, having been referred by their case worker or their foster families. The program provides positive interventions in a variety of ways, introducing new experiences to kids beyond their immediate environment, and allowing them to participate in cultural enrichment outings to museums, restaurants, and businesses. These activities might seem ordinary for some families, but a majority of these children have not had the opportunity to experience them. The staff help youth develop and improve skills for self-identity, self-expression, and communication. Throughout, these encounters are helping prepare the children and teens for the next phase in their life. For the teenagers involved, the next step is adulthood outside the boundaries of foster care.
Arthur McGriff's dedication to Steps to Life and its teen participants is evident as soon as he starts talking about the program. When pressed to sum up the program in one word, he immediately says, “Opportunity.” A Youth Coordinator for LSSI who oversees the Steps to Life Boys Group and Teen Group, McGriff adds, “It is a great opportunity for these teens to meet new people, and be molded and guided. It provides them with an opportunity to step out of their communities and gain life experiences.”
Teen Group participants are picked up from various Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, and are transported by LSSI Children's Community Services staff to Salem Lutheran Church on Chicago's south side. Upon arrival, teens have a chance to unwind from their day before they gather for a discussion. On this particular day, McGriff and the Steps to Life staff lead a conversation about the recent death of a 14-year-old Chicago girl, shot by a peer who was jealous because they both liked the same boy.
The story, played out on a local newspaper's front page, is a great entry point for discussion about conflict resolution. It's an important topic for this group, many of whom see this type of violence first hand in their own communities. This dialogue allows the teens to open up about what's going on in their lives.
Many of the teens have had a hard time fitting in because they're in foster care. “It’s so important to meet other kids in the same boat,” McGriff says. “Every kid has a different story. We deal with who they are right now. We mentor them on issues they're facing. We want them to have confidence to come here, and say what they want, and be who they are. It's amazing for the short amount of time we have them, how much we do. This program keeps them from getting lost. They can find themselves here.”
Michelle has found herself in Steps to Life. She's come to live by the group's mantra: Never let your situation take control of you—you take control of it. Her days of fighting in school are over. She's learned to channel her feelings through journal writing. “That's the best way for me to get my feelings out,” she says. Michelle also succinctly articulates her goals: to get good grades, finish high school, go to cosmetology school, and then take business administration classes to one day own a hair salon.
McGriff says the Steps to Life staff work hard to help their teens more clearly envision their goals. One enrichment activity will be to visit an independently owned and run salon. “If one of our kids comes in and says, ‘I want to join track’ or ‘I want to be an architect,’ we try to help feed them as much information as they can have to explore those interests and dreams,” he says.
The program also develops empathy for others. Last year, all of the program participants volunteered with a food program for those in need. At Christmastime, it was Michelle's idea for the group to assemble a holiday basket for a family in need.
Michelle demonstrated confidence many adults might struggle with when she spoke to members of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights last spring as part of their Lenten focus on the Steps to Life program. Understanding the value the program has to children at risk, the congregation raised more than $11,000 to directly support Steps to Life.
She shared some difficult details of her life with a positive affirmation of what Steps to Life has helped her become and shared the pitfalls the program has helped her avoid. “God is awesome in so many ways. We just don't realize it,” she told the congregation. “I'm here today to let you know that I’m a living testimony of what not to be. I'm not pregnant, I'm not on drugs, and I'm not wild and out of control. I'm in a stable placement. That's my testimony.”
LSSI wishes to thank all of the following individuals and organizations for their recent philanthropic contributions to the Steps to Life program. A special thanks for these leadership gifts: Daniel and Linda Falotico, Elizabeth Morse Genius Charitable Trust, Herschel E. Rives Charitable Fund, and Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights and their members.
*Name changed to protect confidentiality.