Marsha Washington described why, at the age of 18, she decided to close her case with Dauphin County Children and Youth.
“I was just done looking for families to love me and care about me like I wanted a regular family to,” she said.
As she sat across a conference table, two neat braids framing her bright face, she explained that people can remain in the foster care system until 21, but have the option of leaving at 18.
Washington made that decision, in part, because she had the support of Valley Youth House (VYH), where she started in its “Adolescents Achieving Independence” and “Aftercare” programs at age 16.
“They raised me, teaching us stuff we wanted to know,” she said.
What kind of stuff?
Well, the organization teaches a crash course in life, according to VYH Central PA Associate Director Melanie Hill.
VYH works with young people on life skills such as cooking, budgeting, getting a driver’s license, learning about taxes, understanding job benefits, etc.—basically anything a parent would guide a teenager through.
Hill pointed out that children miss out on much when they move foster homes frequently.
“They miss the life skills they need to become an adult,” she said. “VYH bridges the gap between foster care and adulthood.”
Most importantly, VYH helps youth figure out their life plan, said Hill. Part of that plan is finding out what they want to do, especially because, in the foster care system, children and teens’ decisions are continually directed for them.
Washington’s life plan involves becoming a physical therapy assistant. A recent high school graduate, Washington credits VYH with teaching her “humbleness and patience,” without which she would never have been able to graduate.
“When you feel loved, stable and cared for, it boosts your motivation,” she said.
Tools & Support
While VYH supplies developmental help, partner Scholars Inc. offers affordable housing through its Thrive Housing Services Program.
Scholars Inc. owns 17 properties throughout Harrisburg, helping people of all ages living on a shoestring. It additionally helps youth by providing some case management, according to Dee Allen, founder and executive director.
“It was very difficult before Valley Youth House came [3½ years ago] for us to juggle all the balls, to provide appropriate and accurate services to kids,” said Allen.
VYH’s objective is to continue that connection in the community. Youth in foster care often feel disconnected from their community because they can be placed with families far from where they began. Washington, at one point, was living with a family in State College.
VYH recognizes that its services to the youth will end, so they need to help build a support system for them.
“It takes a community, churches… businesses, and other organizations to help them settle,” Hill said. “These youth are capable of being successful in spite of life’s challenges, if given the right tools and support.”
VYH has recently added two new programs in support of homeless youth.
The Synergy Project, a street outreach, seeks to find and assist youth on the streets. The project takes a vanload of supplies and searches for young people living in cars, under bridges or couch surfing with friends, among other places.
“The hope is that they can develop relationships—and find alternative housing,” said Hill.
A line of bikes in the VYH office offers alternative ways to reaching youth, as do kayaks—some can only be reached via a waterway.
In February, VYH began a Transitional Living Program, offering adolescents 16 to 21 who are homeless or in foster care options for housing in the community, along with case management.
Hill pointed out the need for such services.
“If you don’t know where you are going to sleep, you’re not worried about life skills,” she said.
Offering affordable housing and providing speakers for its life skills classes are ways that people can assist VHY. Financial donations are an obvious option, but not-so-obvious items like tents and camping equipment are needed, as well. Letting VHY know about local homeless youth is another important way to help its mission.
Washington recognizes what she’s missed and what she needs. She’s keenly aware and enormously grateful for the help she’s received and the relationships she’s built at VHY. She got “chill bumps” when talking about the organization.
“I was afraid, lonely, and felt kind of lost,” she said, of life before VHY. “But now I don’t feel alone.”
Her confidence and determination bubbled up when she talked of the future.
“This isn’t the life I chose to live, but I have to work with it,” she said.
Valley Youth House is located at 1625 N. Front St., Harrisburg. To learn more, visit