Life among the stars: Local agency helps lead teens away from trouble

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta


Cori, a 19-year-old from southwest Detroit, is a Starfish success story. Once afraid of change, she now embraces it as she finishes high school, starts a new job and considers majoring in animal science in college.

By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers

INKSTER – As if being a teen wasn’t already hard enough, imagine trying to make it on your own without the help of family.

Starfish Family Services, which has been helping children and families in southeastern Michigan to create new futures for nearly half a century, recently recognized the increasing need to help at-risk teens bridge safely and successfully into adulthood.

Counselors say many teens in southeastern Michigan face that daunting challenge when they transition from the state’s foster care system to independent living. Social workers say many simply do not have family to whom they may safely return when they legally become adults.

Last year Starfish, which has 14 sites throughout the metropolitan Detroit area, started its Transitional Living program to help meet that need.

Starfish’s main mission is to work with and strengthen families as a unit and recently has begun to focus on early childhood education, said Cheree Madison, a program manager Starfish Family Services Counterpoint Shelter and Crisis Center, 715 Inkster Road in Inkster.However, workers often encounter troubled adolescents who are in crisis, are runaways or are homeless.

“The idea is that if you treat the family as a whole and work with them as a system, you can actually help that child,” Madison said.

The agency needs adult volunteers who are open-minded and can teach basic life skills, such as reading nutritional labels on food packages and preparing healthy meals.

Many are a year or two behind in school, she said, and many have given up on it altogether. To be in a Starfish program, however, they must get back in school and get a part-time job. The agency provides tutoring as part of its program.

“The idea is that it is not a facility, it is a program,” Madison said, “and I think sometimes that is the difference. A facility means you just sleep there. You get to leave and you have to come back at a certain time.

“We run a program. We have groups, we have counseling, we have case management, we have community night, we have activities. We have exercise night, we have book club night. It’s just an array of different things to teach this child that there are so many resources in a community – (and that) you have to use them.”

Starfish counselors often encounter the mind-set from teens that they are grown and don’t need any help. Counselors have to reach out and convince them that they are still a child, and that there are ways the agency can help.

First, workers take care of teens’ medical and dental needs, get them a state identification, get them in school and help them with a job search. Once basic needs are addressed, workers fulfill the role of parents while encouraging clients go out and experience opportunities in the wider community while still.

Starfish operates two programs in the Inkster facility (a former convent). Downstairs is a shelter and crisis center, which houses minors (both boys and girls) for a short-term stay (up three weeks), after which they often return to their families after receiving extensive counseling.

Upstairs, teen girls are housed for up to 18 months in the Transitional Living program, which helps them “make a healthy transition from state care to productive, sustainable independent living.”

Building self-esteem is an important skill for clients to acquire. Madison said that even going in and asking for a job application is a difficult step for many, because they lack the skills to present themselves.

“They’re usually not looking at the person; they’re whispering,” she said. “We’ve taken them in and actually walked in with them.”

Madison is most proud of the teens who return to school and do well there.

Cori, a 19-year-old girl from southwest Detroit, is one of the agency’s success stories. She earned a 3.75 grade point average her first semester back at high school, and a 4.0 average in summer school.

But even with Cori’s notable academic achievements, Madison is touched most by Cori’s testimony that the best thing the Starfish team had given her was “unconditional love” – something Cori said she had never experienced before.

Currently a senior at Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, an alternative high school in Detroit, Cori says the academy’s on-campus farm helped nurture her love for animals and has fueled a desire to go to college to study veterinary medicine. She interviewed for and was hired for a part-time job as a para-educator at Alternatives for Girls in Detroit the day before she shared her story.

“Starfish has helped me physically, emotionally and mentally,” Cori said.

She said that before, she was “stuck in the past,” and Starfish has given the motivation she needed to move forward, and also has given her self-confidence.

“They give me the boost that I need,” Cori said. “They always tell me that I can. They give me the resources that I need so that I can do what I’m trying to do.”

She says she “feels like new” now that she’s been at Starfish in the Transitional Living program.

Workers at Covenant House in Detroit told her about the Inkster Starfish program.

“I was a person who was afraid to change,” Cori said. “I didn’t know if change was a good thing or a bad thing. And I’ve been in so many bad situations, I hesitate to do things.”

It even took her a while to decide to come to Transitional Living, but now that she has, it has “changed everything” in her life in a positive way.

Cori advises younger girls experiencing the problems she went through to learn to listen to older women who are successful in whatever they do.

She also urges other young girls not to be in a hurry to be “grown,” not to assume an adult mind-set and to leave youth behind.

Starfish clients come from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and substance abuse is not always a factor in family dysfunction.

The common denominator is a breakdown in communication. Madison says trust and a relationship between a child and an adult must be re-established for communication to occur. Communication and rebuilding trust are among the biggest challenges they face.

Past volunteers have helped teens learn many life skills, like how to cook and how to properly sort and do laundry. Medical professionals answer questions and help them understand their bodies and health needs.

Other adults are needed, however, simply to provide companionship and a listening ear in the evening when fewer staff members are present.

Madison said the greatest need is for volunteers just to spend time with teens and share their insights.

Sometimes a teen just needs an adult with whom they can watch a television show and discuss what they see.

Residential programs operate 24 hours a day, so any time an adult can volunteer to spend with teens is very welcome.

The Transitional Living program also could use donations of toiletries, slippers and robes.

For more information about Starfish Family Services call (734) 728-3400 or go to www.starfishonline.org. The Transitional Living program telephone number is (313) 563-5005; the 24-hour crisis line is (866) 672-HELP (4357).

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