Youth-directed skill building

In treatment, trust is essential – it’s also a two-way street, says Melissa Lee, team leader for skills trainers at Oaklawn’s Mishawaka campus. Youth have to trust their treatment team, but the treatment team should trust the youth, too, especially in determining their goals for skills building.

“You really have to have that trust with the youth, to know what they want to work on,” said Lee. “Youth tend to have their own really good ideas about what they need and then they’re really invested in it.”

Lee oversees a team of eight skills trainers who work with youth receiving intensive services. Youth age 16 and older receive at least three hours of skills training each week, while those younger than 16 have at least one hour of instruction each week. Skills training sessions range from topics like communication and finances to cooking and cleaning.

The sessions help move youth to independence and prepare them for adulthood – always through practical exercises and sometimes in hands-on activities at one of Oaklawn’s independent living pods.

At the edge of Mishawaka’s 11-acre campus is the Hedco Building. Here, several rooms are dedicated to helping youth practice their skills, including a bedroom and bathroom, kitchen and dining room and a sewing and first aid room. Here, youth learn skills to help them become successful adults: How to treat a minor cut or injury, how to schedule a doctor’s appointment, how to set a table, which household cleaners to use in a kitchen or bathroom, how to mend clothes and myriad other skills that youth typically learn at home.

The kitchen is by far the most popular and is used several times a day, Lee said.

“Most of the youth have little to no kitchen knowledge when they come,” Lee said. “We teach them about food groups, meal planning, how to read a recipe, go grocery shopping or use basic kitchen equipment. We want them to learn how to be more independent and take care of themselves and remain somewhat healthy. A lot of youth come in with the idea that you can eat fast food forever. Our goal is to help them learn how to cook for their life.”

Youth also have the opportunity to learn job skills. There are about 15 “honor jobs” that Lee oversees – paid positions for which youth can apply when they reach Phase 4 of treatment. (There are five phases, based on treatment progress.) Youth create their own resume, apply for their desired position and interview with Lee. The jobs on campus range from working in the cafeteria to helping clean Oaklawn’s fleet vehicles to administrative assistance.

In addition to earning their own money, youth build real-world skills like how to work well with others and report to work on time. Youth in good standing can take letters of reference for future employment. Some youth also have the opportunity to volunteer in the community and gain experience and references there, she said.

Underscoring all of these experiences and opportunities, however, is the philosophy that youth can and should be involved in setting their goals.

“It’s really important, whether people are considering us or another organization,” Lee said, “that they can consider the philosophy.”

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