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My Life
My Life


According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012 nearly 400,000 youth were in foster care in the U.S. A growing body of research on the portion of this population that “ages out” of care every year when they turn 18 and are no longer wards of the state has shown that, unlike their peers who are not in foster care, these young people are far less likely to possess the skills and resources to successfully manage the challenges they’ll encounter during this pivotal time in their lives.

Research conducted at PSU and elsewhere has shown that one way to help youth successfully transition from foster care to adulthood is to support them in efforts to build their self-determination—the self-actuation and confidence to engage challenges, overcome barriers, and work towards accomplishing goals.

My Life is a yearlong, youth-driven, universal coaching and mentoring program that promotes positive life outcomes for young people in foster care transitioning into adulthood. The My Life program was developed and evaluated over a decade by PSU Professors Sarah Geenen and Laurie Powers of the Regional Research Institute (RRI) in the School of Social Work (SSW). Powers and Geenen were assisted by numerous colleagues in the RRI, including Summer Pommier and Lisa McMahon, Intervention Managers for My Life, and partners Portland Public Schools (PPS) and the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS). The program is supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health.

The My Life program mission is to support young people in learning how to direct their lives and achieve their goals for successful adult life.

Youth involved in the My Life program learn and apply self-determination skills over the course of twelve months with the one-on-one support of a highly trained, certified coach and learning materials designed to teach methods to overcome barriers to success. Youth practice self-determination, which includes achievement, partnership, and self-regulation skills in real-world settings with their coaches available to assist them. Coaches provide learning opportunities and are present as youths take the lead on activities such as job searches, college visits, finding resources, developing relationships, and planning for their transition into adulthood.

“My Life approaches positive youth development from where the young people are in their own lives,” Powers said. “An integral part of that is the close relationship the coaches and youth develop. There’s honesty, transparence, and emotional support. Coaches are available for the youth. They reach out to them. These relationships are such that if a young person feels the need to, they can get in touch with their coach and that coach will help them apply skills they’ve developed to solve problems they’re facing.”

While weekly youth/coach interactions are the foundation of the My Life program, each young person also participates in four to six mentoring workshops. The workshops are youth-directed, fun, and they address topics related to transitioning into adulthood, including going to college, considering possible career choices, leading DHS Independent Living Program (ILP) meetings meant to assist in the transition into independent living, or reconnecting with their biological family. Young adults, who were formerly in foster care and have had success transitioning into adulthood, including My Life program coaches and alumni, serve as workshop mentors.

“Workshops help youth connect with people just a little older than they are who have had similar experiences,” Geenen said. “During the workshops, they identify and discuss the things that are important to them and will help them enhance the self-determination skills that are a part of making a successful transition into adulthood.”

Over the last decade a number of My Life program experimental studies and publications have documented the positive effects of enhancing self-determination skills in youth transitioning into adulthood; benefits such as increased high school graduation, employment, college participation, and improved quality of life and mental health. The program has done so well empowering youth in foster care to take charge of their lives that in January 2014 the Center for the Study of Social Policy named My Life one of fifteen Exemplary Youth Programs “achieving outcomes that are truly improving the well-being of very vulnerable youth.”

The success of the My Life program has thus far has been limited to youth who have participated in longitudinal studies conducted by Drs. Powers and Geenen and their colleagues. However, that is soon to change.

Recently, Research & Strategic Partnership’s Innovation & Intellectual Property (IIP) office has assisted Dr. Powers and the My Life program in establishing new partnerships that will see the whole program and elements of the program implemented by three organizations dedicated to improving life outcomes for youth.

With funding from DHS, Portland’s New Avenues for Youth has hired two veteran coaches from the My Life study team and will receive the assistance of two SSW students in order to support 20 youths in a first satellite My Life program in the coming year.

Albertina Kerr Center
is partnering with PSU in a second satellite program to support the needs of youth with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges and help them reach their full potential.

Also partnering with the university is Portland-based Friends of the Children (FOTC). FOTC serves nearly 1,000 youths in seven cities in the U.S. and the U.K. Powers, Geenen, and Pommier are working with FOTC to develop a customized international mentoring model, which aligns with key principles and approaches from My Life and is tailored to their own youth mentoring program.

These partnerships will not only expand the population of youth the My Life program serves, they will also lay the groundwork for future partnerships, provide additional data on the outcomes of the program with various populations, integrate the My Life program with ILP services, and help hundreds of at-risk youth in foster care meet the challenges associated with transitioning into adulthood.

“The great thing about this program,” said Powers, “is that it is all youth driven. My Life fits within the context of their dreams, goals, and experiences of what they have to deal with. We want these young people to feel supported, to succeed, and to be able to point to something they did and say to themselves, ‘I was responsible for achieving that.’”

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted October 20, 2014