Helping disconnected young adults thrive

Op-ed: Growing up is not the same as becoming an adult.

Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of so many benevolent individuals, organizations and faith-based communities in our area, it is a safe bet that — no matter what their socio-economic circumstances — the children among us indeed enjoy the holidays.

But there is another demographic of young people for whom the holidays are not something they look forward to with joy, so much as something they muddle through as best they can. They are America's "disconnected youth," young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed full time and who lack the education, job training, essential life skills, family and financial support necessary to make their way in the world. Many of them come from foster care. Many come from broken homes and ineffective social systems. In the United States there are nearly 6 million such young adults. In Maryland alone, there are more than 20,000.

Whether you embrace the holidays as a time for compassionate giving or a season designed to rev our economic engine, an argument can be made to include Maryland's disconnected youth in your plans. Why? Because young people are the key to a compassionate culture, a thriving economy and a vibrant future for us all, and — despite their lack of readiness — our disconnected youth are full of potential, willing to work and eager to embark on a pathway to successful adulthood.

So what's stopping them?

For Maryland's disconnected youth, the barriers to a safe and secure adulthood generally fall into three categories: social, emotional and physical.

The social barriers include such problems as lack of family support (financial and emotional), lack of social and professional networks, academic deficiencies, government agencies that inadvertently work at cross purposes and are not set up to ensure that the funds allotted follow the youth as that youth moves through the system, inequitable access to opportunity based on a variety of factors including race and wealth, a job market that no longer places any value on the concept of apprenticeships and "moving up the ladder," and other systemic failures for which there are no clear solutions.

Couple any one of those social barriers with the emotional issues disconnected youth often carry with them on their journey to adulthood, and the detours they take will increase exponentially. Issues like the experience of real trauma in their young lives, their lack of trust in the adult world and the system at large, and a wholesale lack of confidence in themselves.

But even if you have an exceptional young adult who has navigated the system and come out the other end in one piece, until that person gets a job and financial security, he or she remains at a disadvantage, and there are still physical barriers to overcome. Barriers like the lack of affordable housing and ubiquitous, safe and reliable public transportation. As a result, too many young adults — particularly those aging out of the foster care system — end up living on the street or in homeless shelters. To compound the problem, most of the jobs available to young people are outside the routes of mass transit lines. Without access, there is no opportunity.

Growing up is not the same as becoming an adult. And being independent should not mean going it alone. There are many ways we all can help Maryland's disconnected youth navigate a safe and secure pathway to successful adulthood including supporting and partnering with non-profits already working on behalf of this forgotten demographic. Providing mentorships, apprenticeships and internships to eligible young adults. Tutoring young men and women to fill in their academic skill gaps. Creating job-training programs to develop the next generation of our workforce. Volunteering to teach essential life skills like financial literacy, parenting and conflict resolution. Advocating for fair wages and affordable child care. And creating support systems for young adults that serve as much-needed social and professional networks.

While it's true, none of these can be gift wrapped or fit in a stocking hung by the tree, they are what Maryland's disconnected youth really need. This season. And all year round.

Mark Mittelman is executive director of New Pathways in Towson; his email is mmittelman@newpathways.org.

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