Checking the Pulse on Youth Advocacy and Prevention Education Work

by Matt Renaud, Youth Advocate & Prevention Educator at AWARE

I’ve been the Youth Advocate & Prevention Educator at AWARE for a little over two years now and I’m finally starting to feel grounded in what this job is all about.  That being said, I also feel that the field of youth advocacy (and advocacy in general) has been shifting during the course of my time at AWARE and that it continues to shift.  Maybe this is the way it has always been – the only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  After all, in order to best meet the needs of the people we serve, we need to be constantly evolving.  I got curious about how other Youth Advocates and/or Prevention Educators have experienced change, success, and challenge in their role, so I sent out a set of questions to my colleagues across the state.  Responses came from people who have been in this work anywhere from one year to over a decade.  Here is a picture of where youth advocacy in Vermont is headed, straight from the horse’s mouth.

 Where do you see our work as Youth Advocates and/or Prevention Educators headed in the future?

Savannah Williams from Umbrella North in Newport explained, “Schools used to be really hesitant [about working with advocacy programs] before Act One was passed, but now Youth Advocates & Prevention Educators are seen more as allies than as strangers in certain communities.”

Bobbi Gagne from the Sexual Assault Crisis Team (SACT) in Barre describes the future of advocacy as “Learning from youth what they see as issues they face rather than us deciding what issues they see as important.”

What’s your favorite part about being a Youth Advocate and/or Prevention Educator?

Laura Young from Umbrella South in St. Johnsbury says, “My favorite part of being a Youth Advocate and Prevention Educator is all of the relationships that I have been able to build with youth in the community.  Now that I have been working in the field for more than a year I’ve been able to watch the youth begin to grow up and to have shared some history with them that we can remember together.”

Savannah describes her favorite part of the job “is when you have a kiddo that comes into your office and they’re scared or nervous, but when you get down to eye level with them, you can see they’re starting to open up and trust you gradually.”

What’s your biggest challenge you face as a Youth Advocate and/or Prevention Educator?

Bobbi says, “The challenge of keeping it nothing for us without us!”

Laura describes the biggest challenge as “when you know that no matter what you do, there are some things that are beyond your control.  It’s specifically hard to watch kids and adults that you care about either re-enter or repeat the cycle of violence.”

Savannah feels the biggest challenge is “seeing other adults interacting with kids in ways that are not trauma-informed.”

 What would you consider a success of your work as a Youth Advocate and/or Prevention Educator?

Savannah feels “really success in the fact that we’re in every school in Orleans County except three of them and they’re having us come back repeatedly – it’s not just a one-time thing, which is pretty awesome.  It also feels successful when you have students who are being respectful but also interacting, whether they’re coming up and talking to you after the class or maybe disclosing something to you during or after the class.”

Laura says, “As a youth advocate the biggest success is the relationships that I can build with the kids I work with.  I love watching them grow and heal.  I am daily amazed at their resiliency.  Watching them realize how far they have come in their healing journey and that THEY have done that is just magical!  Also, I was just told by one of my direct service kiddos that she thinks of me as her big sister and that was the biggest compliment I could have received!”

Bobbi says, “The amazing experiences when youth let us into their world.”

 What are some of the challenges you have experienced (if any) in accessing youth for your work?

Savannah says, “School schedules – students already have a lot on their plate.  To meet them where they’re at, you need to use the school as a platform, but because they’re so busy, the students can’t add one more thing to their schedule.  I’ve heard that concern directly from students.”

Laura says, “Being in the Northeast Kingdom where it sometimes seems as though cows outnumber cars, transportation is the hardest hurdle to accessing youth.  Also, sometimes schools (some, not all) do not want prevention work in their schools because they believe that violence is something that should only be addressed in the home.”

Bobbi says, “None by the youth, but often by educators who want students talking only to them.”

What are some of your biggest concerns when working in this role?

Bobbi’s main concern is “That I will miss a valuable opportunity because I can’t be everywhere.”

Savannah feels concerned that “Prevention efforts have been around for a long time now, but we’re still having the same conversations about sexual abuse and violence that we’ve always had.  We’re seeing progress, but we’re also seeing that we still have a lot of work left to do.  For any good cause, it always seems like there’s a significant amount of push-back in our society.”

What is your favorite self-care activity (in all of your free time!)?

Bobbi enjoys “deep breaths, meditation, and remembering to let go of control.”

Laura loves “playing with my puppy!”

Savannah says, “I love to crochet!  I make Amigururmi – I can make giraffes, platypus, minions, and ninja turtles, and I just made a Chuckie doll for my nephew.”

All in all, youth advocacy seems to be headed in a generally positive direction as schools and people in general become more open to working with us and as we continue to grow and realize that how we do our job is best informed by the people we support in our work.  It’s interesting that there are common themes in both the successes and the challenges of this work.  A common theme in what people seemed to like best about this work is simply the relationships they are able to form with people, while a common challenge in working with youth is not the youth at all – rather, it’s the adults we have to work with in order to access the youth (go figure!).  And it’s always fun to find out what other people do for self-care.  I hope Amigururmi is easier to do than it is to say.

So, thank you fellow Youth Advocates and Prevention Educators across our great state for the work that you have done and the work that you continue to do as this filed continues to shift and evolve around us.  Keep up the good work!