Aging Out

by Paula Heath, Advocate

 Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened…”  Dr. Seuss

If you look at Wikipedia for the definition of “aging out,” this is what you’ll find:

“Aging out is American popular culture vernacular used to describe anytime a youth leaves a formal system of care designed to provide services below a certain age level.”

At Teen Feed, a youth ages out at the end of their 25th year; the minute they are 26, they no longer qualify for the program. Through coordination with other community programs, the staff tries to ensure that each youth has a plan and knows the resources available to them for on-going shelter, food, and medical care.

But is this aging out of Teen Feed really a Dr. Seuss occasion?

Happy birthday, goodbye, good luck, sure have enjoyed our dinner conversations. These are words that an advocate typically does not have the opportunity to say to the departing youth. He might be there on a volunteer’s Friday, but he is gone forever before the next Friday. I have found myself on several occasions asking the staff what happened to so-and-so, is everything okay. It may be that because I like human stories so much, this abrupt ending, which is not really an ending, of course, leaves me with a bit of a cliffhanger effect.

So I have wondered out loud to the staff how the youth feel about their disappearing act, their “aging out.”  Do they feel they have accomplished something, become savvier and more confident, or do they see the system just tossing them up to another program? How important was the Teen Feed meal to them, and how much will they miss it …?

I’ve only touched the surface here, I think; there’s much more to listen to and learn. Safe to say the headline appears to be that no youth wants to age out of Teen Feed. Their perspectives range from anger to resignation/practicality and may be correlated to their housing and income situations at the time.

The youth know that Teen Feed is more than a warm, complete meal every night (many often have no real meal during the rest of the day); it’s their living room, a place where they can talk with friends and form relationships. Gaining better skills for healthy relationships and lifestyles, experiencing safety and consistency – these are part and parcel of the program.

The youth with whom I spoke all know exactly when they will age out – in fact one offered the age-out years of a number of different programs. Many can have difficulty expressing their feelings and may become argumentative, disrespectful, and even angry as they near their end date. Perhaps, as one staff member pointed out, this behavior is an effort to distance themselves from the program before they know they’ll have to leave.

On the other hand, there is this: For one youth with stable housing and food stamps, it was a shrug and then, “I don’t want to leave Teen Feed, but since I will have to, I guess I’ll have to learn to cook dinner.”

All with whom I spoke said that, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being super important, Teen Feed is a 10 in their lives today. This gave me pause: Congratulations to the Teen Feed staff and volunteers of all kinds – you are making a real difference. Still, right now, the termination is abrupt, and the new life stage is not at all known — or inviting.

Be well through the holidays, everyone.

 “The beginnings and endings of all human undertakings are untidy.” – John Galsworthy