Like many youths aging out of foster care, McCullin Andrews said he’s spent his fair share of time in and out of residential group homes and foster homes.
He knows the statistics for youth aging out of care: the increased risks of becoming homeless and having problems with mental or physical health, the decreased chances of graduating from high school or college or finding employment — to name a few.
But with the guidance and support from his I Pour Life “LifeStrengths” coach, Andrews is able to set goals, work to achieve them, and to envision a future and pursue his dreams.
The 18-year-old recently graduated from Mt. Vernon High School and is currently in his own apartment in Springfield, with help from Missouri Baptist Children’s Home’s transitional housing program.
Andrews said he’s hoping to find a good job so he can start saving money. Asked where he’d like to be in five years, McCullin doesn’t hesitate: Amsterdam.
“It’s a cultural hub. It’s got a very big global community,” he said. “If I go somewhere that has a lot of diversity, I can focus on a lot of things.”
“College would be more affordable. A job would be more satisfying,” McCullin continued. “I’m a very artistic person, so if I ever wanted to pursue a career in art, that would be a lot more likely.”
McCullin spoke to the News-Leader via video call recently, along with his I Pour Life coach Andreas Moeller.
The two were matched in 2019, before the pandemic. In those early days, they could meet in-person, over meals, at Moeller’s office or elsewhere. Due to COVID-19, the mentoring program has gone virtual with coaches meeting with youth online.
Although the shift to online meetings has put a strain on many programs, LifeStrengths has actually been able to expand and reach youth in rural counties.
I Pour Life’s LifeStrengths program is a six- to 12-month program for at-risk youth, homeless teens, foster kids and those aging out of the foster care system. Participants are nominated by organizations such as Rare Breed Youth Services, Great Circle and Missouri Baptist Children’s Home that are already working with these youth.
The program targets young people ages 15 to 21, but sometimes goes up to age 24. Coaches meet with youth weekly to talk about issues that people growing up in normal households often take for granted, including financial literacy, finding new hobbies, dreams for the future and building self esteem.
As McCullin and Moeller grew closer through the program, McCullin said Moeller helped him find “alternative solutions to problems” and “different opportunities to help me get my life back to a more secure place.”
“I’ve learned a lot of life lessons. I’ve matured as a person,” McCullin said. “My mental health has gotten a lot better. There’s a lot of benefits to this program. You just got to cooperate with it.”
Moeller described McCullin, or ‘Mac’ as he’s known to friends, as a very intelligent youth who is passionate about helping others and seeing change happen.
Through the LifeStrengths program, Moeller said he and the other coaches are able to form “genuine, authentic relationships” with the at-risk youth. That’s something young people growing up in residential facilities and foster homes don’t always have, Moeller said.
“That is something I love about what I do. The youth don’t talk to us because they have to. They talk to us because they want to,” Moeller said. “We are a consistent voice and a consistent relationship.”
‘Social capital’ gaining national, Missouri interest
I Pour Life is a Springfield-based nonprofit founded in 2011 by entrepreneur and marketing strategist Julie Higgins. I Pour Life also has programs in Ethiopia focused on women’s empowerment and helping orphaned and vulnerable children and youth.
I Pour Life’s LifeStrengths program has served more than 350 youth throughout southwest Missouri since it was created about six years ago.
LifeStrengths Director David Gurian said the program focuses on four areas: relationship building, positive identity of self, situation awareness and emotional intelligence development.
At the heart of the program is building “social capital” for these youths, he said.
Social capital, as defined by I Pour Life, are those positive connections in a person’s life, whether it’s peer-to-peer or between a youth and someone who is in a position of power or influence.
“Social capital is those people in your life that really help open up doors for you to continue to get ahead in life,” Gurian explained.
Gurian used a personal example to explain the concept of social capital:
“About every job I’ve ever had in my life has come from a relationship that I’ve had with someone, because I knew someone,” Guirian said. “That social capital opened a door for me. For at risk youth, they really have none of that.”
“They really don’t have a lot of positive healthy adult relationships in their life,” he added.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines the concept of social capital as, “the network of social interactions and relationships that exist within communities or individuals. These relationships have been proven to impact opportunity and advancement outcomes.”
As it turns out, DHHS recently began researching the relevance and necessity of providing social capital to at-risk and marginalized youth.
Higgins found that out in 2018 when she, a few LifeStrengths coaches and a youth were invited to participate in the 2018 America’s Promise Youth Summit held at Facebook headquarters. While there, a department director with Health and Human Services overheard Higgins talking about the LifeStrengths program and its focus on building social capital for at-risk youth.
“We’ve been doing this for five to six years. We have metrics around the social capital portion of it, and HHS has been researching it,” Higgins said “Their research validates our program, but yet our program validates their research.”
That HHS director handed Higgins a business card and said, “We need to talk.”
Not long after that meeting, Higgins and Gurian were asked to co-present about the I Pour Life program at a federal inter-agency workgroup for professionals from across the country who work with youth programming.
Earlier this month, I Pour Life coaches and several youth — including McCullin and Moeller — were invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with Missouri First Lady Teresa Parson.
The youth, who are either current foster youth or recently “aged out” foster youth were able to share with the First Lady their perspective of what it looks like to experience social capital development through a LifeStrengths coach, Higgins explained.
“It also allowed youth in care to use their voice and share experiences during the pandemic as well as take part in a question and answer time with the First Lady,” Higgins said in an email. “The First Lady was affirming to the youth and validated they had been heard.”
“What we hope comes of this is for more opportunity like this with state and national legislatures, allowing foster youth to use their voice in these kinds of discussions, and to create awareness on how social capital development is essential in the advancement of marginalized and foster youth,” Higgins said.
For McCullin, it was really important to have Parson’s ear and be able to share with her about his experience in foster care.
“It went pretty well,” he said.
Moeller said the roundtable with Parson was a really neat experience for the youth — one that absolutely qualifies as “building social capital.”
“(McCullin) shared about his experience of jumping from placement to placement to placement and how that affected him,” Moeller said. “Other youth just expressed their concerns about caseworker availability and mental health, like with medications and their concerns pertaining to that. The First Lady listened to it all.”
Learn more about I Pour Life and the LifeStrengths program at ipourlife.org.