By Salima Punjani
The tree above is symbolic of the transformation of a young woman who found the courage to overcome obstacles in her life supported by the Wraparound Intervention Model. She was living with an abusive mother and wanted to reach out to her father who lived outside of the city to ask him for support. She had been avoiding sharing her situation with her father and joined the Wraparound program to seek help in having this difficult conversation. The roots of the tree represent her strengths, the branches signify the goals she has attained in her life, and the back of the leafs have the names of all the people that supported her growth and development throughout the process. Though she didn’t get the response she was hoping for from her father, having the conversation helped her to move on with her life, knowing she had finally taken this step forward. She graduated from the program aware of her strengths and connected to the people she can depend on when she needs support.
“When else does a 17-year-old get supported to do that? To have a difficult conversation with a parent?” says Emma Kroeker, a facilitator and community organizer who implemented the Wraparound Intervention Model with youth aged 12-25 as part of a gang prevention project in Montreal. Kroeker believes that at-risk youth, like anyone, are searching for belonging. Rather than telling people what to do, Wraparound is a voluntary approach that empowers youth with community support while focusing on their strengths and goals. It can help them feel more connected to their community, as well as cultivate a feeling of belonging outside of gangs and criminal activity.
Tim Harbinson is a community facilitator that worked alongside Kroeker. He shared a story about a young man who was living in a precarious living situation with his mother who was fleeing a long-term abusive relationship. Though he was referred to the program due to behavioural problems, Harbinson quickly realized the youth was facing food, financial and housing insecurity as well as having suicidal thoughts. While developing a suicide action plan, Harbinson encouraged the youth to call his friends and let them know they were part of the plan. “Developing the courage to be open and honest with friends is transformative,” explains Harbinson. “It’s not about the number of relationships a person has, but the quality and honesty in these relationships. None of his friends deserted him, and this reduced shame around those feelings,” he said.
Harbinson emphasized the importance of keeping things informal and positive to encourage youth to feel comfortable and safe. He explained that many youths he has worked with have an innate distrust for authority and can feel easily threatened. They are often asked to fill out forms that are deficit-based, focusing on their problems rather than strengths. “We rarely see intake forms that ask you what you are good at, who the best people are in your life, what makes you feel good,” Harbinson says.
The Wraparound approach involves creating an inventory of participants’ strengths as well as goals they would like to achieve. “I learn a lot about the youth such as their interests, capacities and past successes and create a written or visual document. This way, we have tangible, real-life examples to draw upon so we can make a plan for the future,” says Kroeker.
An integral part of the wraparound process is identifying a circle of support. The youth is asked to list people they would like on their team to help achieve their goals. These people could include family members, teachers, coaches, health professionals, social workers, friends and to whomever else the youth feels connected. Once established, a team meeting is held where members are asked questions like: “What are this person’s strengths? What makes them special? When was a time you were proud of them?” “In this way people are learning about youth that has depth, hopes, goals and dreams. There are no yeah buts, or no’s. It’s a creative, fun, generative dialogue where the facilitator is capturing ideas on a flip-chart or paper,” says Kroeker.
Once the meeting is done, the youth gets to select strategies to move forward with their goal or vision. Each team member is equipped with the plan, and future meetings are set up to ensure accountability. “We meet-up and assess how the plan is working, what did and didn’t work and if things are not working, how we can reassess and redesign to keep the momentum moving forward,” explained Kroeker.
In order to develop a sense of value and accountability in team members, Harbinson explained how part of the facilitator’s role is creating informal learning environments to better equip team members with the skills to support youth in reaching their goals. For instance, parents and guardians would meet informally, twice a month, on Saturday mornings for a pancake breakfast where they could share their experiences and learn skills such as non-violent communication and listening skills. “I don’t think you can develop these skills in isolation, you need to have a community worker or facilitator recognize people don’t have those skills and take initiative to create a safe, structured and purposeful learning environment,” says Harbinson.
In addition to learning crucial skills to support their children, Harbinson believes the pancake breakfasts held parents accountable to each other. Parents would practice the tools they learn over a two-week period and were expected to share their experience with the group.
Though there is no fixed timeline for graduating from Wrap, Kroeker says it generally takes around a year for youth to transition out of the program. Their successes are celebrated along the way. “For some youth it’s a high-5, for others it’s going out to the movies. This helps focus on the efforts people are making in addition to building self-esteem and motivation to engage people around their goals.” By strengthening local supports and community connections, youth are in a better position to transition out of the program.
Kroeker shared the story of a 15-year-old who was referred to the program by a school counsellor. She had low attendance, was getting into fights at school, and was on the verge of dropping out in addition to having suicidal thoughts. When Kroeker spoke with the teen, she realized that when she was younger she was a track star in Saint-Vincent, her home country. She was lost in school because she was in a French school and didn’t have a good grasp of the language. After spending a few months learning about her strengths, hopes and vision they held a team meeting with her church pastor, her sister, a friend and a school counsellor.
By identifying her needs, the youth was supported in making drastic changes to reach her goals. “She didn’t have the skills to be proactive to change her life and mobilizing people around her created a megaphone to the whispers of her needs,” explains Kroeker. It turned out the teen had asthma due to mold in her home. She was given a puffer and was able to start track again. She was also allowed to transfer into an English school where she met with her teachers before classes to help with her comfort level, increasing her performance in school. In addition to all of this, along with her team, she created a safety plan to help her deal with thoughts of suicide. She went on to lead a teen girls’ discussion group at a community center, building leadership skills and her pastor invited her to work at a summer camp. “When a young person has an advocate and proactively gathers people around them, it’s empowering for the youth,” says Kroeker.
In relation to gang prevention, Kroeker explains how a youth will rarely say they are involved in gang activity, usually stating they are part of a crew of people. “It’s more a shift of tides in terms of with who and how they are spending their time.” By participating in a social activity like sports or making music, it’s time youth aren’t on the street in a vulnerable situation. “If your relationship at home is improved because of the different way you’ve engaged with family members through Wraparound in a team meeting, maybe home is a better place to be.” says Kroeker.
Kroeker explains how Wrap is about bringing people together in a new and different way to have conversations that would not otherwise happen. “It’s about strengthening bonds between the youth’s community network, not referring them to services. It looks at what’s accessible and who they will keep connecting and interacting with once the facilitator is off the table. This makes it sustainable.”
If you would like to learn more about the approach and ways to implement it you can visit: www.wrapcanada.org. You are also welcome to contact Emma Kroeker if you have any questions about how to implement Wrap principles in your work or communities: [email protected]