– February 2 2021
Care leavers need to be included and listened to
We joined a conversation between Zule, a child and human rights activist and a member of the International Youth Coalition, and Oliver Bäte, CEO of Allianz.
Zule: Where I live we have created a community of care leavers. We are so different, yet we all have gone through the same difficult process of leaving care and becoming an adult. When we meet and start talking, you already get that feeling of being understood.
Oliver: I’m curious: How and when did you decide to get a good education and study?
Zule: I came from a family where I could see the poor quality of life and struggles they had, how broken it was and still is, mainly because they didn’t have any education. That was all I knew and for me it was normal. When I got into care, I discovered that life wasn’t like that. I had great caregivers. They were educated, dedicated, caring but let you make your own mistakes. I liked to study, so I thought ok, I am good at this, and I know I need to improve this skill of mine to have a better life, so I started.
Oliver: Given all of your energy and ambition, what are you going to do now that you are finished with your formal university education?
Zule: One thing I want to do is to spread the word: If we can do it here, if we can build this kind of community, then why can’t we ask for this exact thing everywhere, in every place, for every kid and young person coming out of care? Because normally society focuses on: “Oh, children have to be cared for and children have to be protected.” But children grow up. They become young adults. And if you protect them when they are young and then you leave them alone when they need to adjust to life as a grown-up, they are going to be lost and then eventually crash.
Zule: And that’s what happening here in Spain and I guess in many of the countries where SOS Children’s Villages works. Yes, they have opportunities, but they still need an after-care environment where they feel protected but independent. To hear that you can make mistakes and you will be ok. If I hadn’t been supported to dream big, to realize that all the labels I had on me were not the definition of me as a person, I don’t know how I would have coped.
Oliver: From what you are saying, it sounds like a lot of facilities are great for young children, but this transition during adolescence is not really well understood and not very well supported by institutions. I can only speak for myself and my children here, but this transition is generally difficult for every human being because you have to define yourself. This is often done through separation rather than integration. Separation from your parents, from their values, their standards, to then defining who you are or who you are not. So do you have exact ideas on what could be a program that either SOS Children’s Villages or sponsors could support in order to make that transition more successful?
Zule: Care leavers themselves need to be included and listened to more. Having 0% participation in your future leaves you feeling anxious and unsafe. If the plan doesn’t go smoothly, being a care leaver without any support could mean ending up homeless. So we need programs that train caregivers to encourage youth participation. Care leavers also need financial support, especially in emergencies. But the more important thing is mental support. You need to know what your thoughts are, what to call them, how to face them. And for that you need a professional telling you that the things you are thinking are not a problem. You just have to figure out how it works and know that you have been through a lot of “not normal" things. It doesn’t mean you are going to be like your father, your mother or your family. It only means that you have passed through something and now you are stronger, you are a superhero.
Zule: If that makes sense.
Oliver: Yes, a lot of sense. I know a little bit about that. Particularly if you have had stressful experiences that have created some insecurities or development stress and you need support, our system often doesn’t understand that. From my perspective, the problem is not that people don’t see mental coaching is needed but that the capacity we often provide, whether it’s coaching or even medical support, is just two hours a week. And that is just not enough.
Zule: Exactly. One or two hours is not enough. You need someone who you can talk with anytime you need. You don’t have the specific time when you will have a crisis.
Oliver: Now the question is what can institutions and supporters like Allianz do to help? What about a two-tiered system, because some of the problems I would feel personally able to support, but in some areas that you have described I think you need professional coaches who have the skill and professional background to deal with difficult situations.
Zule: Yes, we need professionals who know how to support and how to listen. The most important thing is to create a sense of safety and belonging—to feel that someone is there for you even though she is not your mom.
Oliver: I have been very fortunate at least for most of my youth because my mother and my grandmother were always there for me, even when my parents separated. But I was also lucky because I left the house and I went to do an apprenticeship, and then I went to the military, so I had some very clear structures around me for about four years that helped me mature.
Zule: I imagine you also had to struggle and to find a way to cope. Do you remember how it was when you were 18 and you left for your apprenticeship? How did you overcome that hardship and say, “Ok, I can do this. This is my destiny somehow”?
Oliver: It is a very good question, but it was such a long time ago. I’m 55 now so it’s hard for me to remember, but for me this time was an adventure. I moved to bigger cities, I had a very small but my own place, you know. I met a lot of really cool people. To be honest I did not feel a lot of stress, at least in hindsight. I think we always have a benign memory. The older we get, the more pleasant the memories become because the bad memories we sort of discard. I was very happy because I felt free. I was earning very little money but enough to keep going. And it is very motivating to prove to yourself that you can finance yourself, to not have to ask anybody for money. That was already a very good feeling. And when I was in the military I had a backup system. I had economic security, which is very important because you are also being taken care of: You have shelter, you have food, you have structure, you have clear expectations. By the way, whether it’s working or doing social services—in a hospital or a retirement home—if I had to make a proposal to society based on my own experience, I think dedicating one year of your life to your community after finishing school could teach people a lot about what really matters in order to function as a society.
Oliver: Nelson Mandela had a great concept out of the Bantu language. It is called Ubuntu: “I am because we are.” People growing up now are taught that you are an individual and you need to be yourself. But we define ourselves through the communities we live in, whether that is a partner, a marriage, a family, a company that we work with or the community that we live in.
Zule: It is like Ouroboro, the symbol for cyclic renewal. Now, I need support from you, I need to know how things work. But in 10 years time, I am going to be you. I am going to be the one helping others.
Oliver: It was a real pleasure to meet you. I hope that one day we can meet in person.
Zule: Yes, me too. I really enjoyed getting to know you.
Learn more about how SOS Children's Villages empowers children and young people to become their strongest selves.