Silver Lining Mentoring empowers youth in foster care to flourish through committed mentoring relationships and the development of essential life skills. We talked to their Executive Director, Colby Swettberg, about what drew her to youth in foster care, what makes Silver Lining Mentoring unique, and what’s in store for the organization next.
Q. You’ve been involved with causes supporting youth, in particular LGBTQ teens, and also have a background in education. What drew you to working with youth, and to make the transition from education to the social service/advocacy field?
A. I started my career as a high school English teacher, actually! In fact, when I graduated from high school the faculty named me “Most Likely to be an English Teacher,” and I thought “ that’s funny, but no way!” It turns out they were right: I taught at a public school outside of Philadelphia after graduating college. Interestingly, though, I found what I enjoyed most about my job was the time I got to spend with students before and after school when they would come and talk with me about their lives. As much as I loved teaching students how to hone their writing skills and about literature, what kept me up at night was the discussions that I would have with kids when they would share what was going on in their lives outside of the classroom.
The stories were multifold: it was a young person disclosing that he had been homeless and sleeping on a park bench for weeks; it was an exchange student who shared that she was living with a host family where there was severe substance abuse and she didn’t feel safe. All of it really stuck with me. I ended up going to graduate school in Boston for education, although I already had a sense I probably wasn’t going to return to the classroom. I ended up co-creating a film in grad school that got traction both nationally and locally. I was traveling and doing screenings in academic settings and human service agencies, including a big social service agency here in Boston. After a film screening, they offered me a job starting up a new group home for LGBTQ foster youth. It was an incredible honor to be part of the inaugural team and to develop a program from scratch – not to mention that it was the first co-ed LGBTQ group home in the country.
As a member of the LGBTQ community myself, it was really meaningful for me to be able to forge relationships with youth and offer them a safe space. I had always loved working with young people, particularly vulnerable populations, and through this work I learned about the foster care system. I ended up going back to school for a masters degree in social work. I just loved this population and knew that working in child welfare was going to be part of my life’s work.
Q. What’s the best part of your job?
A. The best part of my job is seeing young people define and achieve success for themselves – in both little and big moments. It might be hearing from a young person that they’ve landed their first job or that they’re moving into their first apartment. It might be hearing our youth talk about the trust they developed when they realized their mentor was going to keep showing up no matter what – and witnessing what happens when they know there’s someone in their corner. It might be going through program evaluations and seeing young people write that they want to stay connected to their mentor and our organization forever – that they consider Silver Lining to be their family. There are so many awesome parts of my job – I’m really lucky!
Q. What are you most excited about for Silver Lining Mentoring over the next five years?
I’m excited to serve more young people. We have a three year business plan with ambitious growth goals and I’m eager to follow the path we’ve mapped out to get there. We endeavor to serve the majority of young people in foster care in greater Boston who are most in need of mentors. We’re developing and iterating on our programs all the time, constantly looking for ways to improve, evolve, and partner. In particular, I’m really excited to grow our housing support program. Housing is a major issue when young people age out of foster care, because after they turn 18 and age out they simply don’t have places to live. Without support youth who age out of foster care frequently become homeless. We developed a partnership with a local housing organization called Caritas Communities that is opening its doors to our young people. We have some generous donors who have invested in this program and we’re excited to see it grow.
Q. Why is mentoring so important?
Youth in foster care have many needs. In a lot of ways, their needs are no different from those of any other young person. What they need more than anything is a consistent connection to a caring adult. For youth who aren’t in the foster care system, those connections to adults often come from families, communities, and schools. Youth in foster care aren’t finding consistent relationships in those settings because they’re being moved so frequently. Youth need someone in their corner who is going to keep showing up when the going gets rough, when a young person needs cheering on, to be there for them when they’re going through major milestones. Many times, our mentors are the only adult showing up for that kid’s soccer game or debate tournament or cheering for them at their high school graduation. Our youth frequently don’t have anyone to spend holidays with and may end up celebrating holidays with their mentor. In some cases at Silver Lining it is a mentor who ends up taking our youth to college and helping them settle into their freshman dorm.
In order to make those relationships possible and truly meaningful for both mentees and mentors, we do a huge amount of work on our end to recruit, screen and train mentors. Once a mentor has been screened and selected, we spend a lot of time providing individualized support. We want them to feel and know that we are shoulder to shoulder with them in the work of supporting youth. We think of our mentorships as a triangle: the young person is at the top, the mentor is the second corner and our staff is is the third, supporting both the mentee and the mentor. Our mentors don’t have to come into the program as youth development experts, but we expect our mentors to be youth centered, self-reflective, open to learning, and deeply committed.
Q. Silver Lining Mentoring works in partnership with other community organizations. How has this allowed you to do your work more effectively?
A. We are very grateful for our partnerships and wouldn’t be able to do our work in as comprehensive a way without them. An important part of partnership is knowing what you bring to the table and when to rely on the practice wisdom and resources from other organizations. We have terrific partners in a variety of settings – whether it’s help with mental health service referrals, housing, financial aid applications to college or employment – we rely on strong collaborators that share our values and seek to empower young people realize the success that they’ve defined for themselves.