Article written by Amanda Ippolito
Turning 18 is a major milestone. It means going to college, moving out or finding a job. And it can be difficult. But the independence associated with this particular birthday has very different – and frightening – implications for foster care children.
At 18, teenagers in New Jersey foster care age out of the system. They face realities such as homelessness, joblessness and incarceration. Many are left to transition into the real world without the support of a family, but there is an organization based in Trenton that can help.
Beyond Expectations is a nonprofit that provides teens with marketable, tangible skills that can be used in the workforce. The program provides hands-on media education, featuring workshops in film-making and television production.
Participants are involved in every step of the process, from the concept all the way to production. While the program focuses on media, the skills learned prepare teens for jobs in any field.
“Everything we do is about giving them something very tangible that they can use,” said Leontyne Anglin, a founder of Beyond Expectations.
The organization was started in 1999 by a group of parents in Burlington County who wanted early exposure to college and careers. In 2008, after learning about the difficulties teens in foster care face, the group decided to shift its focus. One year later, the Beyond Expectations Teen Film Program was launched.
Beyond Expectations is open to all youth – not just those in foster care. They partner with organizations such as the YMCA, group homes and mental health groups. Teens can also choose to enlist themselves individually.
Beyond Expectations has two locations: Bordentown in Burlington County and Trenton in Mercer County. It also travels across the state to work with organizations. Programs are typically five sessions. Short-term programs – such as weekend retreats and a one-day speed program – are also offered.
Workshops in the film-making program include storyboarding, camera instruction, script development, recording sessions, and film shooting. Television workshops include camera instruction, teleprompter operation, audio production, vocal techniques, and wardrobe styling. Both programs also discuss college and careers.
All aspects of production are in their hands. They decide the subject, crew and camera operators. After deciding who they will interview, they conduct research and write interview questions.
“There is nobody in any of our programs sitting in the corner. Everyone is engaged,” Anglin said.
“Participants might realize if they enjoy storyboarding and writing, they could start a blog. And if they enjoy working behind the camera, they might consider freelance photography,” Anglin said.
Some might even decide to pursue a career in television, film or radio. In a video on Beyond Expectations’ website, Anthony Weaver, a participant in the program, says his experience has inspired him to pursue a career in media.
“I’ve taken a lot away from this (program), whether it be knowledge, or doing what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says in the video.
While teens learn many technical skills specific to the media industry, they also learn soft skills necessary for any job.
“Some benefits teens take away from the program include enhanced communication, the ability to collaborate, refined body language and improved self-esteem,” Anglin said. “They also learn the importance of planning and management.”
“Foster children may experience a lack of trusting relationships, as they often move from place to place on their own,” Anglin said. “When they work on a crew with Beyond Expectations, they feel a sense of being needed; the rest of the group is dependent on them.”
Beyond Expectations notes on its website, “The same young people often shunned and overlooked have become the role models.”
Anglin explained that a group of young men – who many people did not want to work with, as they were “rough around the edges” – wrote and produced a short film with Beyond Expectations. After presenting their film at a community screening, they were approached by people who wanted them to speak at their schools.
“If you provide any young person – I don’t care what their background – if you provide them with access to information and resources, you can change their whole lives,” Anglin said.
“When they come to our program, we want them to learn everything they possibly can,” Anglin said.
There is a sense of urgency, she said, because they often do not hear from participants again.
“I think they’re surprised at themselves and at how much they are able to achieve in such a short span of time,” Anglin said. “Our classes are typically only 20 hours. It’s less than one day that we have to transform young people who typically are never exposed to this type of program.”
Having marketable skills – such as those learned in Beyond Expectations – is particularly important for teens in foster care, who may not have the resources or connections that other teens have.
In 2011, more than 26,000 children in foster care aged out of the system, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sources.
According to childrensrights.org, 12-13 percent of those who aged out experienced homelessness. The unemployment rate was 25-55 percent. Those employed had average earnings below the poverty level, and only 38 percent of those employed were working after one year.
To learn more about Beyond Expectations and how to get involved, visit http://beyondexp.net/.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of The Wall Newspaper