I grew up on a dairy farm and "doing chores" was so much a part of my childhood I don't remember a time when I didn't work in the barn. The first job I remember is sweeping mud off the floor when the cows came in from outside, although I'm sure my parents assigned me other little tasks long before that first memory.
From that, I moved onto bigger chores. I threw straw bales down from the loft, used a pitchfork to shake out clean bedding for the cows, fastened their stanchions when they came in from outside, fed them, and did the milking. By the time I graduated from high school, my brother and I were accomplished enough for our parents to leave us alone for a couple days--responsible for feeding and milking the cows all on our own.
Most of my friends lived in town, but they had chores too. And our chores weren't something to do "when or if we felt like it." Someone would often miss out on a play or movie date because they hadn't finished their chores.
When we were little, chores were fun and we could hardly contain our excitement when it came time to show off our work. The novelty wore off quickly, and as teenagers, we all thought our parents were mean to make us work.
Work and Worth
By assigning chores, parents give children valuable tools necessary to become independent and ready to move into adulthood. Through childhood chores and later on, high school jobs, children gain skills they need to be successful in the world. Things like getting to work on time, following orders, teamwork, time management, showing respect, and more importantly, a sense of belonging and contributing to something bigger than themselves.
Some of our Ranch kids come from great families who do all of these things. They give their kids chores, show them the value of work, and encourage them to find a job--even just a couple hours a week mowing the neighbor's lawn, when they are ready. But, that's not typical.
Most of our kids haven't had those same work experiences. Sometimes they were transient, moving from place to place with parents or guardians who didn't have the time or energy to give them chores. Others lived in foster care, and while they sometimes had chores, by the time they started feeling like a part of the family, they were moved onto the next place.
When kids get to the Ranch, they've had an average of nine other out-of-home placements. Nine! And that doesn't count the many times they moved to a different apartment, town, or state. It's difficult to develop a chore list or routine when you are never in one place, or even with the same people, for more than a few months at a time.
According to Dr. Wayne Martinsen, Medical Director and Psychiatrist at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, our kids missed out. "Kids who grow up in unstable environments miss out on the sense of connection and fitting in that comes from being in a family and contributing to its well-being."
If a child is doing well in school, they can get those things in school. "But if school is hard for you, and you work your tail off for Cs and Ds," Martinsen said, "it's hard to feel proud of what you've accomplished, and it's hard to feel like you belong anywhere."
"If we sent kids out into the world without having experienced work, it's going to be too overwhelming to find a job, be there on time, and cope with grumpy coworkers," he said. "If a kid has never observed work or been a part of it, the anxiety of doing what it takes to find and keep a job will be too much--and they'll settle for homelessness."
We Give Kids Jobs
To give our kids these important work experiences and a sense of belonging, we give them jobs.
Tasha, who grew up in a family with lots of yelling, drugs, and unemployment, came to the Ranch at age 15. "After my dad died, my mom shut out all of our family. She just shut them out because they all knew what was going on with her. She allowed a lot of bad stuff to go on in our house," Tasha said.
"I started using drugs and running away a lot. I was under a lot of stress and just wanted to get out of the house. I was really angry--I would just yell at people for no reason and I didn't even know why."
After several months of treatment at the Ranch, Tasha, her therapist, and Dr. Martinsen, thought she might be ready for a job. Debbie and Judy, the cooks at the Fargo campus, gave her a job in the kitchen.
"It's really fun," Tasha said. "I love cooking and cleaning and hanging out with Debbie and Judy. They're really awesome people. I thought they just served us our food every day, but it's a lot more than that. And you have to have a good heart and be very caring to put up with everyone here."
At the Ranch, we start all of our kids out with jobs on campus or at one of our thrift stores. Many of them have had difficulty controlling their emotions and behaviors. Even if they are doing really well, we want them to have good coaching and supervising before we allow them to work off-campus.
Martinsen said, "If they are here on campus with us, it is like a sheltered or supported employment. If they make a mistake, we sit down with them and work through it. Generally, after a period of time, if the child seems sincere, they get another chance."
Working on campus with employers who understand them gives our kids a place to practice and fail, with our support to work through it and do better the next time.
"Think about your own kids," Martinsen said. "If we look at our own kids who didn't struggle and weren't traumatized, how many times did we send them up to clean their room or do something for us and they got it totally right? Growing up in a healthy family is like job coaching."
On-campus jobs recreate that family experience. In addition to providing job coaching, Ranch employees serve as role models.
"Most of these kids are here without any family connection and they don't have role models for anything. We get kids who not only haven't had good work role models, it's like they don't have parents at all. I mean, they are just gone." Martinsen said.
Sandy Thiel, manager of the Fargo South Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Thrift Store, is one of those role models. Boys and girls who live at the Fargo Youth Home often work with Thiel and she loves having them there.
"The young man we have now wants to do everything. He wants to learn everything and do everything. If he has to miss his shift, he asks to come a different day," Thiel said. "He wanted to work the till so we taught him how."
"I think they learn to work well with others and be a team player. They learn new skills. For most of these kids, this is their first job," Thiel said.
Thiel feels like she is their mother. They talk to her when they have troubles, and when they move one, she thinks about them a lot and wonders how they are doing. A few of the kids who have worked with her stop by a couple times a year to check in and let Thiel know how they are doing.
"It doesn't always work out," Thiel said, "but for the most part Ranch kids work hard. They acclimate quickly because they are so young, and because they've dealt with such difficult things in their lives."
Beth Slaton, Hilary Sorenson, and Hannah Thom also employ student workers in the Minot Foundation Office. Sixteen-year-old Aaliyah worked in the office after school and during the summer.
Aaliyah said, "We have certain objectives like participating in therapy and doing our homework. I was getting high scores so I asked if I could get a job. I wanted to increase my independent living. I can walk to and from appointments on campus by myself, so I thought a job was a good next step."
"I was nervous at first because I didn't know how this all worked. But the foundation ladies were so nice to me. They told me I was a really good worker. They just kind of boosted my energy. Their positivity made me feel like I was something, like I mattered."
It's Not About the Money
Kids who have on-campus jobs earn minimum wage. Our agreement with them is that they are required to save half (which we keep in a special account to give them when they leave the Ranch), but the rest they can spend how they choose (within reason, of course). If they want to spend some of the money they've earned, we take them shopping.
But Martinsen said it's not really about the money. "Our kids who have jobs will show you the headphones they bought, and then they'll always tell you they bought them with money they earned. They are proud of having worked." Martinsen said, "I don't know that having money makes them happy, but having earned money makes them feel like they've accomplished something."
Working to Belong
Aaliyah has moved on from the Ranch, but she still stops by to visit Beth, Hilary, and Hannah at the foundation office when she can. When she made the Honor Roll at Minot High School, she invited them to attend the induction ceremony. When Tasha left the Ranch and moved out of state, she said she was surprised how much she was going to miss everyone at the Ranch, especially Debbie and Judy.
And that, Martinsen said, is exactly what it's all about. To build those relationships suggests that Aaliyah and Tasha both saw themselves as a part of the organization.
Work is a huge part of your identity. As adults, we identify ourselves by our values, our religion, our relationships, and our work. People who are satisfied with work see what they do as being part of a bigger whole. In hiring our kids, we are giving them a chance to be a part of that--we exhibit our trust in them, we teach them good work habits, we help them build connections, and we give them a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Martinsen said, "The more we can help our kids see how their role cleaning or repairing or feeding is linked to other people's lives, to their workplace, and to a larger mission, the better off they will be."
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