Child Welfare Resource Center Offers Virtual Retreat, Handmade Blankets to Foster Youth

A woman in a maroon long sleeve shirt laughs while knittingMore than 100 teenagers from across the state who are currently or formerly in foster care are participating this week in Pitt’s 11th annual Older Youth Retreat, sponsored by the PA Child Welfare Resource Center, part of Pitt’s School of Social Work, with support from the PA Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families.

It’s a chance for these young people, ages 14 to 20, to attend motivational workshops and learn leadership and advocacy skills. They’re just a handful of the 8,000 young people over age 14 in foster care across Pennsylvania.

A woman in a necklace and black topIn past years, there has also been bonding, hugs and handshakes, because the group usually convenes on the Pitt-Johnstown campus and bunks in residence halls. But this year, the pandemic threw retreat organizers a curve.

“We realized in late May we would have to make it a virtual retreat,” said Meghan O’Hare, the resource center’s program development specialist. “But the retreat planning is a well-oiled machine so a lot of things transitioned very seamlessly.”

One benefit of a virtual event is that organizers did not need to cap attendance. Every county was told to invite as many older youth as they wanted. At the end of last week, there were more than 100 registered from 28 counties along with about 40 staffers or caseworkers who work with young people in foster care.

Workshops old and new

The schedule of workshops has some old favorites that always attract a big audience. One of them, Monday’s makeup session, also covered skin care, appropriate dress and how to present oneself to the world. Wednesday’s cooking session, also popular every year, instructs the teens on making healthy meals on a budget.

Monday’s leadership session, “You Leading You” was revamped to reflect young people’s burgeoning interest in the fight for social justice. Attendees learned how they can use their voice for social change and made postcards and flyers—a product they can use after the retreat ends. “It’s important for young people to see that they can be leaders in many different ways,” said O’Hare.

Another popular session is the one on permanency. Pitt’s resource center, which trains County and Youth Agency workers, collaborates closely throughout the year with the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network (SWAN) to promote permanency for older youth. This panel discussion involves older youth who are currently or formerly in foster care as well as staff who work with them, sharing their experience with permanency roundtables. That’s a professional case consultation involving caseworkers, casework supervisors and permanency experts, that takes place when a youth’s permanency plan is stalled.

Keynote motivational speaker Travis Lloyd heads up Friday’s panel on strategic sharing.

“These teens get a wide variety of opportunities to speak publicly about their experience,” said O’Hare. “We prepare them to share, and not overshare, and support them before their talk and afterwards.”

a young woman snuggling a blanket

Wrapping teens in love

At the 2019 retreat, one participant named Jade from the Philadelphia area won a handmade afghan in a raffle. Members of the Pitt-based Fiber Arts Crew thought: Why not a blanket for everyone? So they applied for and received a 2019 Pitt Year of Creativity grant and swung into motion.

The call was put out for volunteers and, eventually, more than 75 people stepped up—Pitt staffers from the resource center, the School of Social Work and School of Nursing; researchers; child welfare caseworkers; a knitting group near Harrisburg; residents of a Pittsburgh senior living complex; and friends, family members and teens on the PA Youth Advisory Board who participated in a crochet lesson last January. Social Work Research Assistant Professor Marlo Perry and Resource Center Assistant Director Kathleen Swain encouraged the group via email throughout last fall and winter.

Knitting needles in hand, the volunteers produced hundreds of 8-by-8-inch squares over the past year, which were then sewn together to make the blankets. Others produced quilts. When the pandemic hit, Perry put a plastic bin on her porch so people could drop off their knitted squares contact-free. Mailing labels were printed and each blanket is being shipped to a teen participant.

“One of our talented fiber artists made more than 100 squares with a heart design, and they became part of as many blankets as possible,” said Swain. She attributes the project’s success to the “passion people have for older youth in foster care.”

The crew is already working on squares for blankets for next summer’s annual Older Youth Retreat, which they hope to present to the teens in person.