For the work that STRIVE and its counselors do, it is necessary to have limitless patience, love, and care. It also helps to have the unbridled, bubbly enthusiasm of a game show host, which counselor Theonita Wright could moonlight as and still have the energy to commit to her kids. For the next three hours, Theonita will cover topics that put most kids to sleep (e.g., financial stability, banks, FAFSA forms) with an admirably intense energy usually observed in sports fans. She, like fellow counselors Davina Anderson, Les Illidge, and Elizabeth Macafee, are these kids’ most vocal champions. It’s refreshing for a testing field of work that mandates endless empathy while stomaching worst-case domestic scenarios — unsurprisingly, the job has a high rate of burnout with a particularly affecting syndrome called “compassion fatigue.”
The STRIVE program is small and seemingly hush-hush to those outside the program. Since its kids are youth in care due to abuse and neglect, their names and faces have to be anonymized. Unfortunately, this tends to overshadow the work of both counselors and their kids when details have to be legally sparse. It must be recognized that STRIVE’s counselors are unrelenting in supporting a group that frequently suffer from depression, anxiety, avoidant attachment styles, and PTSD. Getting them to school is a huge accomplishment for both counselor and child, and today’s transition ceremony is a celebration for STRIVE’s 8th and 12th graders preparing for the next major chapter of their lives.
However, it’s not only a banquet, but a prepared series of talks presented by the counselors. Topics like financial aid, resume workshopping, the basics of using a bank and checking account, high school and college readiness, dating violence and sexual assault, all jam-packed in two hours before lunch arrives. Theonita still presents a subject like FAFSA with the gleeful fervor of a pep rally cheerleader. Dry enough as it is, Theonita and the STRIVE counselors want to ensure their kids understand every alien term on their own terms. Call-and-response, Socratic seminar rhetoric, on-the-spot questions — basics like making a deposit might prove daunting once these kids enter high school, college, or their first job. Acknowledging predators, from payday loans to potential date rapists, must be made explicit.
This quasi-adulthood boot-camp lite might seem overwhelming to those outside STRIVE. When the counselors make their kids respond in unison (for example, Theonita jokingly threatens her seniors to open a checking account ASAP when they hesitate to answer if they would), it’s out of genuine, protective care for their kids. With their students, they have hoped, feared, dreamed, and worried, and that emotional connection is palpable.
Despite their hardships, Theonita resoundingly affirms. There isn’t time to fret. As everyone gathered, linking arms in a group chain, she chants without a single stutter: “There is always going to be someone rooting for you. The person standing right next to you is rooting for you. Inside of you, there is someone stronger and more determined. You think you can’t do it? Deep down inside, the person inside of you can. You can always push a little longer. You can always survive a little longer.”