Healing as Learning at Newport News YouthBuild

Silhouettes of two young people against the setting sun.Preparing for a job requires education and training, which means developing skills and strategies to solve problems and cope with challenges. The Volunteers of America Chesapeake & Carolinas’ (VOACC) team who facilitate Newport News YouthBuild know that the ability to effectively solve problems and overcome challenges is heavily impacted by a person’s mental health and well-being. And their holistic approach to job readiness for youth from underserved communities is getting results.

“Many of our participants come to YouthBuild with a lot already on their plates,” said Newport News YouthBuild case manager Amere Langley. “From depression and anxiety to substance use and domestic violence taking place at home, these students have a lot to handle even before they take on the task of earning a GED and preparing for a career.” This is taken into account throughout the participant’s time in the program. The case manager is responsible for doing a full-length assessment on all areas of life and determine which area to focus on individually. 

Understanding that many youth growing up in low-income areas of Newport News and the greater Hampton Roads area have had adverse childhood experiences , the VOACC team supports YouthBuild participants from the beginning through trauma-informed and person-centered intake evaluations. As concerns and social needs are identified, participants are connected with support and resources to help them learn to navigate and overcome challenging situations. Some may need help meeting basic needs at home, while others may benefit from getting connected with an outside therapist. For some, a technique known as a “healing circle” offers a chance to connect with peers who are living in similar situations, share their experiences and learn skills to cope.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Labor invited VOACC and other YouthBuild human services organization grantees to attend a series of peer-to-peer convenings, which included a workshop on addressing community-based violence through interventions centered on communal healing. A specialist in mentoring and community violence facilitated model healing circles in which program staff took on the role of youth participants reacting to a tragic event in a group setting. Healing circles are widely used among the First Nations people of Canada and among the many tribes of Native Americans in the U.S. The workshop focused on skill-building and easy implementation rooted in a strengths-based approach. Programs were encouraged to use community assets to drive trauma-informed designs for violence prevention and grief care tailored to each community.

“We started bringing students together to discuss shared challenges, and soon noticed the positive impact,” said Newport News YouthBuild program specialist Taniqua Norman. “At the outset, we didn’t know that our process was very closely related to the established ‘healing circle’ method. Since attending the spring convening, we’ve taken steps to make the groups even more effective, and shared our experiences with other training and education programs. It’s been great to be at the cutting edge of some really impactful work.”

In one recent instance, a number of youth participants tested positive for marijuana during their intake process. They were brought into a conference room to discuss why they were using cannabis, and had the opportunity to hear the reasons given by their peers. Guided by staff, the students gained an understanding of what was driving their behavior and how to change. For example, several of the participants decided to start going to the gym and playing basketball together as a way to develop healthy habits for managing their stress and anxiety. 

“Identifying and understanding what is happening in their lives helps participants remove roadblocks to learning, and is also a learning experience in and of itself,” said Newport News YouthBuild GED instructor Suzanna Bryant. “When it comes to a specific behavior, a student may never have considered why they were engaging in it. Having the opportunity to reflect with a group of peers can give them the insight needed to change the behavior and better focus on learning and job preparation.”

To learn more about the Newport News YouthBuild program, visit www.voachesapeake.org/youthbuild. To learn more about the national YouthBuild program, visit https://www.dol.gov/agencies/eta/youth/youthbuild


Michael Trupo is the deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog was edited to include an acknowledgement of healing circles' wide use among Native communities in Canada and the U.S., and to add a link to the national YouthBuild program.