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Kandiyohi County, Minn., youth programs change lives

WILLMAR -- Chaska Whitehorse entered foster care when he was 13 years old.

He stayed there until he was 18 and no longer eligible to live in the home of a foster parent.

During those years, he learned the value of honesty, integrity and respect from his foster families, he said. He also had opportunities to hunt and fish and become part of a church community.

But during a testimonial Tuesday before the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners, Whitehorse said there were ups and downs during his time in foster care and that as he transitioned to adulthood, he knew he was missing some of the "normal" benefits of a family -- like getting parental help applying for college or filling out taxes.

The county's youth program, provided by Lutheran Social Services, helped fill in the gaps, he said.

He said the Lutheran Social Services staff helped him manage funds and find a place to live on his own and guided him through the maze funding post-secondary education. He praised the "dedicated "staff for keeping him on the right track.

"Without their help I think I would've been so lost and confused," Whitehorse said, adding that he owes his success to many people who've been part of his life.

He recently completed training as a military police officer with the Marines, where he said he's learned leadership, people skills and overall responsibility. His military service, he says, is due to his desire to give back to others.

The commissioners applauded Whitehorse for his efforts to work hand-in-hand with organizations that were there to give him a boost.

Commissioner Harlan Madsen said Whitehorse's story shows how "wraparound programs" can help youth succeed. But Madsen also commended Whitehorse for his efforts. "Nothing works unless you're willing to commit yourself to it," he said.

Whitehorse is one of scores of young adults the county helps as they make the leap from foster care to independent living, said Kathy Nelson, family services supervisor.

Many youth don't have their own family support to help navigate through paperwork to obtain health insurance or apply for college or jobs, she said.

Lutheran Social Services and county social workers not only provide mandated services -- like getting the young adults their social security card or school records -- but they form relationships that can extend to serving as a reference for a job.

"It's all about relationships," said Nelson.

In a summary of services presented to the County Board, Angie Mateski, Lutheran Social Services youth transition coordinator, said that in 2011 the county assisted 75 regional youth in their street outreach program for homeless or runaway youth.

Even though funding for their transitional housing program was cut $10,000 last year, donations and staff ingenuity kept the programs strong, she said.

As the fiscal manager for a federal education grant to help youth attend post-secondary education, Lutheran Social Services used $13,500 to help four youth attend school.

Another program that teaches independent living skills served 32 youth last year, Mateski said.

To complement the community teen mom program, which has been in place for 21 years, Lutheran Social Services launched a teen dad program in January. That program is open to any man under the age of 21 and in a parenting role, but may not necessarily be the biological father of a child. The program helps equip young parents with skills to raise their child, she said. There are currently four young dads enrolled.

Commissioner Jim Butterfield said it was refreshing to hear success stories and to know that the county programs are working and that county tax dollars are being well spent.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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