The Promise of an Accumulation of Care:
Disadvantaged African-American Youths’ Perspectives
About What Makes an After School Program

Need Help Writing an Essay?

Tell us about your assignment and we will find the best writer for your paper

Write My Essay For Me

Jeffrey J. Bulanda • Katherine Tyson McCrea

Published online: 2 November 2012

� Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Abstract African-American youth growing up in dangerous, deprived homes and
communities are at great risk of developing impaired relationship capabilities,

which disadvantages them further in the workplace and in their personal lives.

While after-school programs have well-documented positive effects, researchers

have called for better understanding of improving youths’ engagement in services

and their constructive relationship skills. Here, we report on a project using par-

ticipatory action methods to engage poverty-level African-American youth in

developing a leadership development program they would find most meaningful.

Stand Up Help Out (SUHO) gave youth three layers of caregiving experience:

receiving care from instructors, giving and receiving care from peers, and providing

care through constructive community action initiatives and mentoring elementary

school children. Findings were that: (1) participation and retention of youth in

SUHO were considerably higher than national averages; (2) youth reported that

SUHO made it possible for them to have better relationships as friends, romantic

partners, and in academic settings, and they looked forward to being better parents,

(3) youth developed positive peer relationships despite a context of mistrust and

gang violence, (4) youth actively sought out relationships with caring adults and

identified what was most meaningful in those relationships, and (5) youth deeply

valued the opportunity to develop their ability to care for others.

A previous version of this study was presented at the Illinois Society for Clinical Social Work, Jane

Roiter Memorial Lecture Series, in December, 2011.

J. J. Bulanda

Aurora University School of Social Work, 347 S. Gladstone Ave., Aurora, IL 60506, USA


K. T. McCrea (&)
Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work, 820 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611,




Child Adolesc Soc Work J (2013) 30:95–118

DOI 10.1007/s10560-012-0281-1

Keywords Disadvantaged youth � After school programs � Self-determination
theory � Caregiving heuristics


This study reports on preliminary findings from an ongoing participatory action

project providing after-school leadership development services for disadvantaged

African-American youth, a program termed Stand Up Help Out (SUHO, The program aims to develop youths’ capacity for

constructive relatedness with adults, peers, and younger children. Increased capacity

for constructive relatedness can strengthen their personal and professional compe-

tence, despite the considerable challenges they face of poverty, community vio-

lence, educational disadvantage, social exclusion, and racial discrimination. The

SUHO services evaluated here were developed from Summer, 2006 through Fall,

2007 by systematically honing services in response to youth feedback. Services

offered youth three levels of care: individual personal and career counseling, peer

support, and opportunities to constructively remedy community problems, such as

mentoring elementary school children.

Responding to priorities generated by previous after school program researchers

(Deschenes et al. 2010; Durlak and Weissberg 2007; Granger and Kane 2004; Halpern

2006; Proscio 2003; Proscio and Whiting 2004), who call for programs to improve

youth engagement and better understand how to develop youths’ constructive

relationship abilities, the research reported here addresses three central questions:

(1) What do disadvantaged African-American youth find most valuable about

after school program services?

(2) How can we understand, given previous research and youths’ feedback, the

nature of the constructive relationship skills that an after school program can

develop in disadvantaged youth?

(3) What does the process of developing those constructive relationship skills look

like from the youths’ perspectives?

Background: Priorities for After School Programs for Disadvantaged Youth

Trauma and Risks

By comparison with youth in privileged environments, severely disadvantaged

youth experience higher rates of community violence (Osofsky et al. 1993; Richters

and Martinez 1993; Schwab-Stone et al. 1995), hostility and aggression within their

schools (Laub and Lauritsen 1998), domestic violence (Raphael and Tolman 1997),

child abuse and neglect (Coulton et al. 1995; Drake and Pandy 1996), and disrupted

parental attachments (Bolland et al. 2001; Fox et al. 2005; Leventhal and Brooks-

Gunn 2000, 2003). The symptoms resulting from such traumatizing experiences can

include suicidal and homidical ideation, substance abuse (Clark et al. 1997),

96 J. J. Bulanda, K. T. McCrea


dangerous sexual practices (Voisin et al. 2007), pervasive anxiety, hopelessness and

helplessness about changing their futures, difficulty thinking clearly, increased risk-

taking behaviors, physical aggression in response to interpersonal conflict,

impairments in attachment, affect regulation, memory and concentration, learning,

and self-concept. Even just a few of those serious symptoms interfere with youths’

competence in the workplace and personal life (Cook et al. 2005; Garbarino et al.

1992; Schwab-Stone et al. 1995). Clearly, youth living in high-risk environments

must have opportunities to experience healthy relationships to prevent lasting post-

traumatic reactions, provide healthy exemplars, and offer healing relational

experiences—but such services tend to be in short supply in their communities.

Taylor (1995) found that many of the inner city teens he studied were not able to

identify individuals they regarded as role models in their lives. He reported that the

youth stated they wanted to ‘be myself’ and had little interest in forming

relationships with potential role models, resulting from a lack of trust and

confidence in their social environment and current social network. The youth,

rather, turned to their peers as their primary source of interpersonal support and

influence, making them even more prone to gangs and other negative peer

influences. Even in a context as seemingly different as Lithuania, youth in conflict

with the law stated their sources of support were almost exclusively from street

peers rather than from family, relatives, or teachers (Rimkus 2011).

The Potential of After School Programs

Researchers have noted that rather than searching for one ‘magic bullet,’ effective

interventions need to build up an accumulation of protective factors to develop

youths’ resilience (Masten and Coatsworth 1998). Yet, disadvantaged African-

American youth, in particular, experience more social exclusion from supportive

social services, despite their considerably greater risks for suffering consequences of

multiple psychosocial traumas. For instance, attrition from mental health services

for disadvantaged African-American youth ranges from 30 to 60 % (Kazdin 2003).

After-school programs have great potential for helping to remedy the social

exclusion of disadvantaged youth, as they are potentially are less stigmatizing than

formal mental health services and could be better venues for outreach. However, a

comprehensive effort to strengthen after-school program resources in three cities

termed MOST (Halpern et al. 2001) concluded that many more effective after-

school programs are needed, as only 10–15 % of disadvantaged youth participated

in such programs. A decade later, the relative shortage of after school programs for

disadvantaged youth has continued, as reported in a recent survey of programs in six

cities (Deschenes et al. 2010).

After school programs can play a valuable role in supporting disadvantaged

youths’ abilities to cope with the stressors they face. As Halpern (2006) notes, after

school programs have existed for over 100 years, have had numerous emphases (the

arts, physical education, academic, civic, etc.), and have been applied with children

and youth of all ages.

One reason after school programs can be helpful is because they provide

participating youth with opportunities for mentoring by instructors. Research

The Promise of an Accumulation of Care 97


indicates mentoring relationships can bring about significant changes in the lives of

the mentees, impacts that are mediated by a number of factors, including the youth’s

interpersonal history, social competencies, developmental stage, relationship

duration, program practices, family context, and neighborhood ecology (Rhodes

2002, 2005). The cornerstone of an effective mentoring relationship is a strong

interpersonal connection characterized by mutuality, trust, and empathy. This

connection is built over time


It seems more likely that successful mentoring of youth is more often

characterized by a series of small wins that emerge sporadically over time. Yet

these mundane moments, which might be laced with boredom, humor, and

even frustration, can help forge a connection from which the mentee may draw

strength in moments of vulnerability or share triumph in moments of

accomplishment. (Rhodes 2005, p. 32)

What makes mentoring relationships work? Taking an historical perspective to

address this question, as early as 1935 the child psychoanalyst and educator

Aichhorn, in his book Wayward Youth, described how the seemingly simple act of
having a caring conversation while walking home with a troubled teenager on a

regular basis could help the youth develop needed internal psychological structure,

surmount developmental difficulties, and resume a more normal development track.

Adolescence, as subsequently formulated within a psychoanalytic framework by

Blos (1979), presents a unique opportunity for the person to become an individual

by separating psychologically from dependency on parental relationships—a

‘‘second individuation’’ after the first one accomplished hopefully, as Mahler

et al. (1975) point out, during the toddler years, which should result in a ‘‘lifelong

identity’’ (p. 109). Optimally, during the second individuation process the

adolescent consolidates ego stability, the capacity to love those outside the family,

and reliable self-esteem conferred by the ideals of a flexible yet consistently strong

superego (Blos 1979). In order to accomplish those psychological developments,

adolescents manifest a number of phase-specific intense needs. Perhaps most

importantly for understanding the potential impact of after-school and mentoring

programs is that adolescents experience an intense ‘‘object hunger’’ for peer and

adult relationships outside the family (Ibid p. 160). The extra-familial relationships

established during adolescence can foster renewed internalization of the positive

aspects of the early child-caregiver experience, and support adolescents’ consol-

idation of an identity differentiated from dependency on family relationships.

More recently, the extensive longitudinal study by Sroufe and colleagues at the

University of Minnesota (Sroufe et al. 2005) documents how aspects of early

experience, such as ‘‘working models’’ (their term, following Bowlby) of self and

caregiver internalized in infancy, determine connectedness in relationships and

predict adolescents’ capacities for stable intimacy and academic accomplishment.

While they found that many aspects of the ‘‘working models’’ appear to develop in a

In this regard, the Stand Up! Help Out! program actively seeks to develop long-lasting mentoring

relationships, as youth are eligible to return to subsequent programs. Youth who are not currently

apprentices are encouraged to come back for additional supports, such as assistance with resume-writing,

letters of recommendation, etc.

98 J. J. Bulanda, K. T. McCrea


straightforwardly linear fashion from early childhood experiences, their findings

also led them to posit an ‘‘organizational development’’ view of the mind. They

emphasize that personality capacities also are emergent, evolving from contempo-

rary relationships and from individuals’ experiences of their own agency.

Building on the developmental approaches of Blos and Sroufe et al., one can

speculate that after school programs with strong emphases on stimulating positive

peer experiences and supportive mentoring can have preventative and even

therapeutic effects for disadvantaged adolescents. Those youth who experienced

very positive early caregiver-child relationships, with a healthy attachment and

separation-individuation process, can find support for their age-appropriate efforts

to organize identities for themselves that are differentiated from their families of

origin. Those youth who may have suffered more traumatizing early relationships

may use the after-school program supports to experience competence and

connectedness, and to explore developmental tasks with help not otherwise

available for them. The rich relationship support made possible in after-school

programs and mentoring relationships thus can have considerable value in

preventing maladaptive responses to the challenges of adolescence, especially for

those youth who may have suffered developmental stressors such as parental neglect

or abuse.

Coming up to the present, there is considerable need for more specific research

about how mentoring can best be organized to support adolescents’ healthy

development. After completing a comprehensive review of literature on mentoring

relationships, DuBois and Karcher (2005, p. 8) stated that, ‘‘At present, interrela-

tionships between theory, research, and practice are lacking in many important

respects and thus in need of greater cultivation.’’ Rhodes (2005) also argued that

further research needs to address the question, ‘‘How does mentoring work?’’ Hirsch

and Wong (2005) commented that mentoring relationships in after school programs

are different than formal mentoring programs, and recommended that researchers

use a variety of methods to study after school programs, include diverse

environmental settings, and study the impact of program organizational structure

on after-school mentoring (p. 373–374).

Evaluating after school programs is complicated given the different community

contexts and students the programs serve, which greatly multiply the variables

impacting youth. Moreover, compared to other fields such as early intervention,

there has been a relative lack of applied research about after school programs

(Halpern 2006). Studies that have evaluated after-school programs ranged from an

intensive study of the beginnings of After School Matters in Chicago [the program

funding SUHO (Proscio 2003)], to a large-scale meta-analysis of 73 experimental

research design program reports (Durlak and Weissberg 2007), to a report of after

school programs in four cities (Proscio and Whiting 2004), and a recently completed

mixed methods investigation of 200 programs in six cities (Deschenes et al. 2010).

All found after school programs are cost-effective and have numerous positive

effects. In one study, participating youth improved grades and graduation rates and

reduced failure and drop-out rates by comparison with themselves prior to

participation and by comparison with non-participating youth (Goerge et al. 2007).

After school programs reduced by one-sixth the likelihood that high school

The Promise of an Accumulation of Care 99


freshman boys would be involved in a crime (Newman et al. 2000, p. 10). In sum,

findings that after-school programs can improve youths’ academic and personal

outcomes are now no longer in question.

However, Halpern (2006), arguably the leading researcher in the field, emphasized

that a broad-brush approach in which dozens of programs are studied using ‘‘off the

shelf’’ measures, grades, and test scores cannot maintain fidelity to participants’

cultures, specific developmental needs, community contexts, and individual program

variations. In fact, Halpern (2006) called conclusions based on such approaches ‘‘The

big lie.’’ Instead, he and other researchers (Durlak and Weissberg 2007; Proscio and

Whiting 2004) have called for more in-depth studies of programs with specified

populations, to understand, with fidelity to the participants’ specific contexts and

developmental processes, how after-school programs can best achieve positive

outcomes for youth. Understanding how to promote youths’ participation is vital, since

as Granger and Kane (2004) note, programs cannot be effective if students do not

attend (they had found that average after-school program attendance by elementary

and middle school students was only 1–2 days per week). Priorities generated by other

researchers are to understand what children and youth participants experience as

meaningful, in order to foster their engagement (Deschenes et al. 2010) and to

understand more about how after school programs can help students develop specific

relationship skills (Durlak and Weissberg 2007).

Here we respond to those priorities, as this is an in-depth study of a single

program, focusing on the perspectives of children and youth about services, so as to

better understand how to promote student engagement and the development of their

relationship skills. Because participatory action research methods have a track

record of effectively reducing social exclusion of disadvantaged youth from social

services (Macran et al. 1999), we combined a participatory action and qualitative

approach. Youths’ perspectives offer important insights for service planners and

researchers, especially since the majority of after school program researchers have

studied youths’ behavior or test scores (a 3rd person perspective), rather than seeking

youths’ opinions about services (a 1st person perspective). Self-determination theory

(Ryan and Deci 2008; Ryan et al. 1994), relationship-focused psychodynamic theory

(Solomon and Siegel 2003; Wallin 2007) and trauma treatment theory (Courtois and

Ford 2009) provided the theoretical contexts for program planning and evaluation.

We termed the constructive relationship capacities to be influenced by the program

caregiving heuristics: Psychological structures that ground individuals’ decisions in
caring for themselves and others (Tyson McCrea and Bulanda 2008, 2010). These

theoretical foundations are further discussed below.

The Program and the Participants

Stand Up Help Out

The adolescent leadership development program, SUHO, is an apprenticeship in

social work for African-American youth residing in socioeconomically disadvan-

taged neighborhoods. Training the youth in principles of the profession of social

100 J. J. Bulanda, K. T. McCrea


work, SUHO focuses on helping youth respond actively and constructively to the

many challenges of living in a poverty-level community. To develop youths’

professional skills, SUHO treats program participation like employment: The

apprentices interview for positions, are paid a stipend (averaging $400 during

2006–2008), and are expected to learn and maintain professional standards of

conduct (per After School Matters, the program’s primary funder since 2006).

Typically, summer programs last for 6 weeks and meet 5 days a week for 4 h a day.

School-year programs last 10 weeks and meet 3–4 days a week for a total of 9 h per


SUHO was first funded in 2006, during a time of forced community

fragmentation, as public housing was being torn down and replaced with mixed-

income housing to which most youth could not be admitted (Venkatesh and Celimli

2004). SUHO is youth-led: youth actively plan program goals and activities,

evaluate the program (for instance, by interviewing each other to gather opinions

about program strengths and weaknesses, see Appendix), and contribute to future

program design. After an initial period in which we carried out a community needs

assessment and conducted three pilot SUHO programs for one year, refining them in

response to youths’ feedback, we systematically studied the impact of two (Summer

and Fall 2007) SUHO programs on the variable of youths’ capacities for

constructive relating (defined more specifically below).

The youth were remarkably productive. Major accomplishments of Summer, 2007

youth were learning non-violent conflict resolution strategies, authoring Beyond the
Stars (a social skills curriculum for elementary school children), teaching and
mentoring forty elementary-age children, creating a documentary about using

nonviolent strategies to respond to community violence, and completing two college

tours and an updated resume. Participants in the Fall program also went on college

tours, completed resumes, learned about non-violent conflict resolution, mentored 60

elementary school children, and planned community health and safety fairs.

Team building was a central component in achieving these accomplishments. All

projects required teamwork and all participants had opportunities for leadership on

the various committees. A weekly ‘‘sharing circle’’ took place. During this time,

they were able to share personal beliefs, stories, and concerns ranging from

‘‘favorite food’’ to ‘‘biggest insecurity.’’ This was also a time for the youth to give

feedback about the strengths and needs of the programming as well as to participate

in strategic planning (i.e., what the group wanted to accomplish in future programs).

The SUHO program prioritized providing supportive counseling to youth,

especially those who reported traumas verbally or conveyed their need non-verbally

(by withdrawal or context-inappropriate aggression). Instructors were M.S.W.

School social workers and/or graduate students in social work, who in turn received

clinical supervision from a supervisor with more than 25 years clinical social work

experience with children and youth. Youth also received counseling as-needed by

graduate-level social work interns.

Instructors developed goals for individual

SUHO instructors and interns thus had much more education and specific training in counseling,

compared to most after-school program instructors, whose highest educational credential tend to be high

school diplomas (Halpern 2006).

The Promise of an Accumulation of Care 101


personal and professional development with the youth, and also provided counseling

as needed.

Involving the youth thoroughly in program design, evaluation, and proposal

conceptualization may have contributed to the program’s appeal and youths’

attendance, as SUHO program attendance rates were 88 % (Summer 2007) and

90 % (Fall 2007), quite high compared to other after school programs. For instance,

Deschenes et al. (2010), in their survey of 200 after school programs in six cities,

defined high participation as 70–79 %. (In SUHO, attendance meant that students

were only allowed three absences and were expected to be punctual, carry out

responsibilities, and handle peer relationships without fighting). Whereas in

Chicago in 2005, about twice as many youth applied for After School Matters

Programs as there were spaces available (Proscio and Whiting 2004), SUHO

regularly had four times as many youth applying as could be accepted. Youth also

voted with their feet by attending more than one program, as 15 (47 %) chose to

participate in both Summer and Fall 2007 programs, deemed a high level of

retention compared to other programs for older youth by Deschenes et al. (2010).

Participant Characteristics

There were 32 African-American participants in the research reported here, aged

14–16, all residing in poverty-level communities.

While all SUHO youth had

sufficient motivation to seek out and regularly attend an after-school program, all

were exposed to potentially traumatic events in their homes and/or communities.

Many of the SUHO students were in schools that had been evaluated as among the

worst in a city that in turn has some of the worst schools in the country (facing

challenges such as that 85 % of Chicago’s public school students are from low-

income families, cited in Proscio 2002). The SUHO apprentices reported problems

including a lack of textbooks, gang warfare in school hallways, and hostile and

sexually seductive school staff. All 32 SUHO participants had witnessed a fatal act

of community violence and/or had a family member killed. The majority reported

having received violent corporal punishment, 16 (50 %) reported separation from

birth parents and residing in foster care or with a kin guardian, and 10 % reported

having been sexually abused (this percentage is probably low given that most youth

did not regard seduction by a much older adult as abuse). Many often were hungry

and lacked adequate housing and food. Many suffered from impaired interpersonal

skills indicating traumatic reactions, ranging from being severely withdrawn to

being disruptively humorous, verbally insulting, aggressive with peers, and

professing pervasive mistrust.

An important context for understanding the SUHO program and its impact is the

fact that youth were often being traumatized while services were occurring (despite

instructors’ assiduous efforts at child protection). Those traumas included educa-

tional deprivation, lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter, being targets of

In concert with codes of ethics and human subjects regulations, confidentiality is protected by using

pseudonyms and disguising potentially identifying information.

102 J. J. Bulanda, K. T. McCrea


muggings, gunfire, and other violence, sexual seductions by adults, and pressures to

join gangs, drop out of school, and abuse drugs and alcohol.


Conceptual Background: Self-determination Theory and Constructive


The SUHO program used self-determination theory as one conceptual foundation.

Self-determination theory (SDT) draws from humanistic, psychoanalytic, develop-

ment, behavioral, cognitive, and post-modern theories in a well-researched theory of

human development and psychological change (Ryan and Deci 2002, 2000). SDT

posits that humans experience well-being when interactions with their environments

satisfy their needs for self-determination, understood as comprised of competence,

autonomy, and relatedness (Ryan and Deci 2000, 2002, p. 6). Competence is a

person’s assessment of her/his capability to successfully complete a task, a ‘‘felt

sense of confidence and effectance in action’’ (Ryan and Deci 2002, p. 7).

Autonomy concerns perceived internal locus of control related to choices,

acknowledgment of feelings, and opportunities for self-direction (Deci and Ryan


Relatedness—the central part of the dependent variable in our study—refers to
‘‘feeling connected to others, to caring for and being cared for by those others, to

having a sense of belongingness both with other individuals and with one’s

community’’ (Ryan and Deci 2002, p. 7). The concept of relatedness thus is

consistent with and builds upon the contributions of Mahler et al. (1975), Blos

(1979), and Sroufe et al. (2005) described above. ‘‘Constructive’’ is added to the

term relatedness for our dependent variable because youth can feel very invested in

activities such as gang membership or bullying, yet those are destructive forms of


SDT, like psychodynamic theories (Wallin 2007), holds that relationships are

internalized throughout the lifespan, using both conscious and unconscious

processes, forming mental representations of self and other that direct an

individual’s perception of events and future planning (Ryan et al. 1994). As was

mentioned previously in incorporating concepts from psychodynamic, object

relations, and attachment theories (Mahler et al. 1975; Blos 1979; Sroufe et al.

2005), adolescents in the throes of the individuation and separation process do best

when they can sustain an experience of healthy emotional reliance on adults as well

as on peers (Ryan et al. 2005). Following SDT, we designed SUHO to maximize

youths’ experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This study focuses

specifically on relatedness.

Our focus on constructive relatedness draws in part from Rauner’s (2000)

seminal work on caring in six youth programs. She focused on developing caring

behaviors, arguing that caring is a necessary context for growth and that it occurs on

many levels: spontaneous individual contacts, actions of professionals, the structure

of organizations, and society (p. 3). Fundamentally, caring is ‘‘the ‘stuff’ behind

The Promise of an Accumulation of Care 103


transforming experiences and relationships… …

Let our team of professional writers take care of your essay for you! We provide quality and plagiarism free academic papers written from scratch. Sit back, relax, and leave the writing to us! Meet some of our best research paper writing experts. We obey strict privacy policies to secure every byte of information between you and us.