Qiana Holmes-Abanukam is the education specialist at The Road Home, an organization dedicated to helping families in Dane County transition out of homelessness. The Road Home serves about 150 clients each year, providing housing on the north and west sides of Madison where families have access to on-site programming and support. Holmes-Abanukam helps families navigate local school systems and aims to ensure every young person she serves has a champion in their corner.
Can you tell me a bit about your work at The Road Home?
When I was a housing case manager, I spent a half of my time with homeless families trying to connect them to the schools, advocating for their kids in the schools, and helping them find resources in the neighborhood, community centers and other programs around the city. Other case managers were also doing a lot of work around education, too. I thought if we’re working towards a holistic approach to end homelessness our clients’ needed someone who could navigate the education system full time and be able to answer their questions.
I go to meetings (at schools) with parents, and if a parent can’t make it, they usually give me a release of information to go on their behalf. Attending meetings takes away a lot of time from a parent’s work day, especially if they don’t have flexible schedules or have children at various ages attending multiple schools. I hear a lot of educators thinking parents don’t want to be involved, but the reality is we don’t live in a society where every parent has a flexible schedule, direct access to reliable transportation and just one child to raise. Missing an interview, doctor’s appointment or work can set that family’s progress back and cause potentially cause them their housing.
I try to do my small role to help parents navigate education and community partnerships so that they know what resources and programs their kids can access. I advocate for more of our families to get their children connected with college prep programs, like PEOPLE, Gear Up, and AVID. I really push for kids to get involved in those programs and will help parents go over what their kids need to (apply) and make sure things get into the hands of the right people.
During the summer, I get to play with the kids a little bit more and focus on the young adults, 18 to 24-year-olds. Many of them are repeating some of the same cycles they see their parents doing. I really push for them to complete their GED and/or sign up for college courses. I also connect them to Briarpatch, Commonwealth and the Urban League for jobs and enrichment opportunities. I want to make sure they know they have options.
Why are you compelled to work with young people?
I am a mom to two awesome young men. I feel like our youth are so neglected. In my work, more than anything, I get to feel their emotions. I get to see their laughs, smiles, joys, and pains. I want each one of them to be successful in what they think this world has to offer. We have enough negative statistics and data out here, I really want youth not to just see their role models as basketball players and pop stars, but to see positive role models in their home and communities. Essentially adults and youth want the same things, to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. My role is to plant the seed. I do this by putting together a group of champions that can see the drive, determination, sassiness, and uniqueness of our youth.
What do you look for in a champion for youth?
I really want people who can walk with our youth and say, ‘Hey, I’ve lived that lifestyle, but look where I am now.’ People who show up, show out and are willing to continuously be their cheerleader during the good times and bad. Everyone loves to celebrate victories but when the going gets tough, we can’t bail on youth. Often times we have people right in our neighborhoods who are valuable assets that we overlook. They are assets not just to their households, but to the community and youth they serve. That is who our kids need to see: people who have eyes on them, who care about the direction they are going in, and the potential they have to be more than their zip code.
How did you get involved in social work?
I started off in the school district (as a special education assistant,) and I really thought that if you can reach the child and impart love, caring, and wisdom on them that they would get it and blossom into this beautiful young person. The reality is, they have to go home. It’s kind of like a tug-of-war, you instill all of these great things in them, and then they go home and we don’t know what they are experiencing at home. We don’t know the stressors for their parents or guardians. They come back to school and (educators) are constantly starting over every day. It becomes draining. In social work, I can work with families and plant those same seeds in mothers. If you can encourage and empower a woman, she can take over the world.
What did you find valuable and challenging about your work as a special education assistant?
Besides the fact that SEAs are probably some of the crappiest paid, their opinions are undervalued considering they spend the most time working with these kids one-on-one. As a SEA, your opinion is rarely taken into consideration. In a lot of cases, I’d be working with youth of color, and I would make suggestions about the way kids should be handled and talked to, that would be overlooked.
Like SEAs, kids are not often heard in the schools. We were in the same boat. I have a thing about names. A lot of times, in African-American families, we have nicknames. Teachers don’t always want to recognize that. I think to be able to call a kid, ‘Minute’ because it makes him feel good knowing he can run from one side of the playground to another in minute; or ‘Tae’ because it’s an abbreviation of his namesake that he barely knew, adds to the relationship building.
We don’t have enough people of color in the district to relate to the kids, especially doing social work. Kids are used to seeing social workers come in and take siblings away and tear families apart. So, to then see a person of color who is a social worker who is trying to keep the family together and strengthen it, that is so mindblowing.
I found it valuable to be able to be able to connect with youth on another level. That I could be their go-to person and that parents often trust our instincts.
As the Education Specialist at The Road Home, your work hits on the intersections of education and homelessness. How can we as a community better support homeless youth?
Show up for the kids, whether they’re yours or not. I’m often times that crazy person in the back of the room cheering for everyone. They are all mine because they are a part of the community I work in, they are a part of our housing, they live in our neighborhoods. I see them all every day. I am cheering for every one of their accomplishments.
As a community, we need to do a better job on a more consistent basis of getting behind and supporting our youth and showing up. We also need to do a better job supporting programs that support our youth, big or small. Go to any one of the high schools, and there are food pantries that need your resources. Kids need school supplies. We give out backpacks in August, but kids use up those supplies, backpacks break, and we have to keep these things going. Be a champion for youth, offer to tutor or mentor a child in need through the schools or a housing initiative.
Dane County has a high rate of homeless youth who feel voiceless and powerless. They are out of sight and out of mind. If we are not thinking about them, then what is going to happen to that generation? I don’t want a lost child that is figuring it out. I want a child that is confident, compassionate, and empathetic because someone took the time to engage and support them.