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Helping youth find hopeful purpose

By Sarah Odendahl

Teen boy wearing black letterman jacket facing window. The back of the jacket reads "no longer lost".
I sometimes find myself talking with other parents about the desire to help our children thrive as they grow - but what does thriving really mean? How do we define it? The 4-H Thriving Model describes youth thriving as "social, emotional, and cognitive learning." It also describes seven indicators of thriving, including "hopeful purpose."

The model describes a hopeful purpose this way: "Thriving youth have a sense of hope and purpose, and see themselves on the way to a happy and successful future." How common is it for young people to feel this way? 

Two surveys from the end of 2023 asked youth about hope and purpose more directly. Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation report only 64-69% of youth 12-17 often or always believe "my life has direction." Common Sense Media shares that less than 50% of youth 12-17 believe they will be better off than their parents, and that there are significant differences in that belief by race.

As youth workers and volunteers, how can we help youth develop that hopeful purpose?

  • Help youth make connections to others. The Gallup survey correlated large gaps in happiness for Gen Zers who feel loved and supported by others compared to those who don’t. Youth programs are a great place for youth to build supportive relationships with peers and adults.
  • Support youth as change agents. 70% of Gen Zers report being "involved in a social or political cause." Youth programs can be a safe place for youth to learn more about social issues, to connect with others who have differing opinions, and to gain leadership skills that will help their activism lead to meaningful change.
  • Expand possibilities for young people. The Developmental Relationships framework from Search Institute has shown that adults who can help youth see new possibilities for their future and connect them to those goals are an important part of helping youth succeed.
As you go into your youth work this week, think about ways you can connect youth to hopeful purpose. Do you know how the youth in your life are feeling about their futures?

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

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  1. I primarily work with adolescents and this is a topic that is always top of mind for me and I appreciate you bringing it forward here. The concept of "hopeful purpose" is POWERFUL. To me, it takes away maybe some of the academic pressures many of our young people face and leans into action, dreams, and individualism- which unfortunately the school system might be missing for some young people (especially those underrepresented or marginalized youth (including youth in poverty) . I agree whole-heartedly that we as youth workers are well positioned to support youth using the Thriving Model in authentic ways. I am looking forward in the next few weeks as summer camps are underway, to intentionally bring up social connection, changer agent opportunities, and having conversations that may expand the campers and counselors possibilities. Thanks Sarah for the post!


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