Studies have found that opportunity youth described as young people, ages 16 to 24 not enrolled in school and unemployed, but engaged with social services; do best when they have dreams, goals and a positive view of themselves. Other studies have explored positive youth development intervention yet a gap exists in the role played by character virtues in youth’s views of themselves. We explored the youth’s experience with character virtues of gratitude, generosity, and hope from the perspectives of opportunity youth and social service providers (providers). We asked youth and their providers: (a) What are the experiences of youth with the character virtues of gratitude, generosity and hope and (b) How do youth use these character virtues to increase positive feelings and to help themselves and others?
Youth experiencing homelessness and aging out of foster care and social service providers were recruited using a flyer distributed at six locations of one agency. A total of 33 informants, 23 youth, ages 18 - 22 participated in six separate focus groups and 10 providers ages 24 - 54, in personal interviews. Youth self-identified as male (6), female (15), transgender (2), and were 78% youth of color. Providers self-identified as female (6), male (2), gender non-binary (2), and white (10). Following screening, we provided definitions of the character virtues and asked the participants to complete a personal history sheet, and participate in audio-taped interviews that were transcribed verbatim. Emic codes were induced through repeated readings of each transcript by three independent coders. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. Peer debriefing and member checking enhanced the credibility of our interpretations.
The youth identified paying it forward, taking action, and helping others as components of their character virtues. They were very aware of their priorities and current challenges with adults, family members, social service agencies, and the public. For some, their struggles resulted in increased gratitude. Others reported that the lack of basic resources resulted in the formation of a close community of peers and an underlying commitment to giving back (gratitude) and to paying it forward (generosity). Providers observed generosity and hope but acknowledged that gratitude was difficult to assess in the youth due to adverse experiences. Gratitude was associated with increasing self-esteem. Providers reported that hope was linked to survival strategies and acted as a motivator to encourage youth to take action on their behalf. They incorporated various strategies including self-reflection to help youth develop their awareness of gratitude. Youth and providers agreed that there might be negative consequences to youth for being too generous, which requires attention to their sharing and giving.
Conclusions and Implications:
Our research with opportunity youth and social service providers illustrates that despite lacking resources, youth identified with the character virtues through being helped and being a helper. Providers concurred and used strategies to increase the virtues but cautioned that youth sharing their resources with others might inadvertently result in more scarcity for them.