Jason Juretic is the CEO of Stepping Stone House, which provides long-term accommodation, learning and development for vulnerable youth in the Sydney region. He is this week’s Changemaker at Pro Bono Australia.
Established in 1989, Stepping Stone House is a not-for-profit organisation that provides accommodation and personal development for children and young people aged 12 to 24 years old who through no fault of their own find themselves homeless, at risk or unable to live at home.
The aim is to develop their self-esteem, resilience and self-confidence and put them on the path to responsible independence so they can fulfil their potential.
Juretic, who joined the team in 2015, says it is the best job he has ever had.
In this week’s Changemaker he talks about putting an end to youth homelessness, giving young people the stepping stones to independence and why it is important to be happy and take a risk.
What attracted you to the not-for-profit sector?
Primarily, it was to help young people, ultimately homeless kids or kids who are at risk of homelessness, to be the best they can be. And also hopefully, help them have a few moments where they have wonderful childhood memories. That’s it in a nutshell really.
What does a typical day for you look like as CEO of Stepping Stone House?
It’s a mixed bunch. So a lot of my time is spent fundraising, we’ve got 50 children and young people that we provide care for, of which 13 live in our homes and then we’ve got a further 37 in our aftercare program. Of the 50 kids, four are funded by the government, so we have to get out there and fundraise for the other 46.
So I’ll be approaching corporates asking them for financial donations or support in one way or another or for asset-based donations.
I also will be involved with the kids themselves, so I might take them out and run a workshop for them in believing in themselves, or developing life skills, or driving lessons, or the like. Adventure education is a fundamental method of development for our young people so I also attend and run many activities too.
Over and above that, I lead our team. So we’ve got a team of about 12 staff in total and I lead the team on a day-to-day basis, in terms of just running meetings or giving direction.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
I think it is when the kids are at a very low ebb, they are in the depths of dealing with the trauma that they have experienced prior to coming to Stepping Stone House. It is very challenging when you see them having to go through and address very deep and traumatic issues, especially when you know it is through no fault of their own. It has come about often just through circumstance, and it is very, very sad to see. That would probably be the most difficult thing I think.
What are some of the main causes for why young people end up in Stepping Stone House?
Sydney is a primary focus for us and obviously the cost of private rental is very, very high. So you have got young people who potentially maybe coming out of funded care at 18 years old and often they are in a position where they are just unable to actually afford the rent with a part-time job or sometimes even with a full-time job, so they are ending up having to couch surf or literally be out on the streets.
It is that also combined with their parents potentially not supporting them, or they may not even have the skills, or there could be mental health issues there within their own sort of family and that in turn puts the parents in a position where they not be able to provide the care that they need.
What can be done to end youth homelessness?
I think going and fixing the issue before it becomes an issue is a key one. Listen to kids who may be in a rough place, extend a helping hand to them. Mental health is obviously a significant issue right now in Australia and becoming increasingly significant, that certainly can lead, as I mentioned before, to homelessness. And so just asking are you ok to the people around us.
I think over and above that, as a parent, it is taking responsibility to learn the best method possible to parent your kids.
And when the issue has occurred and kids have become homeless, it is supporting those charities that I think are already doing a great job in helping them get back on their feet and become strong individuals with a great compelling future and becoming independent.
So those charities can be helped in a number of different ways. One way would be volunteering for those organisations or helping by attending fundraising events or donating or just helping out with the teens themselves, or even one-on-one with kids, helping teach them to drive. There are a number of different programs that is it possible for the general public to get involved in and help the kids.
What are Stepping Stones current priorities?
Our priorities are always the kids. It’s about developing and supporting our children and youth to become independent and fulfil their potential so they can be the very best they can be. Obviously because our staff are well supported they are going to help our kids more as well.
So in terms of priorities for how do we help the kids, the first thing we do is help the kids and the children and the youth who come to us address their trauma. We use a method called therapeutic care. And then over and above that it is to help them create a compelling future for themselves. So really sort of addressing who are they, what’s their identity, what do they want to be in life, what do they want to achieve? And that pathway to their future is very significant to help motivate them to do what they need to do to get themselves in a good place. And then when they have that clear picture of what their future is going to be then we help them with the building blocks, or what we call the stepping stones to independence.
It’s a program where we have multiple different homes. We have four different homes across two properties, where they work through based on their ability and their needs. So typically we have one house which is 12 to 18, then they have a semi-independent house which is for 18 and 19 years old typically, but again it depends on the need. And then a third house which is the independent living program, so that’s 19 up to their 25th birthday. And then we actually have a student flat which they move into before they graduate and leave us, so they get acclimatised and used to living on their own instead of the shared houses that we actually provide.
Then within those programs, we teach lots of skills. So there are three key areas of independence that we work on. The first is providing them with financial independence. So it is actually mandatory for any of our kids when they come into an 18-plus homes to actually secure a job within six months, so by the time they are 18 and a half they have some form of part or full-time work, or casual. And we help them develop the skills to do that, we go through the CV completion, how to apply for the jobs, the most effective ways of doing that and how to actually keep a job. So that is financial independence.
Then there is the second area of independence, emotional independence, where our trained staff utilise therapeutic care to support the children and young people in dealing with the trauma they have experienced, and also being able to deal with challenges that they will inevitably have to deal with in day to day life.
And then the third area of independence that we really drive is life skills. We’ve got a list of skills that we’ve crafted ourselves, 238 life skills and they go from cleaning your teeth to learning how to drive, budgeting skills or learning how to cook 15 dishes before they leave us. So they are very practical skills that they can go and take into life, which they should probably have been taught by their parents but for whatever reason their parents either have not been present or it just haven’t addressed.
So when they’ve got those three key areas addressed they then graduate with a lot of pomp and circumstance from Stepping Stone House and get out there and live independently, in private rental poverty with their own source of income and not in a welfare environment or housing commission. They are genuinely independent and strong.
Do you stay in contact with the young people once they leave Stepping Stone House?
Very much so. So we actually have an aftercare program. So when they first leave us we see them and touch base with them very regularly and then, over time, months later, they might only contact us once a month or just drop in for a coffee and say hello. And we provide that support until their 30th birthday and that sort of reflects what most parents are doing day to day for mainstream kids. If kids have an issue with a relationship or the car breaks down they are often still touching base with their parents to ask for some support and help and we become that support for our own Stepping Stone House kids.
And then when they hit 30 they go on to joining our alumni and then they are able to pay it forward and help the kids that we are currently caring for. They may be a TAFE qualified mentor for our kids or they might be a role model where they give advice and broaden their horizons. Some of them actually help out with maintenance of the houses and others help with fundraising events or the like. So that is the final step in our Steps to Independence model. So that’s where they go after they’ve been with us.
To be honest it is the best job I’ve ever had for that reason. It is great to see them pick themselves up, listen to our guidance and let that take them on a path so they really fulfil their potential and more.
Through your work what is your ultimate goal?
Our mission so to speak is helping all the young people that come through Stepping Stone House become strong and fulfil their potential, become independent and strong members of the community, both local and global. And that is ultimately what we’re here for.
How do you find time for yourself?
I’ve got a great family which I enjoy spending time with. I do make the time to spend a lot of time with them. But over and above my day-to-day work with Stepping Stone House I do a lot of volunteering. At the weekends we may take the kids out doing adventurous activities or teach them to drive in our “off duty time” so to speak, but it is so fulfilling. It is worthwhile. But I certainly make the time to recharge my own batteries and be with the people I love, my family and my friends.
What are you reading or watching at the moment?
A book called Midnight at Oasis by Trevor Fearnley which is about a guy who actually set up a charity which supports kids who are homeless, but more on a short-term refuge basis, whereas Stepping Stone House is very much sort of long term. So that is an interesting book I’m reading at the moment.
I watch a myriad of stuff on TV but I quite like movies which are based on real stories where people can overcome adversity, so I tend to swim through a lot of those kind of movies.
Do you have a favourite saying?
I do actually, it’s: Be happy and take a risk. Because I think often in life we don’t take a risk, we cotton wool our kids, but I think responsible risk-taking has got its place in society. So it is take a risk and “choose” to be happy.
This article was first published in Pro Bono Australia.