CEDAR RAPIDS — As a freshman at Washington High School, Daysha Gibson said she felt confused about her future. Should she go to college? Enter the workforce?
Some would say to her, “Follow your dreams,” but she hadn’t yet identified hers.
Three years ago, that began to change when her mom placed her in nonprofit Four Oaks’ TotalChild workforce program, an initiative that connects youth with supportive services until age 26 to help them identify their passions and set sustainable career goals.
Program participants have the option of connecting one-on-one with a community mentor who can provide guidance based on real-world experience. Four Oaks Success Manager Casie Eichenberger said 115 young adults are involved in the program, though not all have a mentor and it is not a program requirement.
Mentorship from Four Oaks staff and Mary Kemen, an anesthesiologist at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, helped Gibson find her path.
“I was like maybe the medical field’s for me, and I love helping people,” said Gibson, 18. “I love taking care of people. I love being like that person that people can lean towards.”
And as COVID-19 had already upended school operations and created new challenges for teenagers, Gibson prepared for another change: the birth of her son, Drayven, on June 22.
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A baby wasn’t in her plans, so she said she initially “freaked out” and worried her grades would drop as a student who typically earns As and Bs. But assistance from her mother, accommodating teachers, Four Oaks staff and the rest of her support system helped her adjust to being a parent while finishing high school.
Luckily, baby Drayven’s “easygoing” nature helped her manage it all, too, Gibson said, and he keeps his crying to a minimum. Virtual learning helped her avoid having to find a babysitter. Her mom would sometimes watch him or she could keep him in his crib or baby swing while she completed her schoolwork.
Rather than causing her to lose focus, her son has changed her life for the better, Gibson said. She graduated early in fall 2020 and on Wednesday started a part-time job at Dollar Tree, and plans to enroll this fall in Kirkwood Community College to earn her certified nursing assistant degree.
Seeing how well Drayven’s doctors care for him inspired her to eventually go to nursing school and become a pediatric nurse.
“Now I’m not losing focus on things and not blocking things out because of friends or because I want to do this,” Gibson said. “No, because I know I have a son, so I have to be on top of these things.”
The Four Oaks program has shifted to virtual meetings because of the pandemic, so Kemen and Gibson video chat every couple of weeks. Gibson said having Kemen to turn to for advice has been helpful to understand what her future may look like.
“It’s a lot of school. You really have to be focused and hardworking, but she told me she thinks I’ll do really good at it,” Gibson said. “So she’s kind of helped me break it down and everything, kind of put into perspective for me. I really love talking to her, because it’s another person in the medical field, because anybody can tell me about a nursing job, but she can really break every little point down for me.”
Kemen said it brings her joy to see young people like Gibson looking to enter the field — she tells them “they’re the future of my profession.” She said she enjoys seeing how young people think through their aspirations and make a plan, but sometimes they need affirmation and help crafting actionable goals.
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“Being somebody who didn’t have a typical straightforward path to my own career, I’ve recognized for a long time that we give a very ... narrow perspective for people who are trying to find their pathway into a career into adulthood,” Kemen said.
She said young people tend to get the message that success comes in set patterns: Earn specific academic credentials and find a job with social prominence or high earning potential.
“Instead what we should help people realize is your real success in life is to find what you love to do and then to allow yourself to take the pathway that will take you to that,” Kemen said. “That’s what real success is as an adult.”
Eichenberger said there is a need for more community mentors to help youth in Linn County and be “another support person, somebody else who kind of has their back, somebody cheering for them to be successful” outside of their immediate family.
The program takes referrals from area schools and other community social service agencies, Eichenberger said, but any youth who want to can join — the only requirements to participate are being in the proper age range and residing in Linn County.
When she’s old enough, Gibson said she could see herself continuing in the program, but on the other end — as a mentor.
“I would love to do that because that’s what they did for me, so I can give what I learned back to other people, help them get on the right path, help them decide what they want to do with their life if they’re not really sure,” Gibson said.
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