This profile was prepared when Connie Siskowski was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.
The New Idea
Connie imagines a society where caregivers of all ages are supported to succeed in their dual roles and where contributions to family and community health are broadly recognized and valued. To achieve this, Connie is assisting youth who have significant responsibilities for ill, aging or disabled family members complete their education and achieve success in their lives through a program taking place in Palm Beach County, Florida middle schools. The Caregiving Youth Project (CYP) is the only comprehensive program for youth caregivers in the United States.Connie believes that school is the work life of children. Just as employed adults can be physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually and financially stressed when they have significant care responsibilities at home, children in school also become stressed when they are providing substantial assistance, often on a regular basis, to relatives who need help because of physical or mental illness, disability, frailty associated with aging, substance misuse or other conditions. While adult caregivers miss work, youth caregivers miss school, and sometimes even quit to find a job to help support their family financially.Connie is changing the way the education system, social work and health care professionals as well as community organizations approach youth caregivers. Instead of having these children face disciplinary action or work with school counselors after they start to show signs of delinquency or strain from care responsibilities, she has developed a system that offers support to these children immediately to prevent them from having to choose between school and family. As a result, children are staying in school and families are staying together.While Britain and a few other countries have already initiated support for youth caregivers, Connie is creating a unique response to the challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of children in the United States who are still hidden from public view or consideration. Unlike programs outside the United States that stand alone outside social systems, Connie’s model integrates health, education and community systems in crafting holistic, mind-body-spirit solutions. It is the only known model that is providing wrap-around social support to youth caregivers in school, as well as in the home.