Helping Youth Make Positive Choices to Transform Their Lives

Deborah Shore is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work to combat homelessness among children and youth.


I am so honored to have been chosen as a Champion of Change in the Fight Against Youth Homelessness. It has been my life’s work to shelter and care for runaway and homeless youth, and it is deeply gratifying to be recognized for these contributions. It is also humbling, as there are many people who are important in all of the successes I have had and for them, I am grateful. This award has caused me to be very proud of the road I have taken but also to reflect more than usual about the lessons learned.

I began my work as a volunteer counselor at an early runaway shelter in Washington, D.C. and quickly became centrally involved with many young people who had a wide range of family backgrounds, internal resources and reasons for being homeless. I was utterly compelled by the dynamic changes these young people were experiencing and saw how valuable we could be as allies in the transformations that were occurring in their lives. 

I learned so much from this early time, as did our field. We were pioneers and helped to create  a new field, with the aid of technology, called Positive Youth Development. I believe we helped to cause the considerable shift in “depatholologizing” these young people. The all-important orientation that we continue to champion emphasizes that we are guides and advocates for youth who have capacity within themselves to transform their lives and make positive choices. 

It was a later revelation for me that working with young people in the best way meant working with their families. Early on there was a strongly held belief that young people were separating from their families and that counselors should help them in this process. Family therapy brought a different idea: that everyone in the family should be brought together to support one another’s growth and to strengthen family relationships and roles. We began to say, “whether families are part of the problem is irrelevant… but they can be part of the solution.”

I feel fortunate that I got to know some of the pioneers in the family therapy field who realized that many of the young people I knew were stymied by the lack of resolution with their family and/or continued to need family involvement to take positive steps toward their future. I learned that vilifying parents did little to empower young people. 

So we have constructed a way to work with both a “youth development” and a “family strengthening” perspective.  We used this approach along with many others.  We call what we do Competency Based Counseling; we teach staff to look for competencies, as people are more likely to change when they experience themselves as capable.  It is a set of techniques, strategies and a way of thinking. 

It is remarkable to me how these early lessons have provided so much guidance. We have added many services and have learned much as well. We have benefitted from the many evidence based curricula and programs and have utilized them to enhance our capacity. And we have gone “upstream” to provide services in the communities, schools and neighborhoods that have youth that are at special risk of becoming homeless. But the way of thinking we have developed becomes infused in all of what we do, and we are always talking about how we can be sure that these commitments are being operationalized in new programs. I am very proud that one of our newest efforts is to develop a group of Peer Leaders who are developing capacity to provide services and are taking the competency based way of thinking into street outreach and community level interactions.

As the federal leadership moves to create a larger and more targeted response to youth homelessness, I am so pleased to know that what have been my devotions are seen as having value and that youth and families in the future will not only receive more services but services which are informed by evidence of good practice. 

Deborah Shore is the Founder and Executive Director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork, a multi -service agency working with disconnected, homeless and runaway youth and families in the Washington area

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