Brandi Pilcher has turned her life around with help from Project NorthStar

Finding True North

Countywide Program Helps Struggling Students, Young Adults

by Steve Vedder  

Brandi Pilcher knew she was going in the wrong direction, but didn't know how to change course. That is, until she found her north star.

As a teenager in Louisiana, Pilcher by her own admission made bad decisions, lacked education and direction, and had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She admits she frequently engaged in "not very adult-like things."

Project NorthStar

  • Project NorthStar is a program for youth ages 14 to 24 facing barriers to graduation or getting a job. Common obstacles they face include being low-income, loss of academic credits and homelessness. Refugees, pregnant or parenting young women, and youth involved with the justice system also receive support.
  • Founded in 2006, the program teaches teens and young adults a range of skills crucial to success in finding a job, and assists in goal-setting and academic support. It equips them with the tools to graduate, get a post-secondary education and find employment.
  • NorthStar helps students polish interviewing skills, build resumes and explore career choices, while also teaching time management and monitoring academic progress. A grant-funded initiative also helps students become financially literate.
  • Services are offered at 19 Kent County sites, including nearly a dozen public high schools along with nonpublic and charter schools. Case managers are assigned to each site, who identify the services that will benefit their youth. Most services are available as either individual or group activities.
  • The program is built around funding from and requirements of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act's Youth Program.

Source: Kent ISD

While on her clearest days Pilcher knew she needed to stop doing those things, she also felt she was slowly losing the fight. Something had to change. And the answers weren't easy.

"I knew I wasn't living right," Pilcher said. "I knew I needed to grow; I needed someone to push me in the right direction."

She eventually found that someone, in a program far to the north in Kent County, Michigan, called Project NorthStar. But it took time to get there, and hard experiences through her teen years.

Though she knew she needed help, Pilcher struggled to break her cycle of self-destructive behavior. School was never a comfortable fit, as she often found herself in trouble with teachers, the administration and other students.

'We try to start from the beginning while keeping the end in mind.' -- Karen Wolthuis, Project NorthStar coordinator

She said she began doing heroin with her father, who eventually died after being on kidney dialysis. Devastated, Pilcher's problems at school mounted. She said she was asked to leave high school, became pregnant at 17, failed rehab and was sent to a hospital for psychological evaluation. "They wanted to see if I was crazy," Pilcher said.

If life had a bottom, Pilcher had reached it by her late teens.

"I definitely wanted to help myself," she said. "It's like I just needed help with my confidence."

A Life-Changing Move

With the help of her aunt and uncle, Pilcher wound up moving to Grand Rapids a couple years ago for a more constructive life, and began taking GED classes at Beckwith School, part of Grand Rapids Public Schools. There she learned the basics of reading, social studies, math, science and writing.

That's when she was steered to Project NorthStar, and her life took on a more positive trajectory.

Project NorthStar is a joint venture between Kent ISD and Michigan Works! It aims to address academic, career, personal and social concerns of economically disadvantaged Kent County youth between ages 14 and 24.

Pilcher, now 23, said she connected with NorthStar caseworker Briggitta Sartore, and that the program taught her confidence and knowledge while providing guidance.

'She helped me to learn that I can do these things, that I'm not a loser.' -- Brandi Pilcher, on her caseworker at Project NorthStar

She first met Sartore after the case manager awoke her in a classroom, got her something to eat and encouraged her to get to work. The two eventually bonded when Pilcher discovered she'd met someone who seemed truly interested in her plight.

"There were days when I wanted to be there, and Briggitta and I would just talk about why I was there and what I needed to do," Pilcher said. "She was interested not only in my future, but in my past.

"She helped me to learn that I can do these things, that I'm not a loser."

Sartore said that she was immediately struck with Pilcher's honesty about past mistakes, not trying to pretend or deflect blame onto others. The relationship grew to the point where Pilcher was babysitting Sartore's son.

"She knew she was responsible for the lifestyle she previously lived, and she knew it was her that would be the one who could change things," Sartore said. "She worked so hard and so fast on getting her high school done. She attended regularly despite health and family problems.

"She has been hard-working, dedicated and willing to do what it takes to succeed," Sartore added. "I can't wait to see where she may be in a few years."

Related Story: Financial Literacy Helps Students Navigate Complex World - Their teen and young adult years typically are a pivotal time for students. Karen Wolthuis hopes their decisions can be simplified by a program offering them a range of tools critical to their future.

Project NorthStar's Financial Literacy Program serves at-risk students and young adults ages 14-24 throughout Kent County at 19 sites, including high schools, alternative and secondary education schools...

Brandi Pilcher, shown here at her job for Christian Rest Home, wants to work in health care Turning Lives Around

Pilcher's path has become the epitome of what Project NorthStar is trying to accomplish for disadvantaged youths. She wound up choosing the health-care field and intends to be a nurse. She currently cares for the elderly at Christian Rest Home.

"I've looked at colleges to find a career, not just a job," she said. "I want something long-term."

Project NorthStar Coordinator Karen Wolthuis said the ultimate goals are to help students gain either a high school diploma or GED, get them ready for a career, and provide help through the Financial Literacy Program.

"Life is complex and can be confusing to handle for youth today," Wolthuis said. "There is a lot that comes your way after high school. We try to start from the beginning while keeping the end in mind. We try to teach without going backward and what it's going to take to be successful."

Core funding is built around the requirements of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act's Youth Program, which serves low-income people, the homeless and foster children. WIOA-funded programs serve students at risk of dropping out or who are already disconnected from school.

Wolthuis said Project NorthStar has a 99 percent participation satisfaction rate and 96 percent retention. Much of its value is in helping youth navigate an increasingly complicated and competitive world.

"It's eye-opening for them," she said of her students' response to the program. "They have so much they need to know."

'They Want to Become Something'

Case manager Tara Angus sees a variety of challenges, but says many students have a single common thread.

"They've definitely had a few bumps in the road," said Angus, a former high school counselor. "A lot of the kids have dropped out or they're unattached from school. We try to be their advocate in getting them back in school."

"All of them may have different stories, but I also say that these kids are survivors. They really want to become something, to be successful. They just lack some of the skills. It's a lack of confidence of being able to jump in with two feet."

Pilcher said thanks to Project NorthStar she's learned self-confidence, the value of a career, how to accept setbacks -- and one other attribute she employs daily.

"I've learned to keep trying," she said. "That I will find things that help me, that keep me positive. I've learned that you just don't give up. You keep going."

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Project NorthStar

Submitted on: February 3rd 2017

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