By Elizabeth Darling, commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families
Did you know that human services programs can benefit from helping program participants build their social capital, or relationships, networks, and community connections, which then empowers individuals on their road to future success?
According to Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert Putnam, research shows that people with higher levels of social capital “are healthier and happier, find better jobs, [and] live longer” and that “communities with higher levels of social capital are likely to have higher educational achievement,… faster economic growth, and less crime.”
Social capital is often one piece of a larger intervention of social service delivery, and some of the most common strategies are peer-to-peer support and individual or group mentoring. This may involve compassionate volunteers who can play a longer-term role in service delivery, not replacing social workers or case managers, but working alongside participants in publicly or privately funded programs. Volunteers are motivated by their interest in serving others, their ability to use their previous work experience (e.g., retirees), and/or desire to transform their communities. Relationships are two-way streets, and volunteer mentors often get as much out of the connection as participants, for example as they get to know and learn from a resilient young person.
I’m intrigued by a new analysis that suggested “significant life transformation” of youth aging out of foster care, at-risk single moms, and homeless veterans, through an intensive, relationship-focused, volunteer-based model, the Open Table initiative.
The nonprofit Open Table model uses a group of trained volunteers, known as “Table Members” who provide ongoing support to an individual or family in need, referred to as “Friends.” Table members commit to meeting once a week for a year with their Friend, helping them develop their own life plan, and Table Members use their own social networks to help implement that plan. Open Table is a model embraced by many faith-based entities as well as secular groups, including businesses that seek to engage employees in meaningful volunteer service that has a positive impact on youth or families.
One of the projects studied is a Runaway & Homeless Youth Transitional Living Program (RHY-TLP), Crosswinds Youth Services, in Cocoa Beach, FL who partnered with Open Table in 2018. Five “Tables” were formed through a local church to provide group mentoring to help at-risk young people successfully exit the TLP program.
The Chief Operating Officer of Crosswinds, Karen Locke, happily explained the partnership, “Open Table has added an element of support to our youth we could not have imagined. While we are still in the early stages, if the Tables succeed in helping these youth transition safely back into the community for the long-term, it may allow us to rethink our role as more of a crisis intervention and stabilization role, able to serve more youth with a shorter length of stay.”
Open Table also has partnerships with four other RHY-funded programs to serve their youth living in Transitional Living Programs.
The preliminary case study, “Open Table: Leveraging Relationships to Transform Communities” describes a limited number of participants and program outcomes and was published in May 2020 by Baylor University Institute for the Study of Religion. Based on potential negative outcomes these participants averted and participant changes over time, it also shows that a positive return on investment (ROI) of funds invested in the Open Table program may be possible.
Byron R. Johnson, Ph.D., founding director of the Institute and Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor explains, “What this case study evaluation helped us to discover is a way for individuals with charitable intentions, who are often frustrated with the limits of more episodic, transactional forms of charity that focus on distributing commodities like food and clothing, to give of themselves in a more personal and direct manner.” He continued, “Open Table has taken this idea and developed an intensive training process to help volunteers seeking this type of charity in areas such as active listening and supporting an individual’s need to develop their own life plan.”
“The Open Table program trains community-based volunteers to provide relational and social supports through weekly meetings with individuals referred to the program who face a variety of needs and challenges for themselves and their children,” Johnson explained, “Beyond a food pantry or soup kitchen or clothing closet, this program develops familial relationships, something that is often in scarce supply for these individuals.”
 Testimony of Robert Putnam (2017). The state of social capital in America: Hearing before the Joint Economic Committee, Senate 155 Cong. Retrieved from https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/737fd99b-fff6-4091-94b...