After his mom died and his dad turned to alcohol, work became less a future destination for 15-year-old Sonny Qualm and more an imminent reality.
The runaway had already been working several under-the-table jobs to support himself — so why put off a full-time hourly wage for a high school diploma still three years away?
At first it was because the law said he had to. But now, 18 years old and set to graduate in May, Qualm said he has managed to stay in school because of the support of Youth Services of Oklahoma County.
Referred by a counselor at Oklahoma Centennial High School, Qualm is one of nearly four dozen Oklahoma City teenagers who currently rely on the Youth Services' Supporting Kids in Independent Living (SKIL) program to get by.
SKIL provides food, school supplies and clothing to Qualm; in return he has to maintain at least a C average at school. He works part-time as a cashier at Walmart, and SKIL helps him get there. Program funds even helped clear an expensive court fine when it appeared Qualm may be headed to jail instead of class.
“I needed cleats for football, they bought me cleats,” he said. “I needed shirts for work, they bought me shirts. If I've got no food in the house they have a little pantry here. This is an amazing program for people like me.”
But SKIL is much more than a welfare program for kids who don't want to live at home, said Debbie Forshee, chief executive at Youth Services and director of the program.
SKIL aims instead to provide a network of individualized support — both financial and personal — to teenagers who might otherwise de-prioritize school, Forshee said. Whether they leave school for work or to pursue a life on the streets, dropouts have a detrimental effect on the community and economy as a whole.
“Without a high school diploma you really have a hard time getting to that next level and the ability to do more with your life,” Forshee said. “Without that, we end up with an adult who's on welfare ... Then you and I — and Sonny here — end up paying for that. What we're really doing is providing good, taxpaying citizens for our community.”
Most of the participants in the SKIL program come from single-parent households, Forshee said. Drug addiction sometimes destroys the parent-child relationship, and sometimes these teens' parents just outright abandon them, she said.