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.
In many cases, a parent may prioritize their own financial or relationship issues over their children, and once those children are on the streets — sleeping on friends' couches, or even outside — they get lost in the system.
The state Department of Human Services is effective at finding homes for younger children, Forshee said, but often abandoned or neglected teenagers will look for support elsewhere.
“There is a whole population of kids and teenagers just like Sonny — they're street-wise, they know the ins and outs of DHS, and for them DHS is more of a hindrance and a boundary,” she said. “In this situation, Sonny just needed the support, just somebody to cheer him on and be there.”
Forshee said poverty and transportation issues contribute more to the city's dropout rate than anything else. For others, it's a social stigma that keeps them from school.
SKIL devotes significant resources to helping participating teenagers maintain a quality of life similar to their classmates, Forshee said.
“It's important to us that our kids don't look any different than your kids in the math classroom,” she said. “If you're using a graphic calculator, we want ours to use one, too.”
That support also includes things like organized information on health and wellness, assistance in finding a job and even supplying participants with a prom dress, she said. Program coordinators often attend basketball games and graduations just to cheer on the students.
Qualm said SKIL has pushed him to stay in school, and now he has a new focus. After graduation, he said, he's headed to trade school, so he can learn to work in heating and air.
And for Forshee, that's about as good as it can get, she said.
“These kids have a gut-level desire to be successful, a desire to do something more than what they saw happening in their own family unit,” she said.