COE graduate finds passion in helping foster youths
WOU graduate Stephanie Benefiel was offered her dream job on a Friday in August of 2019. Just a few days later her step-daughter Lauren died of an overdose. Benefiel said Lauren’s death confirmed for her that the job – in which she splits time between supporting older foster youths in Marion and Polk counties and working as a staffer at the St. Joseph Family Shelter in Mt. Angel – was the right path.
“I feel like it was meant to be. I feel like Lauren sent me here,” she said. Benefiel said in her current position with the Catholic Community Services Consortium of Marion County she works with people at both ends of the Oregon Department of Human Services system: youths aged 16 to 21 who are in the foster system and families trying to get back on their feet, often after dealing with substance abuse issues.
Benefiel said she has a particular passion for her work with kids in the foster system, who she helps support in developing skills they need to be successful as they move into adulthood. She said this includes helping them get their licenses, driving them to appointments, assisting them with school issues and teaching them how to live on their own.
“I tell them I’m here to work with them on their goals,” she said. “We do a lot of goal setting. We start small and build from there.” Benefiel, who identifies as lesbian, said she has a particular passion for the work because many LGBTQ youths are kicked out of their homes because of their identity and end up in the foster care system. “I love that I can help advocate for them,” she said.
However, Benefiel, a 2011 graduate who double majored in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on health/physical education and social science at WOU, said it took her a while to find her passion after graduating.
After completing her degree she moved through a variety of jobs: first a pre-school assistant at the Salem YMCA, then she took a lead position in that pre-school program, and then as she worked in a customer service job. She then found work as a home visitor doing skills training for Family Building Blocks, when she first began to work with struggling families. She then worked for Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Marion County, coordinating 35 volunteers working with youths in the foster system.
Benefiel said the field can be challenging because she learns about the things kids have experienced that lead to them being in the foster system, but still prefers the work to a more traditional field where she’d be at a desk all day. “I like environmental change. This is the perfect job for me,” she said. “Now I work directly with youth and kids and families and I love it,” she said.
She added that while she was in college she was struggling with her identity, and she appreciated the supportive small-school culture at WOU. “I came from a very small town and going anywhere else would have been impossible,” she said.
Benefiel said that she and her partner Kiley are working to start a non-profit drug treatment center for women aged 18 to 24 in honor of Lauren. She said many treatment programs focus on women who have kids, but since Lauren didn’t have kids she didn’t have options for help, despite wanting to get clean. Their treatment center wouldn’t require women to have kids to get treatment.
They plan to call the center Lauren’s House.