Young Adults Aging Out of the “System” -Diakon’s Flight Program

From Rob Kivlan, former Flight Program Manager, Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries 

In the early part of the 20th century, one of the orphanages in the history of Diakon Lutheran Social Ministries created a banking system—to help the children the home served learned how to function in the world.


Decades later, adoption services now part of Diakon became a national model because they focused exclusively on the placement of children with special needs, abandoning “traditional” adoption.

Such innovation is a hallmark of the Diakon legacy.

Five years ago, Diakon turned its attention to a problem its staff saw firsthand as they worked to change the lives of adjudicated delinquent and dependent teenagers—there was very little help for these young people the minute they “aged out” of the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

A birthday rolled around and, essentially, the youths were on their own. The support that was edging these young people closer to a productive path to success quite frequently disappeared—and the road back to old habits was an easy one.

In response, Diakon created the Flight Program.

For many of its participants, Flight was a lifeline. For others, it became an amazing vehicle through which they soared to newfound success.

Initially partly funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Flight Program is a mentoring and training program designed to help youths no longer eligible for traditional assistance to become contributing members of society. Typically, they have histories of poverty, addictions, and delinquent behaviors. Quite frequently, because they had not been adopted or their foster care services ended, they lacked the needed resources and support to achieve success at work, at home, and in school—in life.

Yet they recognized that they wanted better for themselves—and so they voluntarily committed to take part in Flight.

Based at the Diakon Wilderness School near Boiling Springs, Pa., the Flight Program has seen the majority of its participants successfully obtain meaningful employment, enroll in college or trade school, and achieve the ability to live independently without need for further assistance or government support.

How has Flight achieved this? 

Beyond its emphasis on voluntary commitment to self-motivation and peer support, Flight emphasizes relationship-based delivery of services.  Because those it serves have already been exposed to traditional programs and interventions, Flight focuses on becoming a long-term, consistent presence in participants’ lives, guiding them through their steps toward adulthood much the way a stable, supportive family would shepherd a son or daughter through the next phases of life.

Flight participants are assured they will receive a year of consistent, meaningful support.  Rather than depending on various service providers and programs, Flight’s skilled staff members take a lead role in personally teaching lacking life-skills, as well as guiding participants in achieving positive, independent living.

By aligning each young adult with a staff member committed to making the sometimes-difficult journey alongside the youth, gaps in service disappear.

Plus, the voluntary nature of Flight encourages success. When Diakon team members explain we’re here to help the youths succeed and applaud their reaching out for help, a connection is made. Moreover, former Flight participants remain committed to the program, regularly mentoring current participants from the perspective of someone “who has been there.” This consistent peer support, feedback and encouragement are invaluable.

Every other week, participants and graduates gather to share successes and struggles with one another, as well as participate in activities, community service, and field trips to new and positive environments. Combining the consistent presence of a trusted staff member with this fraternal element underscores the hope Flight offers.

In fact, for some, Flight has been the last hope. 

Chris, now 22, gainfully employed, married, and a father, attempted suicide at 18. Only his awareness of the hope possible in Flight prompted his last-ditch call for help—help that in this case literally saved his life.

Today, he remains a force in Flight.

“I want to show [other youths] that they can make it,” he says. “I know personally how hard it can be, but I can also tell them anything is achievable if they work at it and seek guidance and help along the way … I don’t know what my life would have looked like without [Flight].”

Perhaps, for Chris, there might not even have been life without Flight.


To Read More About Diakon’s Flight Program…Click Here

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