Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”

Homeless Youth of California

No one really knows how many of California’s young people are homeless at any given time.  But on one day in the middle of the winter last year, a PIT count (a flash census — PIT stands for “point in time”) estimated the number to be about 15,000.  That’s 15,000 youngsters aged 12 to 24 sleeping under bridges and over heating grates, in cars, in shelters, in the woods or on someone’s couch.

I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of homeless young people, but I found this number to be truly appalling.  And that’s just for one state!

Many of these “throwaways” were abandoned at a young age or fled to escape homes marred by physical abuse, drinking and drugs.  On the street, they are frequently victims of sexual exploitation and encounter a downward spiral due to a life to day-to-day survival that prevents completion of high school and renders them unemployable.  They may find themselves with early and unplanned pregnancies, AIDS or malnutrition.

Among the greatest risks of homelessness among the young is aging out of the foster care system.  It has been estimated that about one out of every four foster children will become homeless upon turning 18.  The reasons for this are complex, and include such factors as a lack of family support, immaturity and the reluctance or inability of foster parents to continue to house their foster children after compensation from the state stops.

Drawing a bright line at the age of 18 makes no sense.  I fail to see the logic of stating “yesterday you were a foster child under the protection of the state, but happy birthday, today you’re on your own, go fend for yourself.”  Even the children of intact families are rarely in a position to support themselves the hot moment they turn 18.  So it’s really not a surprise that, after a childhood and adolescence of being bounced around from one placement to another, at the age of 18 foster kids fall off the edge of the earth.

I think of my late sister-in-law’s three children.  I didn’t know them when they were young, but they were removed from their drug addicted mother early in life.  This was fortunate, as my wife tells me stories of going to their apartment, only to find the kids without food and their mother gone.  One of my nephews was adopted as a baby, while my other nephew and his sister went into foster care.  They were fortunate to enter a stable foster home with committed parents and never had to go anywhere else.  All three are in their twenties and thirties now, and I am pleased to report that they turned out very well.  One is finishing up college and still living with his mom.  Another just celebrated the birth of his first daughter.  And the third has settled into her career and lives close enough to us that we are able to see her often.  What all of them have in common is that they never had to deal with homelessness.

Shouldn’t the story turn out that way for all of California’s foster children?

Visit the California Homeless Youth Project blog and read the touching stories of their struggles.

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