Reflections on Making Connections

Recently I was reflecting on the several jobs I have had working with children which took me out of my comfort zone, that challenge my beliefs and caused me to grow without any effort on my part.  And when I reflect back it was the few connections I made with a struggling child that stay with me.

One summer during college I worked as a day care attendant for Children’s Hospital in Tulsa Oklahoma. I usually worked with the four and five year olds.  These were children who had been taken from their parents because of neglect and abuse.  I remember one four year old boy who was terrified of being touched and would never cry because his father had told him it was for sissies.  I remember watching helpless as he screamed abuse at himself for crying after falling and screamed louder in terror when I tried to comfort him. This was contrasted with another little boy who constantly needed comfort from hugs.
My first job out of college was working in an institution for mentally retarded children and adults.  This was before the consent decree in Massachusetts which meant this institution was little more than a warehouse.  I was hired primarily to work as an attendant for a very large young woman who could become angry quickly and had been known to pick up her care attendants and throw them.  I was desperate for work and so even though I was scared to death, I took the job.  The job soon evolved into more.  We were the only program trying to normalize the living experience for some of the children.  We would take these mostly nonverbal teenagers on trips outside the institution and also tried teaching them to sign when they needed something.  What we did was a drop in the bucket to what needed to be done.  And periodically I would spend time with the young woman I was hired to be with and I would play with her or wash her hair or take her swimming.  To everyone’s amazement she never once gave me any trouble.
After graduate school, I took a job as director of an after school and summer camp program for kids living in the inner city of Chelsea and Revere in Massachusetts. This was part of a larger agency also working in Malden. The day I was hired the entire staff quit in protest saying that I was not qualified for the job.  The Executive Director had hired me to clean up what he thought was an ineffective program lacking in structure.  And so on my first day of work I had fifty kids running wild and tearing up the building as they had been used to doing.  I hired anyone who would work on a temporary basis including friends until I could hire a full time staff and bring some structure to the program.  It was not easy.  Many of the children had experienced abuse, one girl had watched her father murdered, one young man gave meaning to the phrase bouncing off walls.  Yet gradually I began making connections and for every child who was too aggressive for us to handle there were others who thrived.
During my time with all three of these jobs, I was constantly scared and constantly feeling inadequate to the task of providing what the children needed.  I constantly had to reassess my beliefs about how to work with children who struggled not only with what life had thrown at them but also with professionals in institutions who seemed clueless as how to respond.  Looking back on all of this I am amazed that I did not become discouraged, that I still wanted to work with and for children who struggled.
With the years comes some wisdom. I realize that being out of my comfort zone provided some of the most intense periods of growth and understanding.  Perhaps it was the connections I made with a few individual children that matter the most.  Perhaps it was the willingness to see past the behavior to recognize that these children were much more than their behavior implied.  Perhaps it was the individual connections which made the difference: from the little boy screaming in the bathroom who would not let me touch him but needed my presence, to the little boy who I sought out each day to hug and to love, to the young woman so angry at being in the institution who appreciated my washing her hair and playing whatever game she wanted. There was a boy in the after school program who had been repeatedly burned by his mother and constantly bounced off walls who I joined in tearing apart my office.  He stopped stunned and wanted to know what I was doing.  From then on we developed a close relationship based on trust.  Perhaps that is all any of us need do, just once and awhile make a connection with a struggling child; make a connection that says I see you, I honor you, you are a child of God.

Categories Spiritual Parenting and Children | Tags: | Posted on July 16, 2010

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