Restorers of that “Inner fire”

Relighting the Fire

“In everyone’s life, at some time our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.”

Albert Schweitzer

I had the honor recently to be one of the judges for a writing contest for kids 13-18 sponsored locally by the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission. The kids eligible for the contest were not high achievers. They sent in their essays of 500 words or less from places like Juvenile Hall, the Probation Camp, Sierra Youth Center, Hanna Boys Center, and several group homes. These were troubled kids, “wards of the court,” sent to institutions because their parents were unwilling or unable to take care of them.

Sadly, kids who have experienced rejection from the people who were supposed to give them love and support, sometimes give up on life. They have found their existence so harsh, so disappointing that they feel they have no future. In Schweitzer’s words, their inner fire has gone out.

But in reading the essays from many of these victims of child abuse, I found not despair but hope. Hope for a 17-year-old boy came in the form of a teacher who “never gave up on me and encouraged me when I no longer trusted my own abilities.”

The person who rekindled the flame for an 18-year-old girl was her mother. “She taught me always to be true to myself and to love others not for what they have but what they are. She spent time with me even when she didn’t have time for herself. Most of all she taught me that while I reach for the most distant stars, I have to take joy in the stars I can see.”

A 15-year-old boy was energized by his grandpa. The boy’s life seemed to be unraveling fast when he received a card from his grandpa telling him “I love you,” and expressing his confidence that his grandson could do anything. The teenager writes in his essay “We may think we’re alone at times but that’s in our heads. In reality the person we are looking for is right in front of us. And we just don’t realize it.”

“I got into really heavy drugs,” wrote a 17 year old girl, “and when my best friend called me on it, I got really angry. Who did she think she was? When I calmed down, I realized that my friend was right. I’m so grateful that she was there for me, even when I was trying to push her away.”

Reading the essays helped me to understand anew that one alternative to spending billions of dollars on a dysfunctional prison system, is for ordinary people to make it their job to be the difference maker in a kid’s life. We don’t need to be therapists or mental health workers. We can be the mom who spent time with her daughter even though she didn’t have the time to spare, the teacher who refused to give up on the 17-year-old boy who had lost confidence in his own abilities.

The mom, the teacher, the grandpa and the friend written about in those essays have made a statement by their actions. These re-kindlers of the fire stood tall, changing the lives of kids in danger of losing heart and losing hope. Heroes? You betcha.

Up-close and personal with 22 kids

Getting Close To the Kids

Some days I find myself loving the kids so much it’s scary. It’s the kind of love that moms and dads know with their own children, the kind that hurts and also makes you want to sing. I have moments like that with our Village children, with 10 year old Jennie, spirited, stubborn and sweet all in one, 9 year old Danny, who threw theologians a zinger with his “Does God have a cat?” question, Matt, our future stand-up comedian. We touch one another if only for a moment. A fragile trust rises to the surface through a note, a tiny hand squeezed in mine, a confidence shared, a hug.

Becoming a real confidante to the Village kids is demanding. It’s tempting and much more comfortable for me to keep relationships on the surface, to settle for taking the kids out to McDonalds for French fries or signing them up at the YMCA for basketball, or giving them high 5’s on the playground. That’s the easy part of being a grandpa.

Becoming up close and personal is much more difficult to handle. The heart-to –heart moments happen sometimes when you least expect them. A kid will start to sob softly in the backseat of my car; a girl will scream for her mommie. Someone will knock on the door saying “Grandpa Hank, I need to talk to you.”

I can give the kids some cookies and milk and advise them to see their therapist. After all, I am not a trained mental health counselor. But the person who is present at the moment of need is often the one in the best position to help. I am there at 9 O’Clock at night and their counselor is not. My gift, our gift, as grandparents is to be available for them. They need someone right now to listen, not an appointment at their therapists a week from Wednesday.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned as a Village grandpa, is that sometimes, even love is not enough. I recall being devastated the first time we had to move a kid out of our Village. He was too damaged for us, needed more professional psychiatric treatment than we could give him. Maybe, he will return to us some day after he has undergone treatment. But we do not know the future. What we do know is when we said good-bye, we felt the loss in our guts, deep down where the pain is most acute. It’s part of the price you pay for loving and we are reminded that while every kid is lovable, there are some we can’t reach.

But, when we do succeed in reaching a kid who has been wounded in life, to put hope in his step or, at least, give him the acknowledgment of being listened to, there are few satisfactions in life more lasting or more deep. That’s what we live for. This kind of closeness only happens when the kids become “our kids,” when they matter to us as much as our own children and grandchildren.