I just returned from a conference in Orlando where I trained and empowered approximately 150 Florida foster/adoptive youth. As I sit back and digest the events that unexpectedly unfolded, I realize, it is I who has learned the greatest lesson of all.
I was asking the children to give me their pain and they did, but it came with a very high price tag…my pain.
I’ve always felt a very strong need to return to help my brothers and sisters in care at some point in my life. The need was so strong that it would occasionally drive slight waves of depression. The task seemed so overwhelming that it merely became a far-fetched dream, or so I thought. However, this past year, I’ve come to believe in miracles and the vast impact of “someone who’s been there” on the lives of children in foster care.
Here I am, setting up for day one of the conference with a colorful PowerPoint and a copy of “My Foster Success Journal” at the seat of every participant. I have them start with a chant – “I – Will – Succeed” – and the kids seem engaged but in a ‘keep your distance’ sort of way, but they were having fun so far.
We continued to dissect the journal and the steps to success, but the further I went, the more I lost them. There was one point I had to hush chatter at one table, and I starting to get a little anxious.
I knew I had lost that moment of first impression, and was feeling a little beaten down. I was thankful when we got to the part where I was going to talk about my personal story. As I talked, I noticed the kids got quieter and quieter. They were finally listening to me again.
The kids were completely engaged, and as I spoke I saw tears well up in one girl’s eyes. I softened the blow, and that’s when the kids started questioning me.
I shared the part where I married three weeks before I aged out. One of the older guys piped up and said, “Oh, so you used him?”
I quickly responded with, “No, I was facing homelessness. In my eyes, it was either marriage, or homelessness.”
He piped back: “That doesn’t matter, you were still using him.” Of course I denied it and tried to redirect the path we were on by getting the kids to share their goals instead.
Only, they weren’t biting.
I hadn’t earned their trust, I hadn’t proven myself worthy yet, and they weren’t opening up no matter what I tried. Instead, they spent 20 minutes drilling me about my past. It felt as if I had just wandered into the middle of a cactus bush.
A foster child was holding me accountable for my actions, and I found myself offended and feeling a little attacked. Even though I could tell I had let the kids down, they proceeded to applaud loudly after I finished my session.
Afterwards, in the hallways, the kids didn’t even notice I was there. I was invisible to most of them.
I started asking the kids what they thought I could have done better. They seemed surprised that I asked their opinion, and I was surprised by what they had to say. I heard the same message over and over in several different ways.
But, the overall, consensus was: Why share their pain with me if I wasn’t willing to share my pain with them? They said I had to earn their trust, their respect. They used the word “raw” and I started to get a little scared.
They were demanding I deliver the goods. They needed to know that I was going to be able to ‘understand’ their pain before they shared. Then, I remembered how I felt as a child in care. I could tell them all day how I felt, but I knew even if I did, they could never truly understand and I would just feel let down, again, and even more depressed because they wouldn’t be able to relate.
Then I would become afraid that if I did share, would I be able to add yet another piece of pain to my already heavy heart, or would that be the “one more” that might render me angry and dark for the rest of my life?
They had to know that sharing would be a healing moment and not just one more piece of devastation in their already traumatic lives.
So, the next day, the large conference room was split into two rooms and the youth were able to decide which session they wanted to participate in.
Their choices, more with Ms. Holding Back Helen, or Ms. Perky Merky with a fun cutesy title. Needless to say, most of the youth chose to go into Ms. Perky Merky’s classroom. I only had a handful in my class, but I was determined to deliver the goods and earn their respect and trust.
They had called me on the carpet and I determined to give them everything I had. I asked them to huddle up, because we were going to get up close and personal.
I can tell you that I bled all over that room. I gave them all I had. We laughed together and we cried together. I watched as their eyes widened with horror as they looked at each other with open mouths. I even heard a few gasps off and on. At one point I opened my heart and they reached inside and took whatever they needed to too keep going. We danced the dance of pain together that day.
I noticed that the longer I talked, the bigger my class got. One left and I thought, oh great…. But then he returned with another. This happened a few more times and my class got bigger and bigger. As the room filled, I felt stronger and stronger. I took their advice and I got real. I got raw and I shared everything I could in the time that we had.
When I finished there was no clap. What happened next will be forever ingrained in my heart. Every one of these wonderful, amazing kids came up and gave me a hug. I heard, “I’m sorry you had to go through that, thank you for sharing, now I know I can be someone special, thank you for getting real, I want to be you someday, I needed that, I promise you I will be that leader someday, you give me hope and the list goes on and on.”
For the rest of the day I couldn’t walk down a hall that the kids weren’t beaming and saying “Hi Ms. Helen”; and they made sure I heard them.
They were full of pain, they know it, and they know they need to get it out. They want to get it out. But they aren’t willing to share that pain with just anyone. How could they share their pain with me, if they didn’t think I could truly understand the depth of it?
Helen Ramaglia is a foster alumni who became a foster/adoptive parent. She is the founder and Director of Fostering Superstars, a Congressional Award Winner for her work with foster children and is the author of “From Foster to Fabulous”. She is a popular speaker, trainer and advocate for foster children.
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