Several years ago, I was volunteering in a program at a high school, where teen parents could come in with their infants and while a couple of paid staffers and volunteers like myself watched their babies, the teens continued to attend class. It was a controversial program, as its critics believed it was condoning teen pregnancy. Marie, the formidable woman who had never had children of her own and called herself a Catholic Feminist, ignored the naysayers and worked tirelessly to build support for the program, which essentially provided the only loving, stable nest these teens had ever had. She judged no one, and loved everyone. My own mom had died a couple of years before I met Marie, and while she adopted me into her program as one of her most involved volunteers, she became a surrogate mom to me. I would show up a few times a week with a toddler or two of my own, and model healthy parenting to the teens, teach them how to photograph their adorable babies, and chat with them about healthy dating, eating, exercise. I would listen to their problems, which quite honestly, often shocked me. It was incomprehensible how these teens could now be parenting, a role that was so challenging at times to someone like me, with money, a supportive husband, a somewhat confident outlook on the future. Their lives often if not almost always, included past (and possibly present) abuse, violence, cyclical poverty, and pretty much no real sense that things would ever be different. And this was what Marie and her program changed for so many of them. Her friends donated loads of generous gifts for Christmas, the girls were given opportunities to speak with younger students about the challenges of being teen parents, and they were given the honor at fundraising events to address donors and explain how this program had allowed them to stay in school, and think of a future that included college.
The reality is that this program was in many ways the turning point for me. I had lived in CT for a few years and felt adrift. We arrived in this small town in CT about 1.5 hours from NYC with a 2-month-old baby, having transferred because of my husband’s job. We had no family there and didn’t know anyone. I tried the playgroup route but realized that wasn’t my thing. Domestic duties have never been my bread and butter, so diving into window treatments and baking was not going to do it for me. Meanwhile, my husband was traveling constantly. I was lonely, but while I have always been outgoing and self-confident, I had no desire to meet someone at a PTO meeting and suggest coffee. The thought of small talk was unbearable to me and I couldn’t be bothered.
I was training for my first triathlon and while waiting for the pool to open at 5:30am (I did all my training while my family was asleep), I met Marie. She was the only other lunatic waiting in the cold dark. She told me about the program and knowing that I was done with childbearing, I offered to visit and bring all of the baby clothes, strollers, crib, etc that were in my basement. I brought the goods - and never left. Several months later, I was driving through the streets of this edgy CT town, where over 70% of the kids are on a free lunch program, and I realized I finally felt at home. This town was 20 minutes from my own little town that is often referred to as a “little bubble of goodness” and yet as I looked out at the rundown buildings, the row houses where these teen moms often lived, I felt more connected than I had in a very long time.
Marie’s program was created to help children who were in many ways being told that they were society’s rejects. She knew that these children had suffered at the hands of other adults who may have been doing the best that they could, but this best was marred by their own lives of trauma, mental illness, and whatever this harsh life had thrown their way. I think Marie in many ways felt like she never quite fit in herself, that she was an underdog, a reject of sorts. So she created a home for other underdogs. I felt right at home. This was a place where there was no superficial bullshit. When you are 15 years old and holding a 6-month-old baby, you cannot hide the fact that you have broken most of “polite society’s” rules. Other 15-year-olds are wondering who will invite them to Prom, while you are wondering how you are going to get to work, since your mom, who would naturally be the one to watch your baby, is at her third job of the day, and your dad can’t help because he’s in jail, and the baby daddy is out of the picture. I remember thinking, this is reality. And I felt alive and connected.
It’s not programs, but relationships, that change lives.
- Bill Milliken, founder of Communities in Schools (CIS)
This week we had another horrific (as if there is otherwise) school shooting in the U.S. When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in 2012, we lived five miles from the school. We became friends with a few of the families whose children were killed, and became involved in a few of the foundations that were formed to honor the children who died, and to continue their legacy by making the world a better place. One of these organizations is Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. In 2010, I had brought the idea to the Waterbury YMCA to start a triathlon program, because I figured this would be a way to give kids some coping tools and sense of agency, so maybe they would not need Marie’s program. I am all about prevention. In 2014 our program was in its 4th year and became Race4Chase, part of the CMAK Foundation. Chase was a 6-year-old triathlete who died in the shooting, 4 months after winning his age group in his first triathlon. His parents Rebecca and Steven wanted to give other kids an opportunity to experience the joy Chase had in his excruciatingly brief triathlon career.
When Jim (the Executive Director of the YMCA) and I planned this new program, we both agreed that ALL kids are “at risk,” so the free program would be open to youth from both underserved, and privileged areas. We knew that children who come from families that don’t appear to be “needy” often suffered in ways that may go under the radar until they at some point reveal substance misuse issues or depression. I have often wondered if suburban kids in “good towns” aren’t in some ways underserved because the assumption is they are getting all that they need at home, so there is no need for a Boys & Girls Club or other programs that provide mentoring and leadership. Surely they don’t have time or a need for it, with their travel soccer schedule and violin lessons and PSAT prep courses.
Feeling disconnected, and stressed-out, happens to anyone in spite of household income or pedigree.
Race4Chase, which began with 1 camp in 2010, this year (2018) will be in 26 locations across three states. I haven’t done the math but I think over a couple thousand kids have become triathletes. But the thing is that while they have learned to swim, ride a bike, run, eat healthy, prioritize sleep, respect others, set goals, always use a helmet, show up, show up on time, show up prepared, solve differences, consider others’ points for view… The greatest thing they have learned, I think, is that they matter. They are loved. And they CAN and they WILL do great things. Crossing a triathlon finish line is just the beginning.
“Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I have always said that our children are the canaries in the coal mine. When the average onset age of anxiety is age 11, that is our children telling us that our world is off-kilter. When physical health indicators (allergies, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, etc) show up in our most vulnerable, our children - this is our children telling us that they are being conceived and raised in a toxic world. When more and more kids are dying to suicide and addiction, this is our children telling us we need to wake the fuck up. When children are bullying, in person and virtually, to the extent that they are today, this is our children telling us that they do not like themselves, because hurt people hate people. When children explode and kill other humans, this is the ultimate sign that the coal mine has hit its toxic limit.
“We don’t have a youth problem, we have an adult problem.”
- Bill Milliken
We are overwhelmed. We know there is a need to enforce existing laws and add a few more. We know there is a need to fix our mental health system. Schools are pouring resources into turning their buildings into Fort Knox. Our kids, who were already nervous because this is a stressful time to be coming of age, are now understandably terrified to go to school. We are unloading our anger, fear and bewilderment on social media, putting down anyone who dares to offer “thoughts and prayers,” posting opinionated statements calling politicians cowards and self-interested, making cavalier declarations of unfriending anyone who doesn’t agree with x-y-z.
I get it. It’s overwhelming and awful and I think we all feel some level of hopelessness and helplessness. There is no clear solution. No quick fix. No magic law, program, or pill. And boy do we Americans love quick fixes! But there are a few things I believe can work, can make a tiny little difference. For starters, we grown-ups need to take a few breaths. I have never heard anyone say, “I read someone’s opinions on Facebook and I saw the light and have totally changed the way I see the gun debate/abortion/gay marriage/football kneeling…” I think it’s a great idea to vent and process, but perhaps there are better ways to do this. Some of the posts and comments I have read have been rude, even cruel. And then we wonder why our kids are bullies? Yesterday my son showed me a post by an adult we know (on Twitter) and he was surprised by the meanness. Our kids are listening, watching. Following.
The other thing I believe can be helpful is to be honest with ourselves. How are we contributing to the disconnection in the world? If we aren’t being intentional in connecting, we are contributing to the disconnect. Are we spending our time with people just like us? We can post links on Facebook about the injustices toward immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ youth and adults, veterans - but is that all we are doing? Because just like your opinionated post did not change my mind if I didn’t already agree with you (I know you were actually just looking for social validation in the form of Likes anyway), it also did nothing to help our canaries, our children. But you can help. You can contribute time and/or money to amazing efforts that build relationships that change lives, that change the world. I mentioned Race4Chase Youth Triathlon. Another incredible one is Communities in Schools. CIS finds the children who are in crisis, or not quite there but certainly on that trajectory, and brings resources into the school, to help them. The teachers are then free to do their jobs and the children thrive. CIS is the top-rated program for dropout prevention, with a 98% graduation rate.
If we are not working toward a solution, we are only making the problem worse. It took a long time to get to where we are, be it the opioid epidemic or the 18 school shootings this year, so far. I have seen several memes that cleverly show the feeling of resignation I think many of us feel. Nothing changes if nothing changes. So, let’s change. Something that I think would be quite revolutionary would be for us to listen.
“Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”
- Mahatma Gandhi
I would go further and suggest, speak if it is to ask a question. And then listen. Listen, to hear, and work hard not to work on coming up with a rebuttal or a reply.
“There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.”
- Simon Sinek
Just. Listen. The programs I mentioned above with which I have been or am involved, the greatest power, I think, was in how the children feel they are being heard. And seen. All of us want that. That is the true essence of connection, isn’t it? When our kids act up, anyone who has taken Psychology 101 knows they are begging for attention, they want to be heard. And acknowledged. Every day we can give this gift of listening, a gift of love. So how about we start there. Remember - our kids are listening. And we don’t need our country’s or states’ leaders to pass any laws for us to take this world-changing action. What are our kids telling us about their school? Friends? Sports? Schedule? Diet? Time to rest? Do they feel connected? Supported? Like what they are doing is meaningful?
How do we answer those same questions for ourselves?
It takes a village to raise a child. Let's build that village, starting at home, and spread outwards. Connect.
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
- James A. Baldwin
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.