You Best Don’t call Jesus’ Butt

booster

~This is the 8th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by their given name and in general, I write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

This is a very late post as I have been busy with life and haven’t been able to find quiet time to reflect and write about these brilliantly funny and wise children.

Last month we were able to take the younger children (5-7 years old) to a hands on private play place. As usual, we loaded up a van and went on our merry way.

As anyone who has ever transported kids of any age anywhere knows, turn up the music and sit back.  It took all of about 5 minutes before their absolute favorite song in the world came on the radio and they were singing away…. in Spanish, a language they don’t speak.

Yep, you guessed it.  They were in love from beginning to end with the song of the summer, Despacito.  We watched through rear view mirrors and reverse facing iPhone cameras as the kids bopped, danced, yelled and clapped together.  I can’t find the words to tell you how it makes me feel when they are having so much fun. It’s literally the goal of the program to let these babies find worry free time in their little lives.

Eventually, their singing turned to discussions about their lives and situations.  they shared information on the hotels they have lived in, why they liked them, and who else from school (not in the van) also lives/d there.  They laughed and cracked jokes and poked fun at each other. It’s probably the most fun part of the trip, for the adults.

Given that it has taken me so long to write this, I have given this day more thought than normal.  In fact, school is back in session and because of a running injury, I am unable to volunteer quite yet. But as soon as I’m better you can count on me in one of those classrooms.

Anyway, as we are going back to the school, as often happens, kids have disagreements and arguments, usually much ado about nothing.  As we traveled, I heard a change in the tone of the discussion. I turned ever so slightly to see who was talking so assertively, and about what.  Just as I turned, one of the younger little girls’ eyes grew wide and she shot me a panicked look as she said, “Oh, teacher, she said something baaaadddd!”

Now I actually heard what was said, and mark my words, there was nothing inappropriate about it. Nevertheless, Mari was convinced that they not only were being rude, but they were insulting her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“They said, ‘You best don’t call Jesus’ buttttttt!!!!'” she yelled as she pointed at the offenders. 

The two girls in the seat furthest back stared at me, mouths agape waiting to see what I would say.  Then their mouths started to form their response as I started to understand what had occurred.

So much has happened in August in this country that I think yet again, that children are the only wise ones among us, true to their hearts.  The two girls were discussing Jesus, his teachings according to their parents, and how people forget to pay him respect and show deference. They were talking about instances when people were mean to each other.  They were in agreement that this is wrong.  One of the girls said, “My momma told me, ‘You best don’t call Jesus’ bluff!'”

My fellow chaperone and I laughed heartily as we explained to Mari what she misheard. She cracked a shy smile and dropped her shoulders and said, “Oh.” They all went back to singing.

These babies have more compassion and love in their little hearts than many of the grown ups in this country.  I’ll leave it at that.

Thanks for reading.

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Bridges and Waterfalls. 

There’s something to be said about taking a chance on people and doing something new with them. 
I have been very busy the past few weeks and particularly the last two. I have been coordinating a huge home project, helping my daughter at her new home, traveling, running, training and trying to keep my own home somewhat clean. 

Thursday night in an effort to pretend I’m in control I stayed up until about 230 AM to wash, clean, pack, and prepare my home for out of town guests since I in fact wouldn’t be there. I am in Oregon for the Bridge of the Gods half marathon. 

This run is a make up run for “State Run” which proved a miserable time in Portland a year ago. It is also a bucket list run in that getting to run across this bridge will be awesome. 

I was already signed up when I realized that a couple of ladies I know from a runner’s training group would also be there. So I reached out, and we ended up traveling together for the race. 

Last night we agreed to meet at 6 AM to hike to see a few waterfalls.  I don’t recall what time we said goodnight, whether it was 4 PM or 6 PM but I retreated to my room and put on PJs. I don’t mind telling you I set my alarm and went straight to bed. 

This morning I awoke to a knock on my door at 622 AM!! I slept at minimum 12 hours and possibly as much as 14! 

I was shocked, embarrassed and annoyed with myself. I dressed as fast as I could and eventually off we went to breakfast and a wonderful hike. 

They ribbed me for being late; not something I want them to think about me on our first date. But oh well. 

We had a great time and laughed a lot. I’m so glad to have asked to join them and that I now have two more “real” friends that started off as Facebook pals. 

Let’s see what tomorrow’s race brings. For now, I need to set multiple alarms for an early wake up!  

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Through the Looking Glass


~This is the 7th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by their given name and in general, I write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

I don’t normally volunteer on a Monday but since the preschool is short on assistance and seems to have more tiny tots lately, I went in on a day less likely to be fully staffed.  I arrived at the school knowing that I would work directly with the preschoolers and their very amazing summer school teacher.  Clear about the big picture, I resigned myself to being a silly referee over toys and perhaps, being a story time reader.  I fully expected to be hot, and uncomfortable supervising playground antics but I didn’t expect to get the emotional jolt I was given today.  Afterall, I have been volunteering for some time now, and well I guess I thought I was used to the reality of it all.

As I walked in, I recognized some of the more regular little faces.  Today there were also a set of twin blond-haired beauties, so close in looks, that I couldn’t tell them apart.  I looked over at Marvin. He dropped his gaze to the ground.  He said not one word.  In fact, I have never heard him speak.  I thought, “Today, he and I will be friends.”

After morning circle we were instructed that it was JOB TIME.  Everyone immediately grabbed a rug and a “job” and found a spot to sit and work.  My friend, Monique quickly grabbed a spot at the painting table.  She handed me a pick plastic bowl and while she opened up her water color palette said, “Can I have some water please?”  And “be careful,” she warned, “don’t spill it.”

Eventually, I got around to sitting next to another 3-year-old, only one with a lot less to say than Monique.  In fact, he had nothing to say.  He nodded in response to my questions and if I pressed, he averted his eyes and shrugged.  As we sat to play, he decided to grab a magnifying glass from the table at the rear of the room.  We took turns looking at the variety of rocks and glass marbles set out for a child’s exploration.  Marvin quickly separated all of the marbles and glass and focused on showing me the rocks.  We moved on to Lincoln Logs where to his delight he learned to stack the pieces expertly and created a building.  Of course, he does not know who Lincoln is nor has he an understanding of a log cabin, but he nevertheless maintained his focus until it was time to choose a book to read.

Marvin did not want to read.  He did not want to pretend to read.  He couldn’t decide on a book and pointed instead to the Lincoln Logs.  I spied with my little eye, the Brown Bear Book.  AHA!  I showed it to him and his eyes lit up.  We sat together and I probed, “Do you know this book?”  He smiled and nodded excitedly.  He opened to the first page.  He said, “BBBBBBB   BBBBBB Brown BBBBBB BBBBear.”  I realized he was very nervous and was stuttering. I literally bit my tongue and let him continue without my help or interruption.  He repeated the words.

He got to, ” I sssssee sseee seee a” and he turned the page.  “Bird!” he shouted.

I said, “red bird!” and he repeated, “rrrr rrrr red bbbbird!”  He continued reading.

I joined him and sing-songed the next page. “Red bird, red bird what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me!

He looked at me and repeated the rythmic lyric. And we were off.  He stopped stuttering and simply sang the book.  Some of his colors were off, but we corrected and moved forward. Marvin read the book three times until we heard the cleanup bells telling us it was time for a short recess.

Like Marvin and his rocks, and Monique and her care not to spill her water for painting, I too had to learn to look carefully and be extra gentle. I recalled the instruction on my first day of orientation when we were told that our role was to help the children be children, that’s all.

Marvin and Monique taught me that they know what they are doing, I just had to learn to let them tell me what they might need me for.  Anything above that was outside the scope of my magnifying glass and really more for me than for them; which is not why I volunteer.

A week later, I was greeted by a smiling Marvin. Guess which book he told me he wanted to read?

Thanks for reading.

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Who was the first man on the moon?

~This is the 6th blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

The hot summer days in Sacramento have proven brutal this week.  Imagine if you will that you are homeless.  It’s difficult to find relief from the heat both during the day and the night.  If you’re lucky, your motel room has a good cooling system.  If you’re unlucky, you are living in a car or tent and it’s difficult to sleep at all.

The children at Mustard Seed were, as usual, treated to another field trip yesterday.  Having arrived just minutes after they left the school, I chased after them to arrive at the Discovery Museum.

As I walked up, the staff waved to me and I was assigned one child to monitor.  He looked at me and immediately started crying. Trying not to let my feelings get hurt, I asked him, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like me?”

He looked up at me with big tear filled brown eyes and said, “I wanted to go with Mr. Paul.” I know that what he was really saying is that he wanted to be with his best and closest buddy, Miguel.

I assured him that we would walk with Mr. Paul’s group and that it would be ok.

As we progressed through the museum the boys took turns playing a video game where their body movements controlled a salmon swimming upstream, navigating a series of obstacles. I was surprised at how cooperative they were with each other and how once they either completed the run or failed (eaten by a bear) they simply stepped aside and allowed the other his or her turn.  There was no whining or requests to do over.  They had a great time and this pattern of cooperation transferred to other games as well.

The group learned to create healthy balanced meals, measure their heart rates, view X-rays of broken bones, play doctor, balance on a timed disk so that they, in fact, were in competition with each other. There was only one instance of upset.

James grew tired of watching Miguel playing with a stethoscope and demanding he turn it over to him.  Miguel kept saying, “But I’m still playing with it. I got it first.” James persisted until Miguel having had quite enough, pulled the earpieces off his head and looking directly into James’ eyes said, “Look, I am still using this. I’m not ready to give it to you. It’s my turn. You need to stop yelling at me. It’s not nice and you need to stop!”

James is used to being the more aggressive of the two so Miguel’s statement stopped him in his tracks.   I fully expected whining, tears or a plea from James.  Instead, he said ok and went on to a different activity. Yay for Miguel! Yay, I didn’t have to intervene!

Eventually, we instructed all of the children to try to go to the bathroom because the next phase of the trip would be in the planetarium where no one would be allowed to leave or enter once the presentation started.  The children understood that this rule is based on the need for participants’ eyes to adjust to the darkness and that opening the door would hinder the process.

Once inside the wonderfully cool room (it was about 104 outside where we were waiting in line), I was a very impressed at the amount of knowledge many of the kids had about space.  They were eager participants in the discussion about planets, stars, asteroids, comets, etc.   As the lights were dimmed to darkness in incremental stages to allow our eyes to adjust I heard heavy breathing. Only three minutes had passed since the lights went to the red stage so I thought someone was pretending to sleep.

As the presentation continued, the heaving breathing turned into outright snoring. I turned to see who was making the noise and saw a 6 or 7-year-old little girl, head relaxed backward in her seat, sound asleep.

When I first started volunteering I was reminded that sometimes kids come to school to sleep. We make them comfortable and don’t wake them because sleep and rest are a priority. So it was with this darling little girl. She slept in the cool, dark room.

The presenter continued without flinching. She expertly engaged all of the children by asking them to count down with her as she changed lighting, or moved to a powerpoint video in the dark. She asked them to point to N, W, E, and S, on the dome so that they could orient themselves to the night sky as it would be last night, on the summer solstice. The children were fully engaged and enjoyed the praise she showered on those naming planets or providing correct answers to a variety of questions she posed.

She transitioned from planets to a discussion of our moon. She asked, “can anyone tell me the name of the first man on the moon?”

From the darkness, a small voice said confidently, “Jason Bourne.”

The adult chaperones snickered.  The child was referring to Matt Damon, from his role in 2015 film, The Martian, but got his name wrong.

The presenter kept talking, then as if she finally got the reference, she started to laugh. She couldn’t regain her composure for a couple minutes. We all laughed, but now because she couldn’t help herself.  It was a silly, special moment. A moment that caused our sleeping child to wake and stop snoring. Everyone was present, engaged, and carefree for a little while.

I would say, mission accomplished!

Thanks for reading.

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Parks Make Life Better

parks matter

~This is the fifth blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and as importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

Summer has arrived and with it, summer school.  Only this is different.  There are no teachers….just the managers of the summer program.  This can only mean one thing.  Nothing to worry about folks….just fun stuff.

I missed my first volunteer opportunity because I was sick so I didn’t know what to expect yesterday. As I arrived at the school playground, I was met with a bright smile and the happy word, “HOLA!”  There he was, my ready-to-learn-Spanish-pal.  We shook hands, said good morning and went directly to the basketball court.  Really, it’s just a basketball hoop between the play structure and the building where all the playground equipment is kept, but it provides for some of the loudest laughter and deepest discussions nonetheless.

We played until the ‘bell rang’ and off we went, all twenty of us, into the largest classroom.  We went over the prerequisite ritual of voicing the day and date then introducing ourselves by name and favorite animal.  After playing games, eating snacks, playing ping pong and eating lunch, the kids were provided with swimsuits and flip-flops and loaded into vans for a trip to a splash pad at a nearby park.

Upon arrival, kids were sprayed down with sunblock and reminded of the rules. As I stood and watched the youngest and bravest of the kids bolt onto the pad, and into the fountain streams screaming their surprise at the water’s temperature, I was joined by one of our three teens.  James (my ping-pong partner) walked up to me and said, “So. Do you think that parks make life better?   I turned and looked at him.  He smiled widely.

I said, actually, I do.  Parks help people relax and have fun.  Why do you ask?

He pointed to banners on poles around the splash pad.  The banners said, “Parks make life better.” He turned to join the other boys who just discovered the water cannons.

We spent a total of about 2 hours at the park.  We played on the playground equipment, in the water, with frisbees and a whiffle ball. They had a grand time. One of the boys yelled out, “This is the best day ever!”

Twenty children had a wonderful time. Teens gave in to their inner little kid and played like they used to. The littler ones found thrills in unexpected buckets of water pouring down on them.  The girls flaunted their new swimsuits with ruffles. A couple of the children found great delight the false protests of volunteers being threatened with their cold, wet hugs.

It had been only two hours, but no one complained when it was time to go back to school. They had played themselves into a calm exhaustion and were ready to go.

Knowing it is sometimes hard to sleep at night when you don’t feel completely safe, I hoped that this good, tired feeling would continue to help them relax through the rest of the day and into their night.  I hoped that their little spirits were renewed and that they would look forward to their next day at summer school. I hoped that there will be more trips to parks this summer.

And… I thought, yes, James, parks make lives better.

Thanks for reading.

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Mermaids and Worms

~This is the fourth blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and more importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

When your six years old and someone allows you to use scissors, well you go a little crazy.

In fact, perhaps we all went a little crazy today.  I arrived at the school earlier than I ever have before. I was so early that there was only one child on the playground, though we were assured that more were on their way.  The preschool teacher lovingly held Louie’s hand as she sipped at her morning coffee.  She squatted right down on her haunches as only a very young woman can do, and sat him on her knee as she balanced herself.  He hugged her and sat quietly.  Louie has been very sick and is still not feeling well.  His cute little face and perfect smile betray the exhaustion in his eyes. His houndstooth hat tipped as he snuggled into her neck.

Soon more children arrived, of all ages and cultures, sizes and circumstances. A beleaguered man, wearing a well-worn coat walked in to drop off his little girl, who similarly, looked like she needed a long bath and a clean set of clothes.  Her hair was braided in an attempt at keeping her baby fine blond hair manageable. She hopped around playing as her hair, backlit by the bright early morning sun glowed like a halo around her head.

The school bell rang joyfully as Demarcus flailed it above his head with a huge smile and a feeling of superiority since he had been chosen to call an end to the morning gathering recess. As we lined up, Dayshawn said to his little brother, get in line, “your too small to stay here.”  Later at the end of the day, he would gather up the sack lunches given to him and yell to his sister, “look at least we have something to eat.” She smiled a toothless smile and nodded as they waited for her mother to arrive. Their younger brother (preschool aged) sat next to me, forehead wrinkled as if he were done with the day and just wanted to leave.

As the rest of the kids lined up, I was assigned to the first-grade class, where the teacher immediately attached me to a little boy who literally could not force himself to focus on any one thing more than 30 seconds at a time.  Jay bounced around and was loud and disruptive for most of the day.  When he wasn’t getting the negative attention he craved, he became upset and acted out emotionally, to let us know that he felt ignored, neglected and slighted.

Dayshawn and his sister dove into their school assignments and seemed to enjoy not only each other’s company, but got along beautifully with all of the rest of the children. There were 6 total, three boys, and three girls. Jay, however, seemed to make up for the rest of them and struggled throughout his day.

After lunch, Demarcus chose to work with a piece of paper and a pair of scissors.  He cut a shape out and said, “Hey this looks like a butterfly!”  He quickly attached antennae and flew it around the room. He came back and said, “I want to make a mermaid.”  I said, hey wanna make a cool flower?  He agreed and we folded a square cut out at least three times.  I made a pencil mark and asked him to cut carefully lest he catch his finger in the blades.  When he unfolded the flower, he quickly added a stem and said, “I want to make a mermaid.”  Facing my fear of failure, I quickly sketched an outline of a mermaid. I added a bra-like top and long flowing hair.  He laughed hysterically at her top but soon jumped in and cut along the outline until she was ready to be pasted onto a larger paper. He worked on her for a long time and proclaimed, “I’m proud of this. It’s beautiful.”  He glued the flower to one of her hands, and the butterfly to a corner of the paper and declared his joy.

A little later, the kids were split up so that they could accomplish some routine tasks. Three of the children would go outside at one time, brush their teeth in one of three sink areas, and then water the garden they planted weeks ago.  The other three would work inside and after a time, the two groups would switch. Jay was in heaven.

He brushed his teeth and headed out to water the garden.  I don’t think he even managed to water one plant before he started digging. It wasn’t long before he hit pay dirt and found a worm.  One of the other volunteers talked with him and helped him brush all of the dirt off the worm.  Jay took his job seriously and concentrated fully.  He observed the worm and talked about it to the other children as they used scissors to trim the mint plant to chew on its leaves.

Eventually, the volunteer asked Jay to return the worm to the earth so that he could go back inside. Jay carefully placed the worm back in the wet dirt and gently covered it up. He was, however, not happy about having to go back inside and immediately complained that someone moved his water bottle…on purpose.

At the end of the day, the teacher praised Demarcus’ artwork and asked if he would like to display it in the office.  He thought about it but declined.  He said, “I really like this and I want to look at it.  I want to take it with me.” She said she understood and helped him pack. Later, when his mother arrived to take him home Demarcus couldn’t wait to show her. She praised him and said it was beautiful.  He beamed.

At closing circle time the children talked about what they liked best about the day.  They took turns holding a marble as they shared their thoughts. As they talked it became clear that the experiences, while wildly varied, all contributed to a good time for all. Some liked reading, some liked doing their math, some liked drawing pictures, and some liked digging worms.   One of the kids asked if tomorrow would be Friday, and if so, would there be cookies?

As they waited for their rides, the principal came out and said, “Look, everyone, the Friday cookies came a day early this week!” The kids looked at each other excitedly and everyone went home happy….even Jay.

Thanks for reading.

 

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Hug Life

~This is the third blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children.  I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and more importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.  

I bounced into the administration office to sign in and was greeted by the program director.  Today the 4-grade class only has three kids so would you mind jumping into the junior high class?

Wait.  You want me to work with my favorite age group? I thought to myself.

“The teacher is not here today so you can help the substitute.”

“Sure,” I said, and off I went to the playground where the four boys were engaged in a game of organized dodge ball.

Yeah…dodgeball is not my favorite game.  And immediately I remembered why.  One of the boys AJ was silently being pelted by the more aggressive, outgoing kids on the opposite team.  His team member was not supportive, but neither was he derisive.  AJ just didn’t seem to want to challenge or further incite the gleeful opposition more than he needed to.  Eventually, the teams were changed, and while still not completely engaged, AJ was at least not the main target anymore. As much as I wanted him to nail someone with that ball, I knew he knew that it would only make things worse.

I addressed the behavior of the most aggressive child, Isaac and he scowled at me.  He became louder and wilder in his behavior.  The PE teacher corrected him, reminded him of the rules, and at times, helped the losing team by retrieving balls, stopping play and in general slow down the assault. Isaac continued to try to dominate and immediately decided he would not listen to me at all.

Time to go in and the teasing continued.  AJ simply drew his hoodie over his head and sat at his table. Isaac was dispatched to another room to do computer work. From there he continued to interrupt and draw attention to himself, disrupting the other students.  I went in and sat next to him to see if I could engage him.  He said, “This is stupid and way to easy.”  I told him he was right about the way too easy part.  So we made a game of beating the computer’s time standards and we chatted a little about his friends and where he grew up.

The day progressed and the boys were assigned a reading comprehension test.  The narrative described the life of Beverly Cleary, author of many beloved children’s books. Several questions followed.  Each youngster sat quietly doing their work.

Eventually, after lunch, the second substitute arrived at the classroom.  She, knowing AJ, asked that I take him to a different room for silent reading time with me so that he could actually read aloud.  She needed a better assessment of his ability. AJ grabbed his book, “Hoot” and off we went.

I asked him for a quick summary of the book. He readily provided a quick synopsis and we began.  He read well and with a strong voice.  Where he stumbled, I pronounced and defined the words so he could continue.  On occasion, I looked up videos of the animals described so that he could see exactly what they looked and acted like. He seemed to appreciate the help and before we knew it, it was time to return to the class.

As we entered, the boys looked up and Isaac rolled his eyes.  AJ joined the group and took notes while watching an episode of the series Earth.  There was a lively discussion about the mating habits of a particular frog, and why Chimpanzees are sometimes cannibalistic. AJ observed quietly and Isaac dominated the room.

Isaac had now softened to the idea that he was stuck with a substitute teacher and a volunteer he never met before. His humor started to show and at one point had everyone in the room burst out in laughter. We watched as a male, black and blue bird performed its mating dance, escalating his courtship to the point he was hopping all over the place, only to be denied by the female he was courting. Isaac turned to face the class and said, “Now that female is asking way too much.”  See for yourself, Bird of Paradise.

Between subjects, I snuck into the library section of the room and looked for any Beverly Cleary books I could find.  I located three and walked them into the room where the boys sat.  I showed them that what they had read about earlier was real and that they could choose to read her work if they wanted.  Both AJ and Isaac widened their eyes and smiled.

I later read that today was Beverly Cleary’s 101st birthday.  Imagine that.  I wish I had known that when we were studying about her, the boys would have been amused.

As the school day came to a close we walked over to the area where parents pick up the children.  Having an abundant lunch due to low attendance the staff handed off grocery bags filled with food for the kids to take home to their families.  As kids left, we exchanged jokes and smiles of recognition when the kids I’d spent time with saw me for the first time that day. AJ smiled shyly as he turned to say goodbye to me.

As the numbers dwindled, Isaac became louder.  He said to one of the other volunteers who looks a little like Hillary Clinton in hair and body shape, “I bet you drink tea on your balcony.” He mimicked what that might look like with pinky out and everything.  Other adults looked away to hide their amusement as the volunteer simply said, “Oh, you do, do you?”

Eventually, it was just Isaac waiting for his uncle to show up.  When he saw the vehicle coming he stood to peruse the contents of the remaining two bags of food set out for the children.  He asked, “Can I have one?’

I asked the program director if he could take both since he was the last child there.  She said, “Of course!”

Isaac turned and yelled at me, “HUG LIFE” and held tight.  He ran to the table and grabbed the bags.  As he struggled to carry the bags to the car his uncle said, “Here, let me help you.”

Isaac said, “No. I got it, I know how you like to eat.”

He shot me a smile and a wink and off he went. Hug life indeed.

Thanks for reading.

The school is called Mustard Seed of Sacramento and can always use monetary donations so that on occasion they can help parents keep their kids in school as they work to stabilize their housing situation. Look around, there is likely a Mustard Seed school in your area, too.

 

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Cesar Chavez Taught Me to Love Climbing Mountains

 

A little late, but I was reminded to share this when I took my 78-year-old father, my 89-year-old father-in-law and my 22-month-old grandson to visit Helen and Cesar at the National Memorial. I mentioned to my mom as we worked in the kitchen later that day they with Helens passing, The Cause felt more like history than ever before. Visiting the memorial was a wonderful reminder that we must still fight for basic human rights. Someday, when my grandchild looks at the pictures he will be grateful for the sacrifices his grandparents made in planting the tree so that he might have shade.

Source: Cesar Chavez Taught Me to Love Climbing Mountains

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Beauty Is the Harvest of Presence

~This is the second blog entry chronicling my experience as a volunteer at a school for homeless children. The title of this post is from Beauty by David Whyte. I will not identify the children by name and in general write of composite personalities so that I can best illustrate common experiences among the children without violating their confidentiality and more importantly, the trust of the people who allow me to volunteer at the school.

Arriving at the emergency school today, the children greeted me with smiles, surprised looks of recognition and in general a sense that something exciting was about to happen. Later in the evening at my yoga class, our teacher discussed the Spring equinox and its impact on the energy floating around us. Aha, I thought, that’s what was shooting through everyone in school today.

The 4th-grade classroom boasted 9 children today.  Most were kids I’d met before, but two sets of siblings are new to me although the teacher said they had been there previously about two years ago.  Homelessness comes and goes for these kids. Unfortunately, its transient nature impacts them more than if they were chronically homeless and as a result were enrolled in the school on a daily basis.  For example, one of the boys (Andy) has been in class consistently having perfect attendance since the first day of the school year.  As a result, he is excelling in his studies, is happy, and has established a set of friendships that he clearly cherishes. Sadly, however, his family is still not able to find a permanent place to live and continue to reside in a non-fully operational vehicle that they manage to move from place to in order to keep from drawing negative law enforcement attention to themselves. Meanwhile, Andy makes it to school every day and for a few hours, enjoys himself immensely. At the end of the day, he and a few others board a school van and are dropped off with their families.

Today started as a stormy morning complete with rain, lightening, and thunder.  The kids were chock full of mischief.  One of the “new” girls asked me to play one on one basketball with her.  I pretended that I knew no rules and that perhaps if she had patience with me that she could teach me how to play. She tried to pull a few rule violations but when I spoke to her about it and consulted with another child, she smiled broadly and acquiesced.  At that point, she resorted to taunting me, which indeed made me laugh.  “Come on Old Lady, let’s see what you got!”  She lined up with the other children to report to her classroom as the small, hand-held lunch bell tinkled away at the hands of a younger child who’d earned the privilege from the PE Teacher. The look on her face when I lined up behind her was priceless.  “How you like me now?” I whispered.  We laughed.

In the classroom, the teacher asked me to work with one of the new boys, whose older sister was in class as well.  She sat behind us as I sat next to him.  We were instructed to work on addition.  First things first, I asked him to write his first and last name on the page. He wrote his name, Miguel at the top of the page in typical 8-year-old  printing. When asked to write his last name, he turned to his sister for help.  She wrote their surname on a scrap of paper and handed it to me.  I asked him to pronounce it for me and he did. Except, I could not understand his words.  He has a speech impediment that makes it difficult to understand what he is saying.  I looked at the teacher, who said, let’s get some assessment as far as what he does know and where we should start with him.

I sat next to him and whispered instructions and made mental notes about his needs.  After recess, the teacher asked me to pull him into a separate location so that I could speak more freely and so that he could focus better on the tasks before him.  I pulled some short stories appropriate for him and off we went.  I soon discovered that addition, in its simplest form, would require much one on one time. We tried to recite the alphabet without much luck. So we wrote the alphabet and practiced naming each letter and the sound it produces. Sensing that Miguel was getting tired, I offered him a snack and let him eat while I read some stories to him.  Eventually, we were ready to read Green Eggs and Ham.  He was engrossed in the story as I exaggerated the words and reactions of the characters.  He smiled. When the story ended I heard him excitedly say, “Read it again!”

And so I did.  Only this time, I left out some of the rhyming words and withheld some of the hand gestures I used before.  He caught me.  He started filling in the endings of sentences and while sometimes he used the wrong words, he was clearly engaged in the story. He found it particularly funny to see Sam I Am underwater holding the plate of food of which one egg was clearly about to fall off.

We read the book a third time. This time Miguel had no problem helping tell the story. He smiled and said, “I like that book. When’s it time to eat?”  We returned to the classroom in time to prepare for lunch….No Green Eggs and Ham, though, just corn dogs and sides.

After lunch, I worked with Isaac who despite all his efforts seems to get in trouble every day.  His transgressions are minimal in the greater scheme of things, but in a school where every second of the day counts and manners are a must, he just can’t toe the line.  I love Isaac. He is funny, has a higher sense of humor, dances like a Jackson, and cares for others; especially, if it is he that caused their injury.

So off we went, armed with flash cards, blank paper, and a book to read together. His first test of me came immediately.  “Can we sit outside?” he asked.  After assurances that he would indeed be able to concentrate and pleading brown eyes, I agreed.  As we sat we talked about why he seems to get into trouble with the teacher so much. He seemed genuinely baffled.  But after a quarter hour of examples from me and justifications from him, he agreed that arguing with the teacher would always result in a recorded loss on his score card.  He decided that when he was being reprimanded for responding to someone when he was supposed to be silent, that the best tactic for him would be to stop talking. Fairness is important to Isaac, but he understands that arguing in this case, will not help.

I pulled out multiplication flash cards.  He zipped through all the ones I expected him to have memorized and when larger numbers came up, like 8×8, he patiently counted sets of eight fingers until he spouted off the correct answer.  We decided to review the multiplication tables as a set of patterns that he could easily learn.

“Beauty is almost always found in symmetries: the symmetries seen out in creation, the wings of the moth, the airy sky and the solid earth, the restful, focused eyes of a loving face in which we see our own self reflected:”… (David Whyte)

We looked for the symmetries in the math.  We looked for the patterns in the numbers. We looked for the reflections in the table as we worked left to right and top to bottom.

Within a short while, Isaac stopped abruptly, turned to look me in the eye and he proclaimed, “OH!! I get it!”    We were off to the races.  I showed him that he already knew much of table and that as a result, his task would be to memorize the methods we discussed, and ultimately, return the completed table to me the next time I see him.  I made sure he took a pen with him and he happily took his homework with him.

I understand that I will not see him for a week and that even then, he may not be there when I return. But for now, he will be treated as any student would.  He seemed to appreciate the expectations I have for him and also appeared confident that he could do the work.

The end of the day came much too quickly and as they lined up to leave the school the children spoke of the sun shining and no more rain, at least for the day. They quietly exited the room.  As I was leaving, one of the boys, Miguel returned to retrieve a forgotten jacket.  He smiled and waved at me and said, “See you next weekend!” The teacher escorting him shot me a questioning glance but I just waved it off.  I know what Miguel meant.  He was echoing my farewell when I said, “See you in a week.”

Sometimes we aren’t perfect, but we are perfect in our imperfection.  Such a bounty I harvested today.

Thanks for reading.

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Just Be There

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I rushed out of the house with my negative TB test in hand.  My first day as a volunteer at a local, private emergency school for children whose parents are homeless.  Children attend school to learn, play, eat, relax and in general, forget about their circumstances for a little while.  I had no idea how I would be able to manage a full day of what I considered might be emotional at best or difficult at worst.

I arrived just before a young father came in to drop off his daughter.  He acted erratically and was suspicious of me when I offered to walk his child to the classroom since I was going that way.  The paid staff waved me off and took over the discussion.  The little girl never made it to class. Most likely her dad changed his mind.

gently knocked on the green door and was hailed inside by a baseball cap wearing gentleman with an easy smile and a friendly voice.  I explained I was there to volunteer. The three little boys sitting at their desks glanced at me then turned to their seat work,  while the teacher and I whispered our hellos.

I learned that on any one day there could be anywhere from a couple to a dozen children in this classroom. Today there were only three.  Eventually, I was introduced to the boys, all about nine years old and they learned my name as Miss Caro.  Together, we went over the schedule and the rest of the day was spent following it to the “T,” while the boys took turns explaining to me what each activity entailed.

The boys were each remarkably similar and yet, drastically different.  All three boys struck me as very open to me even though they didn’t know who I am. Each child beamed at being able to teach me about the classroom routine.  Each child showed signs of street life.  Each child smiled broadly and laughed easily. Yet, not one talked about himself outside of school.

Mike is tall and athletic with developing broad shoulders and has an exotic look about him. Everything about Mike reeks of manipulation. All the rules of the basketball game he joined were somehow tweaked to his advantage and while he was kind, clearly his goal was to be the best at all costs.

Mike is super observant. While reading The Wizard of Oz aloud to them I asked them if they knew what a lion’s mane is? They did not.  I explained it and kept reading. Later that afternoon as they read their creative writing exercise Mike proudly used the word “mane” in his story. He was rewarded with the teacher’s acknowledgment that his accomplishment was worthy of great praise.

Similarly, while shorter and with a more generic, round face of a mischievous child, Andy also made it clear that his voice was to be heard. Andy is more cerebral and has a vocabulary of a much older, wiser child. His ideas are well developed and it is clear that he has a love of reading. He too argues on the playground and puts himself in the simultaneous position of arbitrator and player; I get another turn because…; that doesn’t count because…, and on and on.

In the classroom, Andy excels in all areas of study. He is a voracious reader and his vocabulary includes words like “affect” and “opportunity.”  Andy’s writing assignment also incorporates his experiences from earlier in the day. He writes that he wishes he could fly like a bird. He would squeeze himself into an unsuspecting flock of black birds and go all over the world. He would want to fly to see Santa at the North Pole more than anything else.

Dan is stout, sports a mohawk that was clearly just touched up and developmentally seems to be much younger than the other boys. While playing a game of pickle, he fell and outright cried saying he didn’t want to play anymore as he lay on the court. The other boys ran to help him and treated him likewise, as a child much younger than they.  After a band-aid and a hug, he resumed play but not in the manner of the other two boys. He was content to hang back and watch the other two try to out maneuver each other.

In the classroom, I learned that unlike the other boys Dan has literally never been in a regular school. In fact, he has rarely attended the emergency school. He struggles with reading, has not yet mastered the concept that when adding numbers by counting on his fingers that he can start by knowing he has five fingers on each hand and count six, then seven, then eight, etc. Dan has to begin counting at one every time. Often, he has to start over because he loses his place on the number line. He does not know his birthdate. I took dictation for his creative writing assignment. His writing prompt asks him to describe his favorite Christmas present.  He talks about the ChooChoo train he received as well as the chameleon that can hang from the ceiling by its tongue.

At the end of the day, the teacher rewarded the boys for their hard work and good behavior by letting them pick a game to play with me. We played Candyland and despite their best efforts Andy and Mike were not allowed to change rules to suit them. We snickered at bad draws and guffawed when a player had to go back so far they would never catch up again. Soon the teacher said, time to line up, signaling the end of the school day.

I reminded them that had a great time with them and that I would see them next week. They went to the area where their parent would retrieve them and I walked out through the office entrance.

As I headed to my car I heard, “Miss Caro! Miss Caro!” I turned to see Andy waving furiously as he waited to board a van that I came to understand would take him to the shelter for women and their children. I waved back yelling, “ciao dahling!”

I plopped into my car to check emails and texts, and peek at FaceBook.  As I looked up to grab my shoulder strap of the seatbelt I saw Dan walking down the sidewalk.  He was with his mother, brother and two sisters, the youngest of which was fast asleep in an umbrella stroller.  His mom pushed her as the other children skipped around them. They walked down the street, going to a shelter. No, hopefully going to a shelter I thought.

I wondered what circumstances lead a woman with four children to be chronically homeless.  I wondered why she couldn’t work a little more with Dan. I wondered why Andy’s intelligence was being ignored by his parent. Clearly, he has a crazy amount of potential. Why was Mike’s natural athleticism and leadership not being developed?

I stopped myself.  I cried. I drove away in the silence, listening to my thoughts. I found myself saying,

“Give without expectations. Help without judging.  Love without condition.  Repeat.”

I can’t wait to go back just to be there.

 

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