Over my 12 year journey growing Pajama Program and getting to know the children we serve, many of my friends and volunteers have asked, "How do you not break down and cry every time you meet a child who is going through so much hurt and loneliness?"
My answer is always "I don't know." I want to take all of them home."
Yet after thinking about it, I realized how I am now able to push through my feelings of outrage, sadness, horror, injustice and frustration to keep moving us forward.
I had to find a way to absorb the pain that I first felt when I became aware of all the abandoned children devoid of a loving bedtime experience. Without a pair of clean, warm pajamas, a storybook or a parent present to nurture them into sleep, they would remain deprived of the necessary love, caring and excitement of the bedtime ritual that ushers all kids into the wonderment of their dream world.
In the past decade I have trained myself to flip my negative thoughts to my "to do" list as soon as I feel overwhelmed emotionally. My list takes over my brain and instantly reminds me that the best way to help these children is to stay focused, letting just enough of my emotions through to remain empathetic and loving.
And a long "to-do" list it is. When I see a shy, little girl retreat into a corner I feel tears welling up, and I remember we have to get more princess pajamas...when I watch a couple of boys ooh and ahhh over our mural of their favorite Storybook characters, my heart leaps out of my chest. Then I remember Spiderman books are in high demand these days and we need to buy them. When I see the kids bundling up to leave, holding their precious new gifts, I'm sad they are leaving, but I remember to make sure this group is on our list to come back again soon.
Also, listening to school-age children stumble on easy words in a book is heart breaking - but triggers a reminder to myself that we need to recruit more retired teachers as volunteers. As I grimace over too-tight pajamas on the bigger kids it prompts me to increase our quantity of bigger sizes - and adult sizes for our teens. And when I sniveled in our other, smaller space when a four-year-old hugged me and asked to stay longer, I knew it was time to move into a bigger Reading Center to tender more children.
I shed tears over these children often enough, but usually in my private spaces. I think we all need to cry over some of these situations, but weeping won't get the job done. Remembering - and doing - what's next on my list will.
Most of all, the idea that we are sweetening their dreamtime experience moves us all from tears of despair to tears of joy.