I have been so honored these past few months. I was chosen as one of ten women finalists for the 2013 L'Oreal Paris Women of Worth Award in recognition of my twenty years with the Children's Lifesaving Foundation, a nonprofit that profoundly transforms the lives of LA's homeless and at-risk youth.
I am often asked, "How do you still have any hope left when you see so much deprivation, neglect and poverty?"
The answer is simple: I have come to understand that every family has a story, and there are reasons that lead parents to treat their children in the way they do.
I have seen families ripped apart by incest and violence, children thrown away, left and abandoned at an early age. I have also witnessed what it can do to a child if their neglect is not taken into account, recognized, soothed and validated. These children will grow up to have no respect for human life as a young adult. It is a continuous cycle.
I grew up poor myself, moving to America at the age of 13 from Naples, Italy.
We grew up in the poorest section of Staten Island and yet, somehow, we never felt poor. We knew -- my sister Elena, brother Ciro and our friends -- that we would "make good" someday. Our parents struggled so we could have a bright future.
Life was extremely hard, but there was something there, something that is missing in today's low-income youth and their families -- the overall sense of love and feeling that we were allowed to achieve and be successful.
My mother was difficult as a person, but my father was extraordinary. Gentle, loving, an artist, painter and part-time actor, he made everything fun, light and charming. Along with his brothers and many other family members, we were part of a genuine community.
This sense of belonging and love allowed me to see beyond my meager circumstances and to develop the confidence to become a tour guide at Rockefeller Center and eventually, an English and Spanish high school teacher. It allowed me to value myself, and know I could do what anyone else could, with or without money.
When I founded the CLF 20 years ago, I began to use what I had learned in working with LA's homeless and at-risk youth and families: We learned to really listen. We hear what they were going through, and to make their lives a little bit better, in the small (throwing their very first birthday party at age 14) or large (getting them college scholarships) ways that we can. We are witness to their own experience.
The eminent psychotherapist Alice Miller called this rather great phenomena, this transfer of love and understanding, as being what she actually termed an "Enlightened Witness." She cites the abused child experiencing this phenomena as being the difference between a child becoming a killer and/or doing violence to themselves -- or surviving and becoming a true person.
It is something to think about. A child raised with love grows up whole. And by "love" we don't mean a free-for-all kind of parenting, or "spoiling" the child with material excess. Rather, it's much more mindful than that; it is never judging, blaming or criticizing your child. Never demeaning them, or making them feel less than. Never making your child feel as if they do not have a voice in their own life.
The Dalai Lama is an amazing example of this; he was raised as the next reincarnation of God himself. He was raised with the utmost respect and care. Can you imagine if we all raised our children like this? What could be the worst thing? Brilliant, forward-thinking and peace-loving adults! Can we even dare to imagine it? Let's try. I think together we can, by taking full responsibility of the way we raise our own children, make the world a truly better place. Treat your child as you wish you had been treated. Or, if you were very, very fortunate, how you were . Their future is dependent on it.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2013 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Bound by a deep sense of purpose and appetite for change, these women were chosen from thousands of applicants and each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2014, please visit womenofworth.com.
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