The year I worked at a group home youth crisis shelter with runaway, homeless and foster youth in transition is strung on a ribbon of memories as if it had been one long unending day.
Although my shift didn't begin until 8 a.m., I always arrived a bit early so that I had a few minutes to check in with the kids before they left for school. Opening the big, white front door, the scent of coffee greeted me. There would be a plate of scrambled eggs or pancakes warming on the stove, and a rush of teenagers stuffing books into backpacks. Girls, with their faces pressed against the hallway full-length merrier checking details, made last minute adjustments. When I first began working at the shelter that's where I discovered my way in -- getting to know the girls one-on-one, by doing what mothers say and do in the course of the getting-ready-for-school routine. Offering compliments, wishing them good luck on tests, helping the girls feel great about themselves as they began their day.
Usually the boys slept longer and stumbled into the kitchen, leaving barely enough time to grab a pancake before they headed out the door to catch the bus. So my opportunity to grab a quick chat with them needed to happen after school. Which is why I always stayed a few minutes longer after my shift ended in the afternoon.
The house, known as the "shelter," was located on a tree-lined street in a working class neighborhood. It was impossible to drive by and guess that this home was different than all of the other houses on the block, unless you watched the comings and goings, because it was a licensed residential group "home" to as many as eight kids between the ages of 10-17 on any given day. It was a long-established home, active in the community for over 35 years and a trusted refuge and resource for youth and their families, with services available to the community 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This meant that an intake -- meaning a new resident -- might arrive in the middle of the night, so each morning brought a surprise to see who the newest resident might be.
There is a 24-hour crisis hotline and frequently an intake began with a crisis call, though intakes could also stem from a drop-in visit from a youth, parent or guardian, and were also often precipitated by a phone call from Child Welfare Services or law enforcement. The phone rang constantly. An average stay at the shelter could last anywhere from three days to three months. Every word and deed was case-noted and documented. At the beginning of our shift, the first thing we did was received change-over information so that we knew what had occurred all day and all night with the kids and within the house.
The program is a Therapeutic Milieu. Consistency is key, with a continuity of care, the staff working as a team, just like parents do in the best of families. It was a structured family-like environment where the meals were home-cooked and everyone sat down together to eat. The kids did their own laundry and schedules were posted. There was a daily house meeting; the kids had chores that rotated on a weekly basis. They could earn an allowance based on their behavior and level in the program. There was homework time in the afternoon, with a staff member available to offer help. After dinner a group activity took place like board games or a watching a movie together.
Each day followed a planned routine because if you didn't keep the kids busy, they would keep you busy. It was the kind of family-like environment every child should be raised in, and it was a foreign world to the majority of the teens who were placed there for care.
Like the majority of the staff at the shelter, I had majored in psychology. But the real reason I was hired was to serve as administrative assistant, to help with the volumes of office paper work that is necessary for running a group home. Since I was working in an office that was situated just off the living room area, in addition to administrative experience the job also required me to possess many of the qualifications required of the counselors who worked directly with the kids.
I hadn't expected the boundaries between office paperwork and the kids would be blurred as much as it was because there were always two residential counselors slated to be on duty on each shift. Yet there were days when one had to drive a child to a doctor or dentist appointment and the other had called in sick, and I was needed to assist with the children. Although I didn't have any prior group home experience to my credits, I was the only staff member who was a mother. What I knew then about parenting was gleaned from being a mom for 29 years and from raising three kids, who are now adults. My husband and I raised our youngest daughter from infancy, our son came to us through adoption when he was 1 year old with special medical needs, and our oldest daughter, who was adopted at age 11, had spent the majority of her childhood in foster care.
There were very few parenting situations that I hadn't experienced. When our oldest daughter joined our family she had moderate to severe unresolved emotional and behavioral problems stemming from abuse, neglect, deprivation and rejection. We had years of what felt like at the time as getting-no-where counseling. Never one to waste money or admit defeat, I spent those sessions discovering my own thorns -- we all have them. I'm an instinctive mother with lots of hard won experience. But I didn't know everything I needed to know about parenting, and within the weekly staff training sessions I began to get a jump-start on learning. The trainings were a favorite part of my week. Finally I was receiving the training I needed to be a parent. Even though my own children were now grown, the new language skills I was acquiring brought us to a new level of better communication.
I looked forward to getting up in the morning and going to work. My office life at the shelter, with the constant noise and interruptions, was delightful. It reminded me of home. The pattern with the clatter of kids nearby was exactly like my work as a writer along with being a mother when my three children were growing up. Except now, instead of writing books and magazine articles, I worked on reports and filed paperwork all the while keeping a keen eye and ear tuned so I could catch any mischief or heartrending moments when a child needed extra attention.
Each day instead of taking my ten-minute break and lunch hour alone, I chose to spend my time with the kids. When you work in a residential home youth crisis shelter there are always at least one or two kids in the house at any time of the day needing a snack, or needing someone to listen.
Because life goes on, even when you live at a shelter, there are intimate moments etched in my heart forever. Ben, whose real name has been changed to protect his privacy, ironing his shirt, getting ready to go to his senior prom, poking his head into my office door, beaming, showing me his new jacket. The snatches of conversation between us on an important day in his life, like mother and son, only we were not. Jeannie, whose name is also changed, discovering that she loves to write, has a talent for it, writing short stories and poems and asking me read them. Rachel, name again changed, who grew up in one of the toughest of tough situations, a mean girl, hard girl, letting her guard down around the house, showing her soft spots, losing her edge, turning into a darn good cook and becoming a caring, generous person on her good days.
The one thing you can always count on in a shelter is change. Beginnings and endings, someone arriving and someone leaving. Staff did their best to make sure there was closure when it was time for a child to leave. If they knew ahead of time a special dinner would be prepared. There is never an easy way to say goodbye to the kids you treasured, which is why I felt sad each time a difficult kid left and everyone in the house was glad to see them go. After a thorny child departed, the other kids had a wonderful way of banding together, dropping their defenses and coming together as one cohesive group, and for day or two life at the shelter would be easy and smooth. Then another child would arrive or leave and the cycle turned again.
Although I imagined working at the shelter until I was a very old person, one day it was my turn to leave. The economy had changed, funding was tight and in a budget meeting a decision was made to eliminate my position. On my last day I found a cake awaiting me, baked in my honor. A few of the kids and all of my coworkers presented me with homemade cards; each one carried a paragraph or two of sincere words recounting warm and funny memories. That was something the shelter was famous for: the personal touch of always assembling their own "homemade" thank you, birthday and goodbye cards.
At the end of my shift before I walked out the door, I sat on the floor for a few minutes with a couple of the kids I had a close relationship with. We sat cross-legged in a circle; everyone was loose-limbed, all but me. I, on the other hand, couldn't quite force my 58-year-old knees to lie flat on the ground, and we said our good-byes. Tears streamed down the face of the toughest of tough situation girl, the former hard girl who had begun to let her guard down. Then she said, "Each one of us will leave here eventually, we're all just passing through. At first I thought I'd hate it here, and I still want to leave, but instead I've decided to make the most of my time here."
Perhaps it is wishful thinking but I believe I saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes, and that
her sense of what is possible had been expanded. She had been able to let herself cry, instead of hiding her pain behind sharp words, and that was a good enough of a start for me.
Before I left I spent a few minutes wishing the kids good luck on homework assignments they had completed, and helping them feel great about themselves as they began their night. As I walked to my car I thought of all the ways this year had changed and shaped me. Although I didn't want to leave, more importantly I'm thankful for the opportunity I had. And every night since I've been thanking my lucky stars, grateful for my year at the shelter.
First published in the May 2011 issue of Fostering Families Today