So, after saying my entire life that I didn't want to work with children, I ended up dedicating my life's work to the little things. I pursued a Master's Degree in the Art of Teaching and received a teaching license. I even added on a Reading Endorsement. I spend my free time serving as a Girl Scout Troop Leader, 4-H Advisor, and leading kids' programming at church. Even if I said I didn't want to work with them, somehow they always found me or I found them. It was inevitable.
So about 6 years ago, I was asked to change jobs and run an after-school and summer-long youth program for at-risk kids. I took the job thinking that it was more in line with my degree than the job I had at the time. The youth center used to be a place to merely hang out and I was asked to come and change the center to a more meaningful program. We went through lots of growing pains my first year at the center as I changed rules and attendance requirements. I had many clashes with families who didn't like it that I was asking them to help with discipline problems and participate in family activities. I grew some tough skin very quickly! Now, the goal of the youth center is to not only help with homework and provide a hot, nutritious meal each evening, but also to teach these young people the life skills necessary to survive on their own. We work on skills such as doing laundry, opening a checking account, and understanding ads for housing.
I have 32 wild children, ranging in ages from kindergarten through 12th grade, every day after school and all day in the summer. Some of the kids that I serve have learning disabilities. Some kids are being raised by someone other than their parent. Some come to the youth center hungry or dirty. However, the majority of the kids I serve are just poor. I help them with their homework and try to teach them something useful for life before giving them dinner and sending them all home each evening. How little did I know that I would be the one learning so much from these children and come to love them all - even the bad ones - immensely.
On my birthday several years ago, I held a 9-year-old on my lap as she told me about her house burning down just hours before. I've laughed as kids yell and scream because they caught a fish on their pole for the first time. I've picked lice out of hair. I've taught kids how to tie their shoes. I've helped a 16-year-old study for his driving exam. I've taken the brunt of anger as a 13-year-old lashed out at me because she realized that she has a deadbeat mother and can't do anything about the unfairness of it. I think it's my job to not only get them the basics, but also expose them to everything I was able to do as a child. They're poor, but in my mind, they're kids. And all kids deserve the kind of childhood that I had. We didn't have a lot, but my Mom and Dad made sure that I was exposed to every learning opportunity. At the youth center, we've made our own watercolors, tie dyed T-shirts, and gone camping and swimming. We've had art lessons, dancing lessons, and piano lessons. We've taken tours of chocolate factories, bakeries, the courthouse, local potteries, and the zoo. We took a ride on a boat down the river. I even took 11 teenagers to the ocean for the first time in their life. Perhaps this is what my sister-in-law had in mind that day when she told me I'd make a good teacher. I knew a typical classroom would never suit me - maybe that's why I had never entertained the idea of teaching. What I'm doing now is much more than that.
I am surrounded by wonderful children everyday of my life, yet I have so much trouble having just one of my own. I know that I'm making a difference in their lives, but at the end of the day, I have to hand them back to their parents or guardians. And when I do, a good deal of my work with them is undone. When would it be my turn to take one home with me? To love as my own? As my husband and I received the news of our infertility last summer, I became a bit reflective. I love children. I've taught them, cared for them, and been around them my entire life. Heck, I even have a degree in them! I'd always pictured myself as having children, but it seems to be the one thing I'm not able to do - at least without extremely high medical bills and the help of a team of doctors. Was this God's cruelest joke? Sometimes I still think it is as I send my 32 kids home each night.