Every Wednesday afternoon I work with a group of about 40 kids from troubled homes. The idea is that at least once a week they go somewhere that is welcoming and nurturing, but where there are also clear rules and expectations as well as consistent consequences. The activities vary week to week, but they tend to emphasize creative expression, cooperation, and (ideally) peaceful interaction among the kids in ways that are fun enough that the kids decide to come each week voluntarily.
When you learn about the specifics of some of their home lives, it’s easy to feel skeptical that in a couple of hours a week you can really do that much good. But in fact, overall I see progress. A few examples come to mind, like one little boy who never used to talk in the group, just whisper something inaudible with his hand cupped to my ear, and now barely talks to me because he’s too engaged with the other kids. But that’s a topic for another day.
What I want to focus on today are a couple of interactions I’ve had in the last two days with kids from the group. I haven’t attended for last two Wednesdays due to a series of meetings, but in the last two days I’ve run into three of the kids from the group as I move about the Antigua site.
Now one great thing about kids is their enthusiasm. It’s honest and unbounded by social convention. So yesterday, as I was on my way back to my office I was interrupted by excited shouts. “Profe Jeff!,” a boy called out, and I turned just quick enough to see him ducking down under a table. An invitation to play.
I pretended not to know where he was hiding and sat down on the table. I wondered aloud where he could have gone, which provoked the predictable give-away giggles beneath me. That’s another great thing about kids — they can see through an adult’s silly pretense but still find it funny. Just then his sister showed up and so the hide and seek game was over, but a new one was about to begin.
I made the mistake when I first started with the group of lifting one the kids over my head, so for over a year now its been a source of regular exercise for me, as they all want a couple turns. So we played that until my shoulders got tired. “Okay, it was really fun seeing you, but I have to get back to work,” I said, in a vain attempt to make a graceful exit and get back to what I thought I was supposed to be doing.
But there’s the shadow side of kids’ enthusiasm and not being bound by social convention: Whatever it was I was saying about work was just some vague adult-speak. There were things to do!
I tried a different strategy, walking with them towards the playground, hoping they’d find the swings and slide more interesting, but that didn’t really fly. After another five minutes or so, I said I really did have to go. Which led to a new game, tug of war, with my left arm being the rope. Trini, who works in Sponsorship and was nearby taking photos, opined that the girl looked pretty strong; I was likely to lose this match.
As it turned out, I sort of did. Despite repeated and ever more firm declarations that they needed to let go of my arm because I really did have to go, the “game” never did end for them. In the end I simply fell back on greater height and strength to pry myself loose. Not exactly how I wanted to say goodbye, but nothing else worked.
This morning I was recounting it all to Renato to get his advice. He’s beginning a campaign among the staff of “Every Interaction Counts,” designed to get us to make the most of our time with kids, so that the whole site, in everything we do, is communicating to the kids that somebody cares about them, somebody is interested in what they’re doing or what they have to say.
He didn’t really have a magic technique, mostly it came down to spending more time with them. That wasn’t a totally satisfying answer, since I really did have work I was supposed to be doing, but part of me knew he was right. Ultimately, those kids are our job. Which, when I can get myself to step back and let that fact sink in, is pretty great.
This afternoon another girl from the group called out to me and came running to give me a hug. We talked about how I hadn’t come to the group the last two weeks, and about a party she was looking forward to for her sister’s first communion, and how she’s studying math in summer school. She’s a couple years older than the two from the day before, so there was no tug of war to get back to work, just a sweet hug and promise to see each other next week.
The Wednesday group is called “little lights along the way.” Until today, I had this vague notion that the “lights along the way” referred to the activities of the group, and the adults who guided these kids from troubled homes along the path to a better future. But today, this girl, Nancy, made me realize that they are the lights guiding us along our path.