Knocks on the Door
It started with just a knock on the door.
It was fairly common to get knocks on the door, living at the Care Fresno site. The kids knew where we lived and they knew that they would get a positive response from us. We got multiple knocks a day. Some students wanted to talk, others just wanted a snack, and on occasion, we got a student who really needed us. Maybe they were running from something or maybe something traumatic happened. Whatever it was, we were there.
This particular student on this particular day just wanted me to give him and his mom a ride to the store. I thought about it for a quick second. The store was within walking distance.
Did they really need a ride? I thought to myself.
I decided it would be a good opportunity to get to know the family more and I wasn't doing anything, so I took them up on the offer. The trip ended up taking longer than I thought it would, but I did get to know the family a little better.
A few days passed, and the student came knocking on the door again. This time his family needed a ride to the store to get money. I had work I needed to get done, but I figured since they needed the money to buy basic things, I should give them a ride. But again, the store was within walking distance.
Did they really need the ride?
I gave them the ride and I got a little upset when they took longer than I thought at the store. I kept my feelings inside. It was the right thing to do, right? I should feel joyful. Maybe they won't need rides after this. Maybe this was the last time.
The family started to ask me for rides multiple times a week. I stopped looking forward to getting knocks on the door and phone calls from the family. It felt like they always needed something and like they came at the most inconvenient times. The truth is, we all always need something.
I started asking questions in my head. Didn't they know I had a life too? When were they going to figure out how to get the resources they needed to go places? Why don't they ever just stop by to say hello and ask how I'm doing? Isn't taking them and serving the right thing to do? Isn't living a life of service supposed to give me joy?
I decided some of their requests weren't worth it for me, and I started to say no. Then they said they would pay me a few bucks in gas money to take them and I took them again. After a few more weeks, I started to say no to the money too.
I took a step back to reflect on why I was growing bitter towards this family. I remembered something a mentor of mine had told me. He said when we are walking in the spirit and creating space to rest, then we won't burn out. He was talking about walking in step with the Holy Spirit. I realized I hadn't been seeking the Lord's guidance through this process and I hadn't been spacing out my time to give myself rest.
I communicated with the family that I didn't just want to be the guy who gave them rides. I wanted to be their friend and invest in the lives of their kids. They didn't know what to say to that. I started hanging out with their kids more and got them plugged in to my teen group. I started having better conversations with the mom and other family members. They opened up about some of the problems they were facing. I don't have many answers to their problems. I just listened to them.
So what is the right thing to do? Should we help the family and give them a ride or say no? There isn't really a straight answer for it. I can tell you this. When we seek the Lord's guidance and listen to the Holy Spirit, then He will show us what to do. It may just be a little tug on our hearts. I can also tell you when we lose the ability to say "no", we become drained. But when we have the ability to say no and choose to say yes with confidence and joy, then our service becomes refreshing and enjoyable. Remember to go deeper in conversation and be open to listening to the people you serve.
Boundaries are difficult, especially when people have need and are relying on you. When we establish boundaries, we can serve with a fuller heart. The students we serve will push out boundaries whether it is with material things or emotional things or with our time. By setting firm and consistent boundaries, we communicate with them how to develop trust with us, and by doing so, teach them how to set similar boundaries. Though it may be difficult at first, the students will learn and grow. The relationship will deepen and you both will find joy in the process.
I'd like to say that I worked all my boundaries out with the family and I never get tired of them calling me, but I haven't yet. I work through it every week. In prayer, listening to the Spirit, the Lord prompts me on what to do.
Somewhere in the back of mind, I hope that one day the family will get the means to get a car. Then they'll call me and ask me if I need a ride and bless me in that way.
I have been blessed so much by them already.
Lying About Grades
It took us a long time to get the youth to sit down.
It was one of those days where everyone had lots of energy and couldn't focus on their homework. I told the students that if they finished their homework, they could go upstairs to read for a bit. I had decided to sit with a few of the students and read with them.
I noticed the first few read slowly through the sentences. I wondered if they were on their grade level or not and also what a student at their grade level should be reading at. One of the students read much faster and more elegantly than the others. I commented on it, telling him that he is a good reader. I was attempting to build a positive culture around reading.
A few weeks later that student ran up to me to show me his report card. I looked and saw that he had all A's. I congratulated him, but as I went to give him his report card back I noticed he had changed a few of the grades. He did it very well, so I didn't notice the changes in grades the first time I looked. I asked to see his grades on his phone. Most of the students know how to pull up their grades online. He wouldn't show me and told me he already showed me his grades. I commented on how he changed his grades.
Why would he lie about something like that to me? I thought.
Maybe it is because he knew I valued performing well academically. I decided to work with the student a little more and show him that he is smart enough to achieve if he puts the time and effort into it. Eventually he got his grades up for real and I took him out to eat food.
Students love showing us their grades, even if they aren't very good. I have had students slip their report cards underneath my door before, communicating that they are smart and have what it takes. I even had a student with all F's excited tell me that he got one of them up to a D. Celebrating the small victories and taking those small steps helps us grow.
Encourage to student you mentor academically. He or she will see what you value and will want to model that. Just make sure you are modelling something good.
Our (Seemingly Unlikely) Top Math Student
The door slammed and everyone in the room looked over.
It seemed like a normal day at program up until then. One of our students had gotten upset about something and then proceeded to slam the door.
As everyone was looking over, he decided to cuss, spit on the door, and walk away. One of our volunteers went outside to follow him and try to talk to him. The rest of us went back to our normal day at after school program.
If you didn't know the student and didn't know the context, if this incident was completely isolated, then you may have thought a few things. Maybe you thought, well this student must be angry. Maybe you thought he was a bad kid and needs to be disciplined. You might think that he was just having a bad day. You may have looked further into his family background and wondered, "I wonder what it is like at home for him or I wonder if there was anything in the past that led to this reaction." These are healthy thoughts and can move us closer towards understanding trauma.
This student in particular was special needs, came from a very poor family, and wasn't fed a balanced meal. His father was in and out of prison for violent behavior and his mother was doing what she could to provide. He ran around the neighborhood when he wasn't in school unsupervised. There was trauma in his life and he reacted because of it.
Scientists have found that something changes in the brain when one goes through trauma. The brain goes into "survival mode" and the child may overreact to a normal occurrence such as our student here who cussed, slammed the door, and spit on the door. Understanding how this happens and why can better help us care for our kids.
Here at Care Fresno we don't believe there are bad kids, just good kids who may make bad choices. Some of these choices might be a response to the environment a child grew up in.
We started to invest in this student's life both outside of program and during program. We talked to his mom and started to share positive things he was doing at program. We told him many positive things as well, but we were still firm when he did something wrong. We would explain just what it was he did wrong.
After the time and care put in by the team to build a healthy relationship with this student, we saw growth. He went from yelling and slamming doors at program, sometimes multiple times a week, to not having an incident in months. And he eventually became our top student for math hours.
This just shows how understanding his trauma, caring for him, building relationship, sharing positive things with both him and his mom, being firm, and seeing him grow made the difference. We hope that you can make the difference as well in your youth's life, whether they come from a traumatic background or not.
Odds are, you probably are already making the difference.
From an F to a D
"I just want to work at this restaurant for the rest of my life."
We were talking about what this high school student wanted to do with his life. It kind of shocked me that he didn't have any other aspirations. I asked him if he enjoyed working there and he said sometimes. Then I asked if he ever wanted to do anything else and he said that he didn't.
This student was being raised by a single mom and had made some bad choices in his life that got him an ankle monitor. He had been working at a soul food restaurant downtown that his family owned and was pretty successful there. He moved up to become someone who had to tell people they were fired which he didn't enjoy.
I found out that this student had straight F's in his class and was meeting with a counselor to discuss his future. It seemed like there wasn't much going for him and he didn't have many, if any, healthy role models in his life. I was starting to understand his career choices.
This is true for many of the kids that we have worked with. They don't think they can have a successful career either because nobody in their family does or nobody believes in them or they just don't know how to. We as mentors can help our students imagine a better future and have bigger aspirations.
This student always felt like he had to be someone else. He felt pressure from his friend group to make bad decisions. I didn't feel like I met the real him until one day he came over to get some food, like he normally did. I invited him in to chat and hangout. I told his mom he was over. He turned on a show that looked like it was for little kids and started laughing and joking around. He no longer put on the tough exterior that he normally wore. He was just a silly kid, having fun. Maybe all the pressures in his life got to him, and for some reason, he felt safe here, and acted like himself.
I was driving to work one day and I saw him walking on the sidewalk. I decided to give him a ride the rest of the way to school. He told me about all the things that were happening in his life. And then he told me, with a smile, that he had gotten one of his F's up to a D.
And so maybe that's the first step.