Last month, the chaplain at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, The Rev. Annie Mertz, contacted us about participating in a project for the holiday season.
When the kindergarten teachers at St. Paul’s had engaged their classes in a discussion about the meaning of the holidays, the children volunteered that it was all about helping others, and they asked if there was a way to help other children in need. Annie knew of our work at Braid and reached out to ask if the kindergarteners could send handmade scarves to children at the group home we partner with for our Cards of Hope program.
The kindergarten teachers also asked if we could come talk to their classes about what Braid does and where the scarves would be going. I leapt for joy at the idea of talking to a group of kindergarteners. (Chris, who prefers conversations with teenagers, offered to give me a ride from the Bart station…)
Throughout seminary and my time in parish ministry, I was actively involved in children’s ministry, and I am a particular devotee of the Godly Play method, which encourages conversation and ‘wondering’ with children about stories in scripture. However, while I have always loved working with young children, talking to kindergarteners about foster care started to sound like a pretty tough assignment.
As you know if you have been involved in our programs or read any of our past blogs, foster care is a heavy topic for people of any age. But the same statistics and stories that can shock adults into compassion for foster youth are obviously inappropriate to share with 5-year-olds, who are just learning to navigate existential questions of life and death and suffering. When I was 5, I was always worried that the big, scary things that were starting to enter my consciousness (kidnapping, the death of a grandparent, going through the car wash), were all on the verge of happening to me, and most kindergarteners I’ve met harbor similar fears that feel very personal and immediate.
I worried about how to convey even the most basic fact of foster care – that children are separated from their parents, their most primary relationships, through no fault of their own – to a room full of children for whom this represents one of their very worst fears, without scaring the living daylights out of them.
Ultimately, I fell back on the same advice I have offered Godly Play leaders so many times over the years: Tell only the basic story (even the difficult parts), and then turn it over to the children. Create a safe space for their wondering, and don’t underestimate their emotional and spiritual capacity.
And so I sat in the special “teacher’s chair” and told my new friends that their scarves would be going to some children a little older than them whose families had had problems that made it necessary for them to live apart from their parents. I emphasized that it wasn’t the children’s fault, and I assured them that the children were being cared for by adults who wanted to make sure they were safe while they couldn’t be with their parents.
Then we wondered.
I said I wondered how they would feel if they had to be separated from their parents. Many raised their hands to answer, “Sad.” One little boy said he thought he would be scared. Another little girl said she thought she might be angry. And one precious boy raised his hand to tell me that his dad is going to live in another place.
I wondered how they felt when they were making the scarves. The universal answer: “Happy!” “Happy!” “Happy!” Not coincidentally, it was the same answer when I wondered how the children in the group home would feel when they receive the scarves.
After that, the kindergarteners asked me questions. “Where do they go to school?” “Do they have money to buy things?” And the most important, “Will they get to live with their parents again?” I found myself longing very much to be able to answer a simple “yes,” but my mind was swirling with all we’ve learned about the complexities of foster care and kinship care, stories of youth who go through 50 different placements during their childhood, youth in kinship care whose parents float unreliably in and out of their lives, youth who have never known their parents at all. I answered that some of the children would be reunited with their parents, and some would be adopted by other families who would keep them safe, and I invited us to hope for that together.
It’s difficult not to feel uplifted by a morning with kindergarteners (especially since I was invited to stay for their dance party to silly alphabet songs). Their enthusiasm is contagious and, once again, I was amazed at the wisdom and empathy of young souls.
But there was something about this experience that made me recognize the profound unfairness of foster care in a new way. As I looked out at this room full of innocent 5-year-olds, whose little hearts I had been trying so hard to protect from concepts that would scare them, I realized that meanwhile those very things are actually happening to other 5-year-olds (and children of all ages), who are no less sweet and innocent, and who have no more capacity to understand what’s happening to them and why.
Chris and I have heard many stories of youth whose lives were turned upside down in the blink of an eye, right at that age when they were just old enough to understand that something terrible is happening, but not quite old enough to understand why. One young woman has shared with us that, when she was 5 years old, her mother left her at a friend’s house for the weekend and never came back.
I found myself desperately wanting to reassure these children that something like this wouldn’t happen to them, but I knew that I couldn’t do that with complete conviction, because these things have happened, to so many young people we know, to 400,000 children across America. These terrible, life-altering things have absolutely no regard for how young and innocent and precious these children were and are.
I wished that I could transport the children from the group home into that sweet circle of love and care at St. Paul’s. I wish all children in this country could wake up every morning knowing they are loved, knowing they are safe, knowing they can go to school and play on the playground and have a dance party and practice the alphabet and go home and do it all again the next day.
None of us has ever been able to make the world free of things that are scary and sad. But the kindergarteners at St. Paul’s are learning very early on that the greatest gift we can give one another is the gift of hope, the reminder that – even in the midst of darkness and pain – we are held in a circle of love.