Since taking my current position as a Youth Care Worker at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, I have been asked countless times, “so what is it that you do?”
Here is what I have found so far. It is the hardest thing to explain what I do every day, and that is partially because it seems like no two days are the same. People commonly suggest, “so you’re like their big sister,” or “their tutor,” or “their mentor,” and probably most common, “so you’re essentially their Mom.”
I will take the time now to, well attempt, share with you what I do.
First and foremost, Mercy Home for Boys & Girls serves youth who find themselves in crisis situations – for many different reasons. We have kids on the Autism spectrum (many of whom had no previous such diagnosis) and we have kids who have been involved in gangs since a young age. We have kids who have awesomely supportive families who are in over their heads, and we have young men and women who are legally emancipated or wards of the state. Our kids, along with whomever they define as their “family,” work with the staff at Mercy to accomplish varied goals. All of these goals center around success in life – which we believe is very different for each youth. We encourage and motivate students to excel in school, providing tutoring and skills classes, as well as organizational development to help them stay on track. We value the after school enrichment and offer tons of opportunities for our kids to get involved in the community. And we have a ridiculously generous network of donors who make all of this possible.
Now if that wasn’t a donor appeal, I don’t know what is. But that’s the clinical explanation of Mercy. What is my experience like? Well, I work 40 hours a week with boys aged 14-18 who have faced some pretty significant struggles in their young lives. For confidentiality reasons, I obviously can’t get too far in detail with their specific stories, but I can tell you that these kids have had to grow up far too quickly. They have survived abuse and neglect, extreme family brokenness and trauma, personal mental health struggles, identity crises, and lots of trouble in school. Add those into the mix of the “typical” struggles of the teen years, and I will assert that my guys are pretty damn resilient. But yes, they struggle. They have good days, and they definitely have their bad days.
I honestly feel privileged to have the job I have – to be able to share in the lives of these remarkable young guys who have already taught me so much. I guess I still haven’t told you what I do. Maybe that is because it is a running list of “random” things that make up their lives. I am with them each day from when they get out of school and return to Mercy, to the time they go to bed at night.
I have ironed their school clothes before their first day so they would look “fresh,” I have held their hands during the scary roller coasters at Six Flags. I have mopped kitchen floors and laughed until tears when we spilled too much soapy water at once, and I have been the snack time administrator. I have been the one to tell them to go to bed….5 times. And I’ve been the one who has to take the Wii controller away when their game time was up. But I have also been there as they have struggled to read to me, sounding out words together on a park bench outside, and I have been taught the “Cups” song (which required a whole lot of patience on their part, I must add). I have been cultured in the rap scene, learning how to be “cool” in their eyes, but admitting my level of lameness daily. I have danced to the Cheetah Girls with one of my guys, and I have been taught how to “ball” and actually shoot a 3 by another guy. I have been humbled by their stories, impressed by their concern, intrigued by their own curiosity, and frustrated at their defiance. But I’ve been moved to tears, shown a lot of love, and tonight, I was given the honor of having a special handshake with one of my kids — that’s how you know you’ve “made it” with this particular youth.
I’ve had my fair share of frustrations, and I’m sure there will be more to come. I have had so many times where I don’t know if I’m prepared to do this job, for the sheer fact that I didn’t study anything related to this in college. But at the end of the day, I know that I have a lot of love to give.
I am the person who tells my guys over and over again, until now they quote me on it, “I believe in you” – even when it is a simple task like them finishing dishes even as they’re dragging their feet. I have laughed with them, wanted to cry (and cried when I got home), been given so much love, and learned so much already. I am remarkably lucky, I believe, to be given the task of “doing life” with these kids, not to mention working with fantastic people who share this belief and care for the guys at Mercy.
One of my biggest lessons so far is to delight in the little miracles of every day. Those little moments where progress has been made, or someone made a connection that they hadn’t made before. The times where you just wanna hug em because you’re so proud…those keep me going when I have rougher days. The little victories are the best.
The day when one of my guys, who is at a significantly low reading level for his age, decided he wanted to read a book with me. The day when another one who always responds to “hey, how’s it going” with “I’m bored,” said to me instead, “I’m good.” Or the day when one guy who is working on cutting out cuss words said “aw man what the — hell” and we praised him endlessly for censoring himself to the lesser word of “hell” rather than, well, you know. Dinner in the caf every night with the guys, listening to their ridiculous tales of school and girls and everything in between. Even the times where right before they crawl into bed, they call me into their rooms to say goodnight. My heart melts on a daily basis.
Time and time again, I just go to bed thanking God for this opportunity to serve these guys. I’ve heard it said that when you give of yourself, you receive more in return. I have received more love, laughs, and fun than I ever expected possible, and it’s only been a month.
Goodnight dear friends, I leave you with this.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” – Leo Buscaglia