Sucked into a frustrating, exasperating, deeply touching, rewarding "career."
|How to Get Your Heart Broke
It won’t take long if you go about it right. First thing is to get invited to park your motor home at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home (FUMCH) at Enterprise, Florida. You’ll need to be there for one or two Sunday services in the chapel. It will also help to get invited to supper at a cottage. That might take a little doing but if you volunteer to work on campus you’ll probably get an invitation. The place is always looking for folks to help the staff. Call and talk to the chaplain. He can make arrangements.
Volunteers supplement paid staff in wide variety of places with a dizzying array of jobs. Folks with mechanical, electrical, or plumbing skills will be welcomed by the maintenance staff and you'll be given jobs in a heartbeat. The Development Office (read “fundraising”) will generally have jobs requiring short learning curves most any time and special events on campus multiply prior to the holidays and before an open house day in the spring. The staff strings Christmas lights on most buildings on campus and people from the area are invited to drive through the campus and enjoy them. It’s a big job and takes a lot of staff time so volunteers are especially valuable then.
Facilities for volunteers include complete hookups for RV’s with picnic shelter and complete kitchen facilities for groups. Call ahead for reservations and arrive before four in the afternoon. (Since this was written, a requirement for background checks was introduced which complicates matters.)
The Home has residents from first grade through and, in some cases, beyond eighteen. Many do not do well in school and older children are encouraged to obtain GED rather than diplomas. There were about 85 resident kids in the late fall of ’02 when we were there. What struck our hearts was the number of residents working on the major problems of life. Difficulties such as whether they’ll have a home and whether their family will exist and whether the family will welcome them if they show up at the front door. That’s not to say that the kids aren’t safe and secure at the Home. They are and there is no doubt about that and they have advantages there that would make many kids envious. Bicycles, toys, a gym, soon a swimming pool, playground, tutors for school, plenty of good food, complete medical and dental care, counselors at the ready for any who need them, and rules of behavior that put them on the path toward productive adulthood. You won’t find any group of kids with better behavior than at Home functions. The residents almost universally restrict bad behavior to times when they have privacy. All that’s well and good.
But, there is in every child a deep, abiding, never-go-away longing/need/drive/passion for the comfort, care, and connection that is only available from a birth family. Satisfaction for that need is not available at any clinic, foster home, fast food place, or the Home. Adoption comes close but adopted children almost always want to connect with those who procreated them. We thought we could see the longing in the eyes of the residents. And it is expressed by many of the kids themselves through prayer requests at Church on Sunday. Service is at ten o’clock and all the kids on campus are required to attend. When the Chaplain asked for prayer requests hands at the end of bony arms shot up from all over the room and the the requests were often “pray for my _______,” (fill in mother, brother, father, grandmother, uncle, aunt or other family, on and on). May requests were for “unspoken” or un-named things--”Pray for me” was common.. At each request the Chaplain made a note and went on to the next—and they just kept coming! We counted 20 at one service. The first Sunday, the sermon was not about knowing God’s will or other “churchy” matters. It was about How Should I Behave so as to Have a Friend in this World. Because, you see, some of the kids don’t know how to behave in order to have a friend—a friend, not “friends”. Their role models didn’t have such niceties in their repertoire.
We were touched to tears. Kids we know at home are concerned about their toys, the unfairness of having to do their chores (for those who have them), school, siblings, what gifts they’ll be getting for birthdays, how much candy they can bag trick or treating at Halloween, and what’ll be under the tree at Christmas and on and on but not whether their families would exist or welcome them home!
If you can sit through the Sunday Chapel service and not be touched, you’d better have someone drive you to the mortuary.
At work with the maintenance staff, I met “Matt”, a ninth grade resident student working part-time who is in the Home because his aunt with whom he was living was on crack cocaine so often there was no care available for him. He chose to go into the Home upon the suggestion of his counselor. Unusually, he’ll be adopted into a family in a few months. He’s looking forward to that very much. Not many of the older residents are adopted.
We were invited for supper to a cottage whose residents were grade-school age girls. We met “Tammy” a fourth grade girl who sees her mother every other weekend. She’d like to live with her mother but her mother is more interested in partying than caring for her child. Another girl, “Yvette”, was a charmer in first or second grade from a BIRTH family of 14. She said she’d rather be in the Home than with her family. (Even if that’s sour grapes, it’s serious-as-a-heart-attack sour grapes!) Another, “Lucy” was bright and interested in explaining the house rules by which they live. Her eyes sparkled as she talked with us about bronze, silver and gold levels. “Kathy”, about 13, helped explain major and minor infractions and the “level” system under which they live and the privileges they earn by desirable behavior. The smile of any one of them could melt your heart.
On another day we were invited to a one of the two cottages reserved for younger kids with severe behavior problems—places with a padded time-out room—for Thanksgiving dinner. Some of the kids were absent but four were there (Imagine having neither home nor family for THAT day!) and the house parent asked those at the table to list three things for which they were thankful. Each of the four listed having people in their lives who care for and about them. You might want to read that sentence again and think about it. (My grandfather would have said, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”) You may very well bet that they mentioned someone to care for them because there was a time when that was lacking—most of us take that for granted.
“Maryanne” was there. She had been a resident for some years and is now living in an apartment going to a community college. She’s making the transition to independence and feels very close to the house parents of that cottage. As the meal went on it felt very much as though a family was gathering for the Holiday—but there were no relatives there!
The menu included turkey with all the trimmings—including homemade noodles that were delicious. And we felt very privileged and honored to be included.
We left the Home and moved south but the memories remained very dear and vivid to us. Events popped a large exclamation point on our experience there.
It was a week-and-a-day later we attended Christmas eve dinner with the extended family of Mirella and Robert Cap_____ in Hialeah, FL. It was their invitation that put the cap on our experience at the Home. These two came to this country 40-some years ago. Mirella’s brother said, “I was Cuban but now I am American. My family is here.” I simply nodded at the time but reflection brings greater understanding to what he was saying.
The meal included pork from a pig roasted in a “China Box” oven with charcoal coals above the meat (major league delicious!!), salad with home-grown avocados, antipasto (made and brought by an Italian friend of the family), black beans and rice, rice and beans (red), yucca, and more with excellent flan for desert. Everything was delicious!
About 35 folks, young, old and in between ate (some in shifts), joked, laughed, told and heard stories, and passed holiday greetings. There were babies of kissing age in abundance, shapely girls, soccer-playing-age boys, television-watching teens, retired folks, working folks—a first class mélange of people who care deeply about each other and don’t mind showing it. We sat around a great, long table. We heard music from the family next door who were doing something similar. It was all that anyone could desire from family connections: warmth, familiarity, good-natured bantering and joking, teasing, hugs, kisses, with at least three generations participating.
Here, in one evening, in one place, were ALL the things that the kids at FUMCH do not have but want and need in one neat, huge, wonderful package. Those at the family dinner spent not one second considering what it would mean to miss all that they enjoyed. They simply enjoyed. And we felt very privileged and honored to be included!
We've been going back to the home every year since.