When no one celebrates you...
There have been many times in my career as a child welfare social worker that I simply had no explanation. There’s no graduate level college course, trauma informed therapists, best practice conferences that has all the answers you’ll need in this job. Not when the sweetest, big brown-eyed girl looks up at you and asks why she can’t go home with her mommy. Or when sisters grapple with the decision of whether to be adopted separately or not adopted at all. Not when the tough teenage boy pleads with you, through never ending tears, to just give him one more chance to prove himself before you take him from his ‘last ditch effort’ foster home to a group home.
We can craft whatever blubbery, compassionate response but there simply are no answers that make sense sometimes. Even after a decade of this work, I found myself speechless many days.
It was on a day in January with snow on the ground that will always stick with me, among other similarly devastating days. I finally got the dreaded call from the foster parents of a particular teenage boy that they just couldn’t make it work anymore – he had to leave. This family was amazing and had certainly tried very hard. They had taken the child to see the ocean for the first time. He had taken his first communion in front of their church family. And they had even said that one day he could share their last name. This was a rough around the edges yet so incredibly resilient boy who had literally lost everyone and everything in his life. But on this day, his foster parent called and said they just couldn’t keep him anymore. Many of their reasons made sense but at the end of the day it was a dream shattered.
This happened to be a day most people didn’t go into the office because of the snow but I decided to go in to get some things done. It happened to be my son’s third birthday and we were headed that afternoon to a family water park resort. Instead of focusing on the fact that my personal plans were likely to be railroaded because of my need to respond to this crisis, I set out to handle this situation.
There are so many words that may describe this situation but I’m not sure there is a word in our language that can genuinely describe the mixture of grief, abandonment, overwhelming sadness and terror. Sitting across from a boy who looks more like a man overcome with the most intense sadness begging you to give him just one more chance to prove himself. The tears of abandonment flowed without the typical embarrassment a teenage boy may exhibit and the defeat he felt was visible throughout his whole entire body.
As social workers typically do, we came up with a plan for the young man that night.
To leave that scenario to then go to celebrate my newly three-year-old was daunting. This wasn’t the first time I had pondered the differences of experiences of those I worked with and my own children. But it was when I sat down that night and watched my sons watch a magical animated story time at this water park resort that the inequities in this world were glaringly apparent.
Why do some kids get to sit with their siblings in their favorite pair of Ninja Turtle pajamas watching an incredible bedtime story after a full day at a water park to celebrate their birthday while some kids literally have to pled to be loved?
There are simply no good reasons why. I will likely always have an aching in my body to have some explanation for this. I rest assured that each and every sweet child on this Earth was fearfully and wonderfully made and that it is our job to ensure they all know that.
Fast forward about a year – this same brave teenage boy sat in a residential treatment center preparing for his sixteenth birthday. Alone. He wasn’t surrounded by his siblings, he didn’t have his parents planning his party, or friends to invite, there was no cake nor any recognition that this day was the anniversary of his birth. As his former social worker, I pieced together a few things for him and shipped it to him. I made a large note on the outside asking that the staff hold it for him until his birthday.
Take a moment and think about your sixteenth birthday.
Now think about sitting in a hospital, with paid staff surrounding you, with other hurting kids nearby, with no family, no birthday song, no candles. Literally nothing. Imagine that when one of the only consistent people in your life calls to wish you a happy birthday they are told that you don’t have phone time.
Now tell me what message that sends to you about your worth? That on the anniversary of your birth .. No one shows up, no one celebrates you, no one cares to speak the words ‘happy birthday’.
At the moment when I handed this boys birthday package over to the the postman, I would’ve never thought cupcakes, cookies and birthday supplies could impact the foster care system .. But I was wrong.
This brave teenage boy, his resilience, his drive to be loved, his birthday … along with all the other kids just like him in this world … Started a celebration that is just beginning.
That celebration is this new non-profit called Worthdays.
It has become my calling that kids in foster care know they are worthy, important and celebrated. That on important days in their lives, like their birthday, they know that someone out there in this big, scary world thought of them. And kids being celebrated isn’t even the ultimate goal. Instead the ultimate goal is that we never have to make a birthday box again because each and every kid in foster care has found a family that loves them deeply and stands with them on their birthday loudly singly the words ‘happy birthday’. Until then... There are over 400,000 kids in foster care that need us.