Don’t call us, we’ll call you

April 23, 2012

A new story of my life, part I

I feel like it’s time to write some more stories.  Stories about this journey of acceptance I’ve been on, realizing that if I want to have another child, adoption is the way to do it.  But as I try to capture all these different threads of thoughts and feelings, slight shifts and major changes, I keep coming back to that day I met Oliver and started to ask myself those fundamental questions of what I am capable of.  I guess that day in May 2002 is as good a place as any to pick up this story.

Although that day, that experience rocked me to the core, I went back to work at D.C. Prisoners’ the next day ready to go.  I still had a stack of letters from incarcerated men and women waiting for me, and I was determined to work through a two-year backlog before my internship ended.  But something started to take root in my mind that I had hardly given much notice to before: prevention.  See, when you start in nonprofit work to help incarcerated people, you get a lot of fellow public servants telling you that prevention is where it’s at.  Once they’re incarcerated, your hands are tied, you’re terribly limited — why not focus your energy on at-risk children and youth to help them avoid incarceration altogether?  Up to that point, I had mostly dismissed their arguments, not because prevention is not noble and worthwhile, but because I felt a special affinity for people who were already incarcerated and in need of some redemptive assistance (this impulse is the product of many things, not the least of which is multiple readings of one of my favorite books, Crime and Punishment).  But after Oliver, I felt so stung by my own helplessness that I started to think seriously about channeling my energy into something with fewer handcuffs and bars (literally and metaphorically), and more good feelings, more pay-off, more sense that what I was doing was actually making a difference for someone.

I finished my internship in June 2002 and set to work on that new plan.  In between getting just enough temp work to pay for my half of an F Street studio apartment, I volunteered with an organization called Heart of America.  I worked on their Books from the Heart project, which aims to get books into the hands of low-income children, who often have little to no access to books at home.  I helped sort books at their downtown office and then deliver them to a struggling school in Anacostia, an area of Southeast D.C. generally known for poverty, drugs, and crime.  This picture from Heart of America’s website pretty much sums up the joys of giving books to elementary school students who don’t have them:

Other than the disgust I felt at seeing the sort of school facility that these youngsters had to endure (in contrast to wealthier and more predominantly white areas in the district), it was a wonderful, heart-warming experience.  A lot of the incarcerated men I had met through D.C. Prisoners’ were from Anacostia, so I tried to spend my last weeks in D.C. (I was soon moving back to Provo for my last couple semesters of college) trying to understand the situation in Anacostia and the preventative work underway there.

Over the next few years, I tried various prevention-oriented efforts.  Back in Provo, I mentored a middle-school girl who was struggling with academic, behavioral, and family problems.  Later I volunteered at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis, doing some intake with women who were newly leaving abusive relationships but mostly just playing with the kids at the shelter.  When I moved back to D.C. again, I started my year of Americorps service with the Coalition for Residential Education.  I mentioned CORE’s mission last year (in this post), but briefly, it is “to advocate for boarding schools for disadvantaged youth, particularly youth in foster care who are unlikely to find permanent family placements and will eventually ‘age out of the system’ with little to no support. ”  One year with CORE turned into two or three as I moved up in the organization.  Although I threw myself into advancing CORE’s mission (as in, worked at home, on the bus, straight through lunch, and routinely stayed at the office until 7:00 or 8:00), I knew that I did not have quite the same spark for this prevention work as I did for my work with incarcerated individuals.  Because CORE was a coalition of schools nationwide, I was able to travel to boarding schools from Florida to South Dakota.  But I was always most taken with one right across town: the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which had begun as sort of a last-chance school for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

I eventually quit my job at CORE to try a slower-paced life.  It was meant to be filled with conceptual art and reading, but I spent the first three months just sleeping off the years of pushing my body much harder than I should have.  I knew that I had given my all to prevention, but my heart just wasn’t there.  I even resented at times the implication from some prevention proponents that once individuals got to a certain point — usually jail or prison — they were a lost cause.  I don’t believe that, and I wanted people to look at my life and know that I don’t believe that.  I decided that even if meeting another Oliver would break my heart again, it was worth it to share this little message: I care about you, I respect you, I will give you my time and energy no matter what your background or what you’ve done in your life.

I made that decision in 2006, and six years later I have never doubted that this is an integral part of my true calling, my life’s work.  But recently, my eyes have been opened to another part of my life’s work that I had scarcely considered before.

Stay with me . . . I’m about halfway there.


1 Comment »

  1. You are so, so awesome. I just don’t have words for how great I think you are. And this is a great post.

    Comment by v. blanchard — April 24, 2012 @ 12:26 am

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