I have wanted to work with trauma-impacted children and foster youth since I was very young. I went off to get my degree in psychology and moved back to the Central Coast eager to enact change in children’s lives, but I never imagined how much this field would change me. In the two years I’ve worked at FCNI, my job as a Rehabilitation Specialist (RS) has consisted of working with kids and families in their daily environment to help them build skills they need to cope and thrive. I’m also a coordinator in our foster care program, which gives me the chance to see more of the administrative side of services while still working directly with kids. Through all of this, I’ve had the unique honor of becoming a close-up witness to people’s stories through the disheartening, the mundane, and the beautiful moments of life in a way that has deeply impacted the way I see the world.
The boy who frequently disrupts the classroom and bullies others with threats and cutting words does so because he doesn’t know what to do with his anxiety. On top of this, his ADHD makes the flood of information at school overwhelming.
His neighbor, a young girl who is “so picky” is sensitive to certain textures due to past sexual abuse. In a neighboring town, there is a little boy who always seems to be “acting up” at preschool--his little body climbs and jumps and shouts and throws toys and he cannot seem to keep his hands to himself--all because his little brain is having another seizure as a result of the drugs he was inundated with before he took his first breath of air.
Another child in a nearby school is labeled as “weird” and untrustworthy because she frequently steals, takes things apart, and will smear anything slimy on the wall. But she’s just a young girl who was exposed to drugs and alcohol before she was born. Her teacher smiles at her with tired eyes, worn out from the argument she had with her son earlier when he was feeling irritable and sick from the side effects of his medication.
A single mother receives critical looks when others find out her children are in foster care because of her addiction, but they don’t know that she started using drugs with her own mother when she was just a child herself.
The father with several kids in tow paying for groceries with food stamps sees the stares from others in line, and tries to shrug them off. He’s too busy focusing on his kids who are struggling with mental health issues while he’s still recovering from his own. The cashier he’s getting groceries from is slow and keeps making mistakes as the angrily buzzing line of people gets longer and longer. She has been on her feet for almost 12 hours straight, eight at her other job and four at this one. Later in the afternoon, the single father calls his social worker to schedule an appointment and feels offended at the apparent curtness of her tone, not knowing that she was up almost all night getting a distraught child settled into a safe home.
If only those childrens’ teachers and classmates, the strangers at the store, and those around could see the other side, they would see wonderful things. The boy who bullies and threatens is not always that way; at home he is kind, thoughtful, and bursting with joy. He’ll even give up some of his beloved bike-riding time to search for a second helmet so that his RS can ride with him. When he goes to the store with pocket change to buy a treat, he makes friends with everyone he meets on the way and insists on sharing his candy.
The little girl who is a picky eater herself loves to feed her pets whenever she can, and has already learned to be responsible in caring for them and doting on them. The hyper boy dreams of being a superhero or a police officer one day so he can protect his family and friends; for now he makes them smile with his humor and hugs. The so-called “weird” girl is an artist with a keen eye for beauty and boundless creativity. Her tired teacher is patient in guiding her son, who is the joy of her life despite his difficult moments.
The single mother who still feels the sting of losing her kids pours her heart, mind, and energy into the hard work needed to bring her family together again. During their family visits, she holds them in her arms and tells them the most wonderful stories, inspiring their minds to dream and wonder. The dad with the food stamps may be struggling, but he’s also moving forward as he captains his little crew. His kids laugh at his jokes, and now they are learning they can go to him when the fun stuff is far from sight and they need someone to confide in. Despite the late nights, his social worker is dedicated, thoughtful, and bakes the most amazing cookies for her friends.
Before entering this job, I thought I had learned to “walk in someone else’s shoes” before making premature judgments. Now I know that this is not a singular lesson, but a skill that takes a lifetime to learn. We miss so much of the world because we only see fleeting glimpses through a single lens. Each and every individual’s story is utterly different, and yet they are deeply interconnected with the same threads. Life is painful. It’s confusing. It’s exhausting. But it is also surprising, hopeful, and glorious. We live in an age that constantly demands us to judge based on a photo, headline, or a sound bite, and tend to build our relationships on first impressions.
Instead, I choose to slow down and embrace life’s nuance. Where I used to see, hear, and tell, I choose to look, listen, and ask.