Thursday, September 15, 2011

Change a Life - Teach Resilience

As a father of a large family, I know the value of teaching children to be resilient.  Resilience is the ability to cope with stress and adversity.  Resilient individuals learn the process of ‘bouncing back’ after stressful situations or of ‘steeling oneself’ against difficult circumstances.  This process is most effectively learned through the intervention and support of family and community. 

The idea of training a child to be resilient became even more apparent to me when I volunteered with the national organization Big Brothers of America.  One of my children-at-risk with Big Brothers was Alex.  He was the second oldest of eight children, each of whom had a different father.  Alex’s older brother used drugs and sold them in order to afford his habit.  His employment history was spotty, and to survive he engaged in petty theft and the subsequent sale of the stolen items.  This brother was a very nice, personable kid who unfortunately got caught up in a system that was unable to meet his needs.  The whole family, less the older brother, lived in a two-bedroom apartment where survival was the first order of business.

My objective as a Big Brother to Alex was to ensure that he was drug free through to his 16th birthday while he finished his success-based probation-enforced recovery training.  Alex was sexually active and had used drugs since age 12.  He had sold and used every drug on the streets but was fortunate enough to enjoy cheap marijuana the most; this helped him avoid the devastating cycle of hard drugs.  To survive in this most difficult social environment, Alex was a member of a gang. In his short life he had already witnessed two shootings.  During our first meeting, Alex introduced me to eight distinct gangs that roamed the neighborhood where he lived.  As it turned out, the gang was, in reality, his family.  You join a gang, I learned, for safety, security, and social connection.  His biological family was critical, but it was his gang family that was vital.  Alex loved and admired his older brother, and this connection created his most difficult challenge as it was his desire to be just like him.  My job was to broaden his perspective so as to avoid the rut that had been forged through the example of this older brother.  Fortunately, Alex was bright and wanted to improve his future.  He was an excellent student, which he attributed to being high on marijuana during most class periods.  It is important to place this experience into perspective.  We are not talking about inner-city New York, Harlem, Watts, or even East LA.  This was in a relatively small, extremely conservative, family orientated, mid-western American city.  In a discussion of national gang problems and the evils of the inner-city life, this would definitely not be in the top-10 list of children-at-risk locations. 

Gratefully I report that my simple involvement with Alex had some positive impact.  He successfully completed his recovery training, he remained drug-free, and he advanced to high school.  Alex is the exception, not the norm.  I provided a trusted adult reference for Alex to bounce off thoughts and decisions.  It wasn’t formal accountability, but at least it provided some emotional responsibility for his impulses and choices.   He gained understanding and respect for my value system regardless of whether he incorporated these values or not. 

This whole experience rocked my simple world.  I began to realize that for much of my life I had lived in a protected capsule, and my idealistic thoughts and opinions were distorted accordingly.  My view was through rose-colored glasses.  Following this experience I began to run other scenarios.  What of the true inner-city gangland children-at-risk?  Where do they turn for counsel and advice?  More importantly, what is the source of their value training?  Where do their core virtues come from?  How do they learn to be resilient?

Time has passed since this experience, but similar concerns continue to surface with the only variation being that of the population being considered. America has a mere 74 million children and 70% of them live with two parents.  Of those not living with two parents, 26% live with one parent.  Of the remaining 4%, half live with a grandparent and the rest are street children. Europe and Asia have similar numbers with similar demographics.  But, what of the nearly 200 million children in China or the 150 million in India?  Or how about the kids in the former Soviet Republic or South America?  Even more concerning are the war-ravaged countries of Africa and the Middle East. What values are being taught formally or otherwise to the children in the developing countries of the world?  These populations make the challenges of the inner-city kids look simple in comparison.  As I contemplate the needs of so many at-risk children, I am completely overwhelmed and consumed by the urgency and magnitude of this condition. 

There is hope, however, because somewhere in the process of helping one at-risk child, my life changed forever.  Gone are my preoccupations with petty personal problems and concerns.  Gone are my whiny days and the anxiety I feel over family inconveniences.  Gone is my toleration for excess, indulgence and entitlements.  Quieted now, I sit feeling frustrated, sad, overwhelmed and neutralized.  Why, in this time of global prosperity and abundance, enabled by ever-changing technology, are the lusts of greed and the excesses of gluttony ruling our lives?  Why is peace so elusive and the wrath of war appealing?  Where is our future?  How will we change the tide of current events?  It was a quote by Mother Teresa that got me focused again:  “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”  Where do I begin?  Who do I assist?  What is to be done?  Who will choose to become engaged?  The only person that I have power over is me, and so I will begin with personal self-control leading to increased resiliency.  Once I become master of myself I will be in a position to assist others.

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