We Believe in Happy Endings

Let’s be honest.  Sometimes, working at an emergency children’s shelter can be sad and disheartening…..sort of a ‘two steps forward, one (or two, or three) steps back kind of thing.  I know that any of you who work with children will recognize the feeling. Luckily, there are many small successes along the way, and sometimes, a really big one!

Those of us who work at Austin’s House don’t take any credit for this really wonderful story, but we sure were glad we got to be a part of it.  Two elementary school aged siblings came to stay with us after a particularly heartbreaking set of circumstances disrupted their foster care and potential adoptive placement.  These kids had been back and forth between a biological parent and various foster homes for many years, but despite the hurt and loss they had endured, they remained upbeat, funny, challenging and loving.  They knew their caseworker was looking for an adoptive home for them, but she told them to be patient because she was determined to find the perfect home.  And they were patient beyond belief, despite all the normal anxiety and fear about such a big change in their lives.  The months they waited to hear about an adoptive home also gave them time to begin to deal with the emotional reality of severing ties with their biological parent.  Luckily, they had a very loving caseworker and therapist to help them begin this life long process.

In late summer, we heard that an adoptive home had been identified in another state.  Later, the adoptive parents came for an extended visit to meet the children and help them learn about their new family, home and community.  Photos and stories and laughter dominated, but the adults had some serious discussions too—about loss, and hurt and helping children finally, at long last, to feel truly secure.  The Austin’s House staff fought off tears when we heard the parents, over and over, tell the children that they would be moving to their ‘forever’ home.  No ifs, ands or buts.  No trial period, or ‘we’ll see how it goes’, or having to hope that this family will really like you.  I know this family doesn’t consider themselves heroes, but they are heroes to us.

Finally, after all the official t’s were crossed and i’s were dotted, I had the privilege of taking the children to the airport to make the long trip with their caseworker to their new home.  I know this will be a long journey for the children and their new family, and perhaps one that will never really end.  But who better to take this journey than these two wonderful children and their perfect, forever and ever family?

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Home For the Holidays

Whew…..I’m so glad Halloween is over! We often get concerned
questions from people who are worried that the children at Austin’s
House don’t get to celebrate holidays, so I thought it might be helpful
if I tried to describe the holiday season here. It starts on about October
1, when we bring all the Halloween decorations and costumes in from
the storage shed. The children decorate with everything from handmade
pumpkin pictures to a really scary ghoulish guy that someone donated, who
gets a place of honor in the front entry. One of my favorite memories is
of a very bright and active 3 year old boy taking my hand and going to
look at this creepy guy about 10 times a day. Once I said, “but he’s so
scary!” The little boy looked at me sort of scornfully and said, “Oh, don’t
be a baby!”. After the decorations are complete, we focus on costumes. We
have a fairly good supply, but since children take their costumes with them when
they leave, there are always replacements needed. This year, we had a princess,
a warrior, a pony, a raccoon, a super hero and an 80’s girl. The children went Trick or Treating in the local neighborhood. They got to eat 3 pieces of candy that night, and then 1-2 a day after that, until they forget about it and we throw it all away! We’ll have a breather for a week or two after the decorations are all put away, with just some Thanksgiving arts and crafts projects to get us in the mood for a turkey dinner. Thanksgiving Day will vary from crazy to pretty mellow, depending on the number and ages of the children, but there will always be turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberries, sweet potatoes, rolls, stuffing, pies…and of course that green vegetable we have to throw in there. The children will eat turkey sandwiches and leftovers for a couple of
days, and enjoy their time off school. And then comes……Christmas:) We are grateful for all the support we get for our children at Christmas, but we do make a big effort to make sure that the holiday is fun and not stressful. We focus on providing gifts and a celebration similar to what other children in our community have. We find that what kids appreciate the most are gifts that demonstrate that we’ve taken the time to understand a little bit about them and what they are interested in, so that often means…..last minute shopping! Although we plan and shop well ahead of time for children who have been in residence for awhile, we invariably have children leave and new children arrive a day or two before Christmas Day. Gifts are sent with the kids who leave, and we ask each new child to tell us 3 things they would like from Santa. Children often have a hard time thinking of what to list, because they’ve never been asked before. Remarkably, these wishes are typically very modest….a cd, a stuffed animal, art supplies, a clock radio and even socks have been typical wishes. The children are sometimes concerned that they’re asking for too much. Paula and I generally spend much of Christmas Eve day shopping and wrapping gifts for recent arrivals, and of course we have a supply of things for children who might arrive on Christmas Day. We find that how the gifts are given tends to be more important than the gifts themselves. Being moved from your own home,or a prior relative or foster placement at Christmas time is pretty devastating. Extravagant gifts can be embarrassing for children who are old enough to make the comparison to memories of holidays with their own family. Younger children are already feeling overwhelmed, and too many new toys tends to increase their stress level, particularly since they are already dealing with an entirely new living situation. We try to focus on providing a calm, warm and nurturing environment, where the children feel safe and secure, where their anxiety and fears are acknowledged and soothed, and where their family and the memories of other celebrations are respected. Loving caregivers, a cup of hot chocolate while we watch a new Christmas video, a cozy blanket and some special surprises that Santa picked out for each individual child are our recipe for an Austin’s House Christmas. We are never a child’s permanent home, but we are home for the moment, so let’s make it a good one.

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Just For Fun

We have a lot of toys at Austin’s House, and we have to work at keeping the number manageable.  It’s hard to refuse toy donations, and sometimes even harder for our staff to resist bringing in new and different things.  We notice that the latest and greatest toys tend to engage the children for a fairly short period of time, and cause a lot of arguments between children.  These are my Top 10 activities that never seem to fail for children under age 10.  They aren’t in any particular order—just depends on the child:  (and yes, we LOVE books—I just consider that to be a big category of its own, as is outdoor play)

1.  Painting—great for stress, fun for adults, and we get wonderful kid’s art to hang on the walls.  Don’t throw too much structure at the project—‘Do It Yourself’ is best.

2.  Cooking—or depending on the age, helping you cook.  Even very small children seem to absolutely love helping in the kitchen.  Most kids age 10 and above can cook quite independently, with appropriate supervision, of course.  Children with behavioral issues often seem to find the ritual and structure of cooking very soothing.  Don’t forget, adults have to eat what the kids cook, so choose those recipes carefully!

3.  Dress up—bring out the Halloween costumes, thrift store clothes and old prom dresses.  Don’t forget hats, ties and jackets—boys have fun with this, too.  Masks, capes, tiaras and wands will cover just about any character.

4.  Play-Doh—everyone loves it.  Everyone!

5.  Puzzles—this one has surprised me a bit.  I was never very good at puzzles, but many children are, and will work at them for a long time.  We have also had many teens who found them great for stress relief.

6.  Blocks, legos and other building toys.  Add little cars, and plastic animals (dinosaurs are my personal favorite) for longer lasting play.

7.  A little pretend kitchen, plastic dishes and lots of toy food.  Yep, those huge $5 sets  of plastic bananas, hamburgers and veggies are a great deal.  It’s best if there are a few older kids and adults around to eat the plastic meals.  Lots of them.

8. Build a fort with blankets—even better if you can move tables and chairs together to make a tunnel. Don’t worry that it looks a little messy—leave it up for awhile.  If you can get some large to extra large cardboard boxes, add those to the mix.

9.  Music, dancing and musical instruments—don’t plan on doing any detailed work during this, but the kids love it.

10. Free play—just sit and watch.  When the child comes over and whines, say,  “Go play”.  Don’t plan it or direct it for them.  You’ll be amazed!  Many children are so bombarded by stimulation that they lose the ability to entertain themselves.  You’ll be surprised how creative and entertaining children are when their imagination rules.

You might notice that there is nothing on here about Xboxes, the Wii or DVD’s.We have lots of DVDs and a Wii at Austin’s House, and they can be really entertaining.  However, we do find that many children get ‘locked in’ to this kind of stimulation—and we find it best to use these activities in pretty small doses towards the end of the day when there has already been plenty of exercise and creative play.

Have fun!

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History Lesson

Most of the children who arrive at Austin’s House don’t bring a lot of personal things with them. Not many clothes, or toys, or books. I know they bring many memories, both good and bad, but no matter their age, the physical evidence of their life history is scant. When my children were in elementary school, I loved the beginning of the year when many teachers assigned projects for the kids to get to know one another. It usually involved a poster or a bulletin board display with photos and magazine cutouts of the child’s family, pets, home and favorite things. When this assignment came home recently for some of the children at Austin’s House, my reaction was so different. Although we’ve cared for many kids, the reality of what these particular children have lost and had to leave behind hit the whole staff in a very poignant way. With the help of a caring caseworker, we located some pictures from their past. We bought disposable cameras and let the kids take pictures of the sunflowers they grew in the garden out back, the artwork on the walls of their rooms, and anything else that interested them. We copied photos of the therapy dog who comes to visit, who has now become their adopted pet. Eventually, the poster was finished and turned in…homework complete. Emergency shelter…emergency history? We did the best we could, but this time, it just didn’t feel quite good enough.

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Happy Birthday to You!

When children are placed at Austin’s House, their birth date is of course one of the key pieces of information provided to us.  We obviously need this to know how old the child is, to be able to obtain medical care if needed, and to fill prescriptions.  But….we also need it for planning the PARTY!  Whether we have one day, one week, or one month to plan the birthday celebration, there will always be one.   When our staff knows a birthday is coming up, there are conversations on every shift about the child’s ‘wish list’, and handwritten notes begin appearing in my inbox.  Just like many families, we try to get a couple of presents the child has specifically wished for (“No, I’m sorry,we can’t buy you an Xbox”), a couple of surprises based on what he or she is interested in, and lots of handmade cards.  The birthday boy or girl picks what they want for dinner (95% of the time it’s pizza), and what kind of birthday cake they’d like—which is usually baked by a wonderful volunteer who has asked to help with birthdays.  A birthday poster or banner is hung during the night, so the child sees it at breakfast, and sometimes we’ll have a special outing to celebrate.  We have learned over the years that although our desire is often to celebrate in an extravagant way (as though that could somehow make up for what we know the child has endured), it’s more respectful and easier on the child to keep the festivities fun but simple.  A few presents, a yummy cake, and lots of attention to celebrate the birth of a very special child.

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Each and Every Child, Each and Every Day

When someone hears that I work at an emergency shelter for abused and neglected children, their reaction routinely falls into one of two categories:  either they are clearly pretty uncomfortable with the whole topic and sort of change the subject, or they say  something nice like “What wonderful work you do, it must be so fulfilling to know you’re changing the life of a child.”   It’s interesting to me that both reactions reveal a small piece of the truth about working at Austin’s House.  The stories our children bring with them are often difficult to hear.  By the time they reach an agency like ours, there may have been years of chaos, fear, uncertainty and heartache in their young lives.  The children tend to be both naïve about the world at large, and wise beyond their years about topics you wish had remain unknown for quite awhile.  Because we are not therapists, caseworkers or law enforcement personnel, we have the luxury of not having to question children.  We focus on helping the child feel safe and secure, well fed, and entertained.  Then, we just wait and listen.  The stories always come out, whether the child is 3, or 10, or 17.   We try to keep our reactions calm and measured, to stay focused on what the child needs at that very moment.  No judgement, no outrage, no tears—just someone to be there and listen, to believe, and to not turn away at the difficult truth.  We don’t flatter ourselves much about the impact we have on a child’s life.  We talk a lot about the fact that we cannot change their past, nor really their future.  However, for the time they are with us at Austin’s House, we hope that each and every child, each and every day, knows there are people in the world who care, who will listen, and who won’t turn away when the story gets too hard to hear.  And we hope that after they leave, their time with us will have changed their perception of the world in some small way that might bring them a measure of comfort in the future.

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Vote for Austin’s House

We’re participating in the Vivint Gives Back project and we need your votes! Vivint will give Austin’s House $100,000 to continue helping abused and neglected children if we get the most votes in our region. Click here to vote for us on Vivint.com and follow the instructions on the page. Thank you for voting!

–The Austin’s House Team

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