We were a young married couple living in Houston, both working – me full-time and my wife part-time as she finished her degree. On alternating Saturdays, I was doing volunteer work at a home for emotionally disturbed children. The home was called Cambio House, and it was operated by Harris County in what at one time had been a large residence right near downtown.
My volunteer work was supposed to be simple and fun – taking the kids who had earned enough points for good behavior on a two- or three-hour field trip. It might be a movie, a visit to the park or zoo, just something fun that allowed them to remember that they were kids.
The problem was that the field trips turned out to be few and far between. The kids rarely had enough points. Behavior problems were always an issue. And these were children who were classified as mildly disturbed. All of them had been separated from their parents and were legally wards of the county. All were under the age of 13; teens went to a different residence program.
One little boy liked to kill small animals, like cats and dogs.
One 8-year-old girl had been found by police digging food out of garbage cans. She had been taking care of her bipolar, drug-addicted mother since she was five.
A ten-year-old boy named Henry had been separated from his brother and parents. The family had been found living in a small, ramshackle garage. The parents were both deaf and mute, and had themselves been abandoned as children; they had no idea how to raise children. Henry and his brother had been adopted, but the family had returned Henry to the court because they said they couldn’t handle more than one child.
Henry looked and usually acted like a normal 10-year-old. But Henry was not normal. Like many of the other children at Cambio, he couldn’t control his anger, and when he became angry, he would physically explode.
Field trips were rare. My usual volunteer work involved playing games there at the home, and sometimes having to help the staff hold down children who had gone on a rampage. And you never knew when something would trigger an explosion.
It’s no surprise that the staff had a high burnout rate. I outlasted almost all of them, but then I only was there a few hours at a time.
All of these children had suffered trauma of some kind or another. In Heart Made Whole: Turning Your Unhealed Pain into Your Greatest Strength, Christa Black Gifford describes two kinds of trauma – Trauma A and Trauma B. Trauma A is suffering the absence of something you should have received. Trauma B is suffering the things that never should have happened, like abuse, or rape, or divorce.
These children at Cambio House, these children classified as mildly disturbed, had suffered both Trauma A and Trauma B. Some had never been loved. Some had been abused. Some had been sexually abused. Some had a visceral hatred for any adult. Some believed they could never be loved, so they did things that made sure they would never be loved.
How do you manage that pain in a child’s life? Trauma, Gifford says, is “any place in your heart where your pain stays greater than your joy.” How do help a suffering child find joy, when all they may show you is hate?
The staff director told me that the most important thing I could do – that I was doing – was being a normal adult. These children didn’t have much if any experience with normal adults. The only normal adults they knew were therapists, doctors, psychologists, and social workers – professionals who had to care for them and deal with them. They didn’t know normal adults.
I was their normal adult.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’re reading Heart Made Whole. Consider reading along and join in the discussion. To see what others are saying about this chapter, “Managing Trauma,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.
Photograph by Kai Stachowiak via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.