By LeesaMaree Bleicher
I have always thought the nature of my heart’s calling is to plant seeds of confidence, compassion and caring in the hearts of youth’s spirits. I hope for a bud to sprout and one day blossom into its brightest potential.
The seeds I scatter seem weightless and tiny in comparison to the heavy burdens they carry daily. Lives fraught with poverty, homelessness, violence, abuse, neglect, incarceration, and dimly lit futures. The seeds don’t seem like enough in the face of all of this, but I have seen the difference a smile can make. A soft look into a child’s eyes as they speak while you nod in empathy has an affect. Taking the time pause from your own agenda to stop and stay and hear what is in their heart makes a difference. Above all, it’s critical to care and to believe their story.
Working with high-risk youth in any capacity brings with it some staunch professional barriers and the politics of inflexible systems. Many youth can’t rely or live with their parents, nonetheless they are bound by complicated family loyalties and dependent upon them to survive literally and spiritually.
You take all this, and at best you are wading in deep currents of odds against your making any impact.
I haven’t even mentioned the armor that youth clad themselves in. They adorn themselves with defiance, rebellion, and a cracked confidence that nonetheless lets you know that they know that you could not possibly know anything, let alone what they feel, what they have been through, or what their lives are like. The only way to penetrate this carefully constructed dense armor is to be the opposite: to be fluid, light, open, and heart-centered.
Allow your heart to be your voice, and they will gravitate towards you.
It’s these moments when you have a chance to plant rich seeds of hopes that inspire dreams. But by far, your greatest hope is to establish a genuine connection and demonstrate your compassion. In the lives of many youth, this may be a rare and possibly their only positive kind experience with an adult. To that goal I have bended and even broken boundaries.
I’ve gone out of my way and extended my heart and myself, and not once have I ever regretted it.
Here I would like to pause, go south a bit, and open a conversation about increasing sensitivity. In this instance, I’d like to speak particularly about self-disclosure and the kinds of standards that we go by when considering who (and in what capacity) we allow to care for youth. I believe that anyone with a genuine compassionate heart can, with an abundance of patience, understanding, and sensitivity to trauma, make a difference in the lives of youth. But those who grew up in broken homes, experienced trauma, and emerged strong and resilient with a story to tell are the most influential in engaging youth. Lived experience is priceless, and the more that we acknowledge this and make it OK to share our stories — make it OK to be human first and professionals second — we will begin to reach more youth and save more lives.
Something to consider: If you believe we are “spiritual beings having a human experience,” then why in a profession that is entrusted with the caring of some of the most profound and soul-alternating human experiences would we be held to rigid, unemotional, healthy, heartfelt human responses or reactions? Including not having an empathetic human reaction to a shared or similar human experience? If we believe we are alone in our suffering and no one understands our suffering, we are likely to isolate, self medicate and cause self harm, which is why so many youth find themselves on drugs, in jail, in abusive relationships, dropping out of school, and committing suicide.
What if we sought to create bonds instead of boundaries that brought us together in the storms of human suffering? And what if we extended natural and appropriate emphatic responses and gestures, all with the goal of modeling and teaching compassion? Especially with youth who need more than anything to be loved and cared for.
We as frontline youth workers and people who set policy and programming for youth have a unique opportunity to increase our sensitivity, expand our capacity, break outdated and ineffective practices, and restructure the way we care for youth. We might begin by increasing our global sensitivity and implement more peer- and survivor-led self-empowerment programming, as well as restorative justice practices. What if we as professionals started a conversation that began to examine and question the ways and methods of how we literally, physically and spiritually care for and engage youth?
Ideally, we would seek to shift the current paradigm of youth services from punitive and monitoring to restorative and self-empowering.
When I meet youth, they are at the beginning, middle and or tail end of one trauma that is overshadowed by another one. They are suffering emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually from situations that they did not create. They are forced to comply with an often-unkind, unbending system, which often re-traumatizes them and leaves them in or sends them back to a home where the originating harm is still a reality. In the few moments of calm in the storms they are weathering, I seek to create a safe harbor and teach them how to build their own internal foundation of safety.
It is important that each step of the way we allow youth to be active participants in their healing, to help them understand that ultimately its within them to overcome and find peace.
This is the most potent seed we can hope to leave.
The success stories are sadly few. Not so much from empirical evidence, but from having watched youth become lost in a system or bounced from one system to another. The stories from my heart’s memories are poignant vignettes from which a spark of a smile lights the possibility, and for a moment and maybe longer, there are wins: re-engagement in school, emergence of self expression, amazing artistic expressions, the birth of resilience, and the first bond of trust with an adult where there was none before. For so many reasons they become lost to us, and we often never know what happens. But every once in awhile, you receive a letter, a phonecall. It’s simple and it’s small but so significant:
“I am in college now.”
“I graduated high school.”
“I am still in a gang, in juvenile hall, but I remember what you said.”
And every once in awhile, there’s an unexpected thank you, a letter. And you’re not even sure you really did anything but care.
See the suffering. Be sensitive to the sadness. Don’t miss an opportunity. Never underestimate the power of taking the time or of extending compassion. But above all listen, believe, and trust they are telling you the truth of their experience. Validate them by sharing and connecting in a very human and compassionate way. We only have moments with youth. Make those moments meaningful. Sprinkle seeds infused with compassion generously, often and with enthusiasm.
Visit LeesaMaree Bleicher, along with M. Mick Gardener, at their 90-minute breakout session called enlighten: a Trauma Informed Mindfulness Based Therapeutic approach combining Restorative Justice as an answer to youth involved in the criminal justice system. Promoting the concept of: Survivor Empowerment not Victimization of Recovery not Incarceration.