Helping Children Thrive

Casually swinging his enormous battle axe at nearby intruders, the almost human form dressed in black helmet and knight’s plate armor made his way through rundown wood houses and abandoned football stadiums, looting every weapon in sight. If this video game character happens to be “eliminated” by his counterparts, he simply disappears with no pain or consequence. . . a stark contrast to Travis, the 11-year-old Fortnite enthusiast’s reality where his pain was ever present prior to his arrival at Saint John’s.

In my minds’ eye I saw Travis looking up from his game console and out the window of his small apartment in upper Land Park. It would have been like any typical day in the Sacramento public housing projects: the dogs were eating trash off the patchy, mostly dead lawn in the common yard; tiny boys and girls with no shoes were running in and out of the street unsupervised, collecting the balls they kicked too far; a young woman with tight black curls and pregnant belly walked nervously to the apartment next door. A large man from behind grabbed her arm, swung her around and fixed his rageful expression an inch from her face as he threatened something Travis couldn’t make out. A pale woman with hollow cheeks and decaying teeth sat smoking with a friend on the curb, which only a week prior, had been taped off as part of a murder investigation. These were the circumstances in which Travis grew up before Saint John’s Program for Real Change took him in with his mother last year, who was at that time losing her battle with drug addiction.

During my first visit to Saint John’s with my crew of four kids and a group of tenacious volunteer high school students from our church, I saw Travis sitting at the edge of the picnic table, shoulders slumped, elbows on knees and fingers curled up, guarding his expressions. Once my 11-year-old son, Caleb, invited him to play basketball, he quickly warmed up. The boys clearly spoke the same language.

It’s hard for me, now that I know more of his background, to comprehend how Travis navigated the lonely, unforgiving circumstances of his early childhood unbegrudgingly. When I asked him at one of our visits how he managed, he simply said, “God has helped me a lot.” He went on to explain that whenever he found himself in a dangerous situation with bad people, God showed him how to escape. I probed further, “How do you know God is listening to your prayers?” He replied, “I know he listens because he is there for me when I need him. I don’t know how to explain it; I just know he is there.”

At Saint John’s, Travis is receiving the consistent support he deserves, not only from his rehabilitating mother, but from the much needed-staff and volunteers at Saint John’s. Although it has taken a lot of practice, Travis’ goal for himself is this: each day he’ll make an assessment; if he is having a bad day, he will turn it into a good day by changing his mood. He advised me with these wise words, “You should never take your anger out on anyone around you, but rather deal with it [in a more positive way].”

The staff and volunteers love visiting with Travis and watching him simply enjoy being a kid at all the fun activities Saint John’s provides for the children who live there. “Travis loves to participate in EVERYTHING; he has really thrived at Saint John’s,” observed Saint John’s Children’s Program Director Abra Ruthenbeck. “He is willing to try new things, he has a great attitude and gets along with everyone from the other kids to our staff, to the YMCA summer camp staff to the peace officers that visit our program. He’s really a ‘dream kid.’”

As I watch Travis and Caleb play basketball at the Saint John’s playground, I sit with a table full of wide-eyed children, some drawing, some eating their afternoon snack, most of whose experiences before Saint John’s were unbelievably tough. I cringe to think that pain is so readily experienced in this world, and cruelly, it’s not held back in the least degree from the most innocent and defenseless of us. But, as Travis taught me, there is a silver lining to the trials these kids have undeservedly experienced. If they choose to adopt a positive perspective on life, like Travis, they will develop a unique resilience and courage that is only awarded those kids who have endured such heartache.

To borrow a quote from Travis’ hero, Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man [or kid] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Judging from King’s documented speeches and letters, I think if he had witnessed Travis’ childhood, he would agree that Travis is a great example of one who, despite challenging circumstances, has sought and stood for all that is positive in the world. Travis has unwavering hope; hope rooted in his faith and nourished by persistent, painstaking practice. . . practice in changing his mood to a constructive one. . practice in focusing on the good things in life, like family and God.

As the boys take a rest I ask Travis, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?” He doesn’t respond in the typical way an 11-year-old boy would, I want a huge room filled to the brim with video games, a pool in the backyard, a basketball court, and a kitchen that never runs out of pizza and sweets. He simply responds, “A nice apartment. . . somewhere peaceful, where I can look out the window and see people are having a good day.”

By Guest Blogger, Tara MacDonald, Saint John’s Program for Real Change Volunteer

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