I have a soft spot for the tough cases. The wild troublemakers that other folks tend to avoid I see as precious challenges. In particular, I love the possibility of getting through to a love-starved teen; cigarette in one hand, smartphone in the other.
We have a few new ones at The Well, ages 15 and 16. I’m cautiously optimistic: it has been a long road getting them to this point, but there is obviously much, much farther to go.
“Jo” has reminded Judy and I multiple times of her sixteenth birthday coming up on Monday. We first met Jo a year ago, along with a couple of friends selling themselves to local guys under a nearby bridge. She caught the attention of both Judy and I for no apparent reason, so we thought it was perhaps God’s nudging. But we did not see her again until a couple months ago, where we found her hanging out in front of a small internet shop managed by a woman we strongly suspect of pimping teen girls. We connected on Facebook, and soon after she started asking for money for food.
Childhood trauma robs kids of their need for connection. More accurately, it stuffs that need down inside shells of learned mistrust. Survival becomes life’s first objective, followed by finding sources of happiness to replace hurt and rejection. They discover happiness-producing risky behaviors together with other needy kids, but their relationships with each other are tenuous and conditional. The cardinal rule: don’t rat.
We usually do help with a little money or food the first time or two someone asks, simply to make a connection. We know it means that we will be asked again, which we address one step at a time. The survival mind sees us simply as a new resource, not a caring adult, but that’s ok.
We then look for opportunity to explain our purpose. In Jo’s case, she asked for help looking for work. I invited her to interview at The Well, but she didn’t come, because a friend that we had tried to help a couple years ago told her it was “boring.” One day she told me she as at the internet shop, so I sent Cream, one of our assistant leaders, to pick her up.
Sitting by my desk, Jo told me the typical sad story: parents split up when she was 5, and from then on she had been shifted to different places. Currently she lives with her grandmother and aunt. She had repeated eighth grade after being kicked out, then got kicked out again.
I asked Jo what possible careers or dreams she was interested in. “It’s probably not possible,” she said.
“Go ahead, tell me and we’ll see,” I said.
“I’d like to be doctor.”
This answer, along with “I want to be a teacher,” is not uncommon for poor kids with minimal exposure. They have all met teachers and doctors, not lawyers, engineers or pilots. But the details are not important, because any level of ambition sets up our next step.
“Ok,” I said to Jo. “Being a doctor requires a lot of work, and we’d have to get to know you and see if you have what it takes to pull it off. But I can guarantee that if you do, we’ll do anything and everything we can to help you get there.”
This type of exchange sets up our next step. We will help, but with conditions. We won’t help you with a couple of dollars to support a purposeless life, but we are ready to support you through university.
Jo wasn’t quite ready for turn things around at that point, but we’ve learned not to rush or try to rescue, even when we know unhealthy stuff is going on. I messaged her most days, and since she usually told me she was in a different part of town, we suspected prostitution.
“Dad, please send money. I don’t have enough to get home,” Jo messaged one day. She was in a Bangkok suburb.
“Dear daughter, remember what I told you. I’ll help you get through medical school if you work there, but I won’t help you to just run around with no purpose.”
“Ok, I understand. So can you help me?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think you’re getting it.” I repeated the whole speech. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, I get it. Dad, please send money.”
For weeks, were really only saw incorrigibility in Jo, not an openness for change. Shockingly bad manners are common with streetwise kids. As all parents know, simple habits like speaking politely and showing consideration or gratitude usually need to be taught. Uneducated grandparents handed kids by wayward young adults often don’t become conscientious caregivers. Once, Jo and a friend came over. First they invited themselves on a self-guided tour of our apartment, then requested chocolate smoothies and showers. After lunch they went into the bathroom, and a minute later the smell of cigarette smoke came wafting out under the door.
At the same time, something kept us holding onto her. Perhaps it was just a small hint that she did want a relationship, if only in her own, survival-driven way. Finally, three weeks ago she agreed again to come visit The Well and apply. She brought a friend, a classmate who had also been expelled, and Ann, a our Thai worker who handles case management, thought they would be worth a try. A couple days later, Jo brought another friend from the same group, also kicked out of school, whom we accepted on a trial basis as well.
To our pleasant surprise, Jo and friends have been showing up every day on time and responding dramatically to firm love in our Recovery Center. Onn, the center manager, has taken to them like a mother hen. Jo has already had a few not-unexpected rude outbursts, but she has actually responded to correction. Every day I message her, and every day she tells me she is happy and having fun.
On Thursday, Ann went with Jo to meet her grandmother, who spent the entire time complaining about Jo’s behavior in front of Jo. Ironically, Jo had only recently described to me the process that led to her decline from an A student to a delinquent. Looking for attention as a 13-year-old, she got into trouble, and the resulting pushback from authorities drove her away. It’s an “If they don’t believe I can be good, I might as well just be bad” syndrome, and we see it in the lives of many neglected kids.
In these short two-plus weeks, Jo has responded to heartfelt affirmation. Indeed a fun, lovable personality has been peeping out from under the shell. But we also know that this is a honeymoon phase. There will be a long rough road ahead, that may include Jo leaving The Well at some point for one more more wrong reasons.
I’m not being pessimistic or cynical. Experience has taught us to be okay with the two-forward-three-steps-back paths of traumatized people. As with most of the stories we tell, this one does not have an ending, but rather, “To be continued.”
Yesterday I stopped into the Recovery Center to take Judy a latte. Seeing the women sitting on the floor in the next room making jewelry, I stopped into say hi. Jo was near the door with her back turned, so I knelt down to get her attention. She returned a shy smile.
Jo reminded me again of her birthday coming up on Monday. When I stood to leave, she called, “See you!” in English and grinned proudly.