By Clay Chalupa
“Thank you, Ms. Clay.”
This sincere expression of gratitude was given to me two weeks ago, and since that time, I have held it dearly in my heart, opened over and over as if it were a lavishly presented gift-wrapped treasure. Today, Thanksgiving, 2010, I reflect on this moment as I give thanks for the power of passion and purpose that are the underpinnings of the work done by Project NIA.
Thankfulness for the last fourteen months for all of the people who have interned, funded, volunteered, worked, referred, investigated and shown up to get the Peace Room up and running at Gale School. Sincere gratitude to the people in the community (teachers, principals, parents, grandmothers, caregivers, residents, and other service organizations). But most of what sustains and rejuvenates us this year are the gifts given by the youth that we serve–these expressions of appreciation and trust– “Thank you, Ms. Clay,” and the knowledge that restorative practices have the capacity to transform and change the direction of lives.
This is the story of “Daniel.” He was supposed to start school this fall as an eighth grader, but on Labor Day he was arrested…again.
Daniel lives in the neighborhood that surrounds Stephen Gale Math and Science Academy, a K-8 grade Chicago Public School. This is a community that is often written about citing staggering statistics: that a substantial percentage of residents live below the poverty level, live in overcrowded housing and shelters, and that huge numbers of these families have been witness to crime and violence—and almost all have in some significant way been impacted by the school-to-jail-to-prison pipeline. The spreadsheets, studies, and newspaper articles only tell a part of the story. The real daily life of each individual struggle can only be told and felt on a visceral level when one can experience a hot, sweltering summer night to check in with a family who has no fan, air conditioner, and no screens. One must walk the streets that now are dark in the late afternoon—cold and wind coming off Lake Michigan a few blocks away, making it almost impossible to walk elementary students the five blocks to school. Every single day is a struggle—to get food, laundry soap, medications, heat, rent money. Getting free food from the pantry requires forms to be filled out, social security cards, medical cards, etc.—in addition to figuring out a way to get the food home without a car or bus pass.
“Daniel” lived in one of these overcrowded apartments that can only be described by the people who live in them. Yes, many are “out of compliance” with building codes, but the system cannot and does not enforce the safety provisions written into law.
Overwhelmed and under-resourced teachers do not understand why a student continually shows up for class without homework in hand. And yet, if they could glimpse the fact that many of their students go home to apartments without furniture, desks, tables, lamps—they would see not a defiant child, but instead, a young person in dire need of support and resources.
“Daniel” is smart–he likely has an IQ well above the average. He is thoughtful, well-spoken, kind and caring, and incredibly inquisitive. His long arrest record and the startling number of suspensions, detentions, and incident reports filed last year in 7th grade did not prevent him from scoring highly on standardized tests. He said he was often bored in class, and I have seen him do math problems quickly in his head. His vocabulary and knowledge of history, religion, nutrition, and politics belie his young age.
I worked with Daniel last year, and when he came to the Peace Room it was perplexing that he was referred for serious discipline infractions and an inability to control his rage.
After getting to know the circumstances of his 13 years, it makes perfect sense that he found his voice and expression from his older friends who are taggers, curfew violators, and weed smokers.
On the first day of school, September 7th, I was called to the principal’s office to meet with “Vernetta”, Daniel’s mother. She was clearly overwhelmed– worried, shamed, angry, concerned, fed up, and felt hopeless to deal with the arrest the day before. Daniel was not going to be able to return to school. In addition to looking forward to a bleak future for her son, Vernetta was highly concerned that his full-time presence at home would further impact the family life that was already chaotic. Vernetta has six other children that need attention, and Daniel’s disruptions to the family dynamic were creating more trouble than she could possibly handle.
She expressed, with shame and guilt, that she almost hoped he would be sent to Juvenile Detention, so that he could be removed from the home. At least he would be out of the neighborhood, having to navigate across gang lines that threatened his physical safety. “I cannot handle him. I have too many other issues I am struggling with, and I have to protect his younger brothers and sisters,” she confessed.
Two weeks ago, Daniel was admitted and welcomed to X Home as a resident. It is anticipated that he will be there for at least six months—but he wants to stay for much longer–possibly for years.
To simply state that Daniel is now living in a residential treatment facility may sound punitive. It may also appear as if another troublemaker is now successfully “taken off the streets.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, the collaborative work of interns, case managers, CPS staff, police officers, and myself (which I was able to do ONLY because I work for Project NIA) can be summarized by saying that it took lots of time, courage, creativity, compassion, technology and funding to gain this admission.
Obtaining a placement at X Home requires a huge commitment by the guardian, in this case, Vernetta. The documents that had to be found, faxed, signed and retrieved made refinancing a mortgage about to go into foreclosure look like a piece of cake.
Appointments had to be attended, and getting to the location is not an easy task for a woman who has so many other issues to address–including her health. Daniel had to be interviewed, assessed, and tested and had to spend three full days and evenings “shadowing” another resident. Most of all, HE had to make a commitment to show his willingness to become a resident of this facility—and leave the only world that he has known–his school, his friends, his neighborhood, and family.
Youth are NOT mandated to this organization. This is an opportunity to receive full medical, dental, educational, social, mental health, and behavioral support. A young man who has been told over and over that he is a “screw up” and that he will most likely end up homeless and incarcerated does not usually jump at an opportunity to go to a facility that has such strict rules and regulations. However, when presented in a restorative frame–as a valuable experience, rather than as punishment– Daniel’s resistance melted away. Within a week, he was asking: “How soon can I move in?”
Each time I informed him that he needed to be ready to go to an appointment, he was ready. I stressed the importance of staying out of trouble until the placement was official. I let him know that although he would face challenges, I believed fully that he has what it takes to thrive in this environment.
Systems are not easy to maneuver. There were many bumps in the road, and vital documents were not readily available. Through the tireless work of interns and other frontline youth workers, we refused to let this young student “fall through the cracks.” The day Daniel was welcomed as the newest resident of X Home, tears flowed and the bands of tension in many people’s shoulder blades relaxed and released long held stress, anxiety, and doubt.
Daniel is thriving in his new environment. I have received numerous reports of how well he is doing. His own analysis of this opportunity was summed up when I asked him how it was going. “Fantastic! I love it here. We have a gym, the food is so good. I share a beautiful room with only one roommate. I have my own bed, my own desk, and dresser.”
His “personal advocate” that works with him daily said, “The rules are simple. You show respect to me—I show respect to you. After we get to know one another, hopefully, you will have genuine respect for me—and I, for you. That’s how it works.”
In time, Daniel will earn the opportunity to go home on weekends and to have internet access with email privileges. For now, he said, “I get to make my own bed every morning!” He is not only following rules, but learning that living in a world where he is listened to and valued is realizable, and the kind of life that he can create for himself. Having structured learning and knowing that support is there when inevitable challenges arise, create a life with unlimited possibilities. Daniel is going to shine…
This is the work we do. There are many, many stories like this–some are not as cultivated and tended to as this–but only because the lack of resources prevent other youth from obtaining these services. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind from many years of experience that restorative, strength-based, practices work. Trying to “discipline through punitive measures” to marginalized, at-risk 13 year olds is counterproductive to our communities. Unless we build relationships with the inner lives of our youth, we become another pontificating authority figure. There are good reasons that these youth do not trust authority–and the best and the brightest often “act out” rather than succumbing. I have seen over and over again that the young people who show the most anger and rage—are also usually the ones that have the greatest need to be heard, supported and guided. Their “posturing” comes from anger that has deep roots in fear, seeing no value or meaning in their lives, and a lack of connectedness and purpose.
This Thanksgiving, 2010, I am most grateful to continue my work with Project NIA. Our organization provides a unique opportunity to build community, and see our youth far beyond self-presentation.
“Thank you, Ms. Clay.” This truly is a precious gift…
Again, my deep gratitude to the youth for allowing me to share and be a part of their journey.