Why are we here?
An address given by Dennis W. Felty on the occasion of the launch of the NACCW Johannesburg office this year.
Recently Maria Bulenova, a colleague from the USA, and I had just arrived in Beslan, Russia. We were sitting in a small cafe having coffee. We had just traveled 6000 miles.
I remember starting the conversation with “Why are we here?” We just laughed. It was an existential question, but the practical answer was that Keystone was working with colleagues in Beslan to build a comprehensive system of care for the children and families of North Ossetia.
The next day I visited School #1 in Beslan. This was
the second visit I had made to the school as you might imagine, it is
always a profound experience. School #1 is where over 1000 people were
held hostage on September 1st of 2004 by 25 Chechen terrorists. Over 360
victims, mostly children, were murdered in the attack. September 1st had
been the first day of school in Russia and parents typically accompany
their children to school for a traditional open house. The victims were
held hostage for three long days in the schools gymnasium. Bombs were
suspended from a wire strung between the two basket ball hoops. The gymnasium is now a memorial and hundreds of photos of all the children and their teachers that lost their lives in the attack are displayed on the walls.
Down deep you want to believe that somehow the children of North Ossetia are different. The implication is that if they are, then what happened there is unique, an aberration, a rip in the fabric of reality and cannot happen within your own community. However looking at the photos of the lost children in the gymnasium of School #1 of Beslan, they begin to not only look like your children, but they transform and become your children.
I have the privilege of traveling around the world meeting outstanding child and youth care workers, visiting their projects and meeting the children and young people they support. In each of these visits there is a point where you see your own children in the children you are visiting and the transformation that occurred in the gymnasium of Beslan School #1 happens again, again and again. What you realize, is that as a child and youth care worker you are part of a global mission that transcends borders, race, gender, religion, culture, time, nationalities and that you are a member of an elite group of committed and gifted persons working to improve the lives of children and young people connected by a common purpose and a common dream.
In this experience, I am struck by the profound commonality that is shared by all children. Every child has the same dreams and hopes. Each wants the same things:
to have a family
to have the opportunity to learn and to go to school
to grow up in a safe community
to be strong and healthy
to be valued and embraced by those around them
and ultimately to grow up to be a respected, participating, contributing member of their society.
I always call home each day when traveling, however that first day in Beslan, the phone at home had been busy the whole day. I found myself being worried. So what do I do when I’m worried? I call Madeleine my assistant of fifteen years on my cell phone. Now understand I’m in Russia and Madeline is in Harrisburg Pennsylvania.
I say, “Madeleine the phone at home has been busy
all day. Do you think you could stop by my house and see what’s going
Madeleine says “sure”, and in about half an hour she calls back and says “I have been ringing the door bell and knocking on the door, there is no answer, but Barb’s (my wife) car is in the driveway.”
Well now I’m really worried. Madeleine finds that the garage door is not locked and opens the door and goes in, but the door to the house is locked.
I say “Madeleine, I’m really worried, I think you should knock the door down and go in.” Madeleine says “are you sure?”
I say “yes knock the door down.”
Madeleine says ok and I hear a wham! Madeleine says “the door is still locked”.
I say “hit it again, harder.”
I hear a second wham! And Madeleine says its still locked.
I say “you have to hit it right above the lock.”
Another gigantic wham! Madeleine then hears Barb on the other side of the door say “who’s there?”
Madeleine pauses and then says “it’s Madeleine”.
Barb opens the door and Madeleine is standing there with a 20 pound sledge hammer in her hands having just tried to knock her door down.
Well what does Madeleine do? Madeleine does what any good executive assistant would do in such a situation, she hands Barb the cell phone and it’s my job to try to explain what it is that we are doing.
As I thought about using this story today I found myself thinking; is this just a good story or is it more? I found that it brought back other memories, including one of my first experiences as a brand new direct support staff at the Harrisburg State Hospital in 1968.
Hospital defined by doors
To a large extent the Harrisburg State Hospital was defined by hundreds of locked doors and their keys. The Harrisburg State Hospital was where 3500 persons with mental illness lived. People spent their entire lives behind locked doors in day rooms and sleeping rooms, sometimes with a hundred patients sharing a single bedroom. At that time there were no programs and no treatment and no one was ever allowed to leave the hospital.
The conditions were horrendous, people were frequently nude, the conditions were filthy, people would be hosed in gang showers, clothing was in piles and the patients would rummage for clothing and shoes each morning. We knew that what existed was wrong but all the time there was no vision of what the alternative was going to be.
As part of trying to change things, someone got the bright idea that I should get a bus driver’s license — and take the patients out into the community for outings. Well, I was successful in getting a bus drivers license and pulled up in front in a gigantic green Harrisburg State Hospital bus. I went into the ward, and with an attendant, took about 30 patients out to the bus. We had to unlock almost a dozen doors in the process. We headed down the long winding road of the hospital and out into the community — for the first time.
We had a great time that day just driving around and we even stopped for a picnic. Returning home to the hospital, we got pulled over by a local police officer. Nat Knowles, a giant of a man who had schizophrenia, was sitting right behind me in the first row of seats. The officer came up to the driver’s side window and asked what we were doing. Nat leaned forward and in his deep voice said “We are just a bunch of mental patients out for a ride”. The officer handed back the documents and walked back to his car.
I think that day, was a landmark day, it was the first of many days in which doors would be unlocked, opened and, at times, knocked down in the ensuing 40 years.
On December 20th 2008 almost forty years to the day the last 15 persons moved out of the hospital into community homes and I had the honor of locking the doors for the last time.
Bill Miller story
My father, Warren Felty, just celebrated his 90th birthday.
On a cold November night in 1940 my father was driving along icy roads in Pennsylvania when he saw the tail-lights of the car in front of him swerve. My father watched as the car skidded violently off the road crashing into a culvert and coming to rest in an embankment of snow. He stopped his own car and ran to the scene of the accident. There he found the driver, who had been thrown through the windshield, laying in the snow bank, bleeding and unconscious. My Father pulled the injured man from the snow bank, lifted him in his arms and carried him to his car and drove him to hospital. When he recovered consciousness four days later, Bill Miller, the accident victim, learned how my dad had saved his life. The two men later met, but did not really become friends and soon lost touch with each other.
At the time the U.S. was engaged in the epic battles of World War II and unknown to each other, both men had joined the Army Air Force and became B-17 bomber pilots. On my father’s 17th mission over Germany his aircraft was shot down. He survived a very harrowing bailout at 21,000 feet as his aircraft disintegrated around him.
On landing he was captured by the German SS and was held as a prisoner of war for two years at Stalag 13. In the bitter winter of 1944, as the Russians were advancing from the East, Hitler ordered that all prisoners be moved West out of reach of the Russians. My father was among 10,000 POWs who were driven on a month long 200 mile forced march from Sagan to Nuremberg. The POWs were starving, did not have adequate clothing for the severe cold and consequently many died along the way — collapsing and freezing to death in the snow.
As my father and the other prisoners trudged their way along the snowy road my father encountered a fellow prisoner collapsed in exhaustion laying in a snow bank. My father turned him over, picked him up and helped him along the road. Later in the day my father was stunned to realize that the man he was helping was Bill Miller, the same Bill Miller he had pulled from a snow bank five years earlier and 4000 miles away back home in Pennsylvania!
Miller survived the march and both men reached their destination. They remained friends until Bill’s death a few years ago. All of you who are part of this remarkable movement serve as caretakers. Sometimes you stand by the door, sometimes you go in, and sometimes you take a young person by the hand and lead them out through the door into the community. And sometimes, like Madeleine, you knock the door down with a sledge hammer!
In your work of healing, advocacy, justice and inclusion you are asked to encounter some of the darkest and most difficult aspects of the human experience. But in the face of such darkness, you push back! And in that process, personally, and individually, you create brilliant light and opportunity in the world. You refuse to be complicit by being indifferent. By doing everything, to respect, nurture, engage, ultimately your work celebrates the human spirit.
So who are you really, who are the members of The National Association of Child Care Workers?Let me tell you:
1. You are the hands that tend the garden of life, helping children and young people dress, bathe, learn and participate in the daily gifts of life.
2. Your are the host that invites all people to the table of life greeting and welcoming them at the door.
3. You are the mind that holds a vision of a better world for children and young people, working for a time when everyone can be a valued, contributing and fully participating member of society.
4. You are the heart that offers a caring and a loving relationship to young people who too frequently have too few friends and too few family members.
5. You are the person who responds in the middle of the night when a child is ill or confronts a serious life crisis.
6. And you are the caretaker that stands by the door listening for the call encouraging young people to enter the community and build meaningful and rich lives as adults.
7. You are the loving caretaker that holds an infant in your arms knowing that its life will be measured in months and not years.
The problems of the world
We are increasingly learning that the problems of the world need systemic solutions, solutions that are thoughtful, effective, personal, comprehensive and long term.
We are learning that all societies have problems and challenges and all societies need people such as you who are committed to confronting those problems and working to support and care for the most vulnerable members of their society.
We are learning that to be effective we must share our knowledge and experience with our colleagues, drawing on the best practices from across the world.
The Isibindi model that many of you are part of is a brilliant model. It uses the natural resources of the community to support children who have lost their parents. It is built around a powerful infrastructure of training, organization and has a compelling vision of its important contribution to South Africa. You stand at a threshold in the history of human services where your work really matters and will impact the lives of children and young persons for decades to come.
Working within the structural context of NACCW, each of you makes a contribution that really matters.
Why do I tell you these stories?
No one should have to cuddle a little girl whose brother was murdered in front of her on her first day in school. No one should have to visit children who will not live to experience the joys of their teenage years. No one should have to sit with a family and hear them ask who will care for their son or daughter when they are gone. No one should have to visit a 12 year old child and observe their stunning courage as they shoulder the burden of caring for their brothers and sisters.
But you do and in doing so each of you makes a difference. Your work matters, your vision of a better life is essential for young people of South Africa to achieve that life. And your organizations create a capacity for change that can be achieved in no other way.
So...why are we here?
Let me return to that cafe in Beslan and the question — why are we really here? Why do we do this difficult work?
For some of you it is because it is God’s commandment to love one another.
For some of you it is to honor Africa’s rich cultural heritage of caring for one another within the context of the community.
For others it is to work towards creating a better world for your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren.
For some it is just doing work that is meaningful and interesting.
For others, you feel called to build a new society in this beautiful country and to work for justice and equality in the world. And for all of you here today, you more than any one else, understand that a society must value and respect all of its citizens, because to not do so ultimately puts everyone at risk.
But perhaps the best answer to “Why are we here?” is that offered by Nat Knowles almost forty years ago “We are just a bunch of mental patients out for a ride” — and in that statement is a profound understanding that, in the end, like my father and Bill Miller, we all travel the same path, and in so doing we should help each other along the way.
I ask you to continue, to use your wisdom, your
freedom, your time and your energy — breaking down doors
— working toward creating a better world for all of us.
This feature: Felty, Dennis W. (2008). Why are we here? Child and Youth Care Work, 26, 2. pp. 6-10.