Friday, May 13, 2011

On Growing Up

February 24, 2011
Last summer, as we were preparing to move here, we received an email with the names and ages of all of the children who currently live at Cornerstone Children's Home, and we were stupefied: half of the children were over 15, some of them over 18, and a few of those over the age of 20. "Why are they still living in a children's home?" we thought to ourselves. 
You may think this thought makes us terrible people. While you may be able to find damning evidence of our terribleness, let me argue to you that this thought should be inadmissible: 20-year-olds are not children - especially here, it's not uncommon for one so old to be married and even have children. A 20-year-old who lives with children, in a home whose rules are geared toward children - and is therefore treated as a child - will act, inevitably, like a child. 
The number of ways in which a 20-year-old is not a child are myriad - the impulses and desires felt, the capabilities acquired - and at some point those differences are so manifest that they simply cannot be ignored. A 20-year-old who is treated as a child will one day have an abrupt awakening to the fact that childhood is, in fact, gone. And what then? Will the 20-year-old no longer child be able to support shimself or have any sense of how to spend money wisely? Forgot about day-to-day living, what about making big life decisions wisely?
When we arrived, we found that the situation was as we had feared: the older children bristled against the rules and had grown accustomed to having everything done for them. And they expected that the status quo would hold forever; with no exit plan the children were becoming a bit hopeless themselves. The staff feared the children were becoming lazy and spoiled. 
But what can you do with 33 teenagers/twentysomethings and 4 staff (not to mention the remaining 27 children)? To start with, you hire more staff. 
For about 4 months now, we have been working on a program to give our young adults the skills to reintegrate into their families and communities and be able to provide for themselves. The center piece of the plan is an after school work program that will build vocational skills, starting with agriculture. 
We have spent hours dispelling the myths that we are chasing them away and reinforcing the idea that we want the best for them. We have assigned each of them a staff mentor to guide them through the process, and we have given them a month to prepare and get used to the idea (in hindsight, that also meant that we gave them a month to disseminate misinformation among themselves. Oops). 
That's how we ended up with 30 boys & girls one day swinging hoes, digging up rocks, carting manure, and laying bricks to build a chicken coop. At first, many of them were resistant - like most people they fear change, and they fear the unknown. I'd love to say that they all came around and realized that this was going to be totally awesome. That wouldn't exactly be true, however. But here's what is true: they worked, and they worked together in teams, and they worked hard, and when the time came to call it a day a handful of them weren't quite ready. It was only the first day; starting something is often much easier than maintaining it, but it felt good to at least start it. 

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