Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who's really at risk?

Earlier this week I attended the Highland Junior High Final Mentor Celebration at The Lab (a creative youth-based program of the St. Paul Public Schools). For the past couple months our dog Ahnung has been volunteering at The Lab. Sometimes we go together and give presentations; sometimes we go to hang out with one kid whom Ahnung has been developing a one on one relationship with; sometimes Ahnung even goes without me as my partner or another volunteer takes her and has her work with the kids [Note: Ahnung has written about it on her own blog].

I began volunteering at The Lab with the intention of wanting to help youth who have been given a label of “at-risk” and through Ahnung bring the healing and transformative energy to wounded spirits. I have witnessed the transformation in this one kid that Ahnung has become friends with, and I have witnessed transformation in Ahnung. The day they met two months ago, we thought dog obedience would be a good way for them to get to know each other. What resulted was a frustrated boy who couldn’t get Ahnung to “sit” and a frustrated Ahnung whose stubborn streak came out. “R” kept following Ahnung trying to get her to sit, and Ahnung kept moving away from “R”. Lesson learned – both needed time to simply be with each other, to simply get to know each other, to simply hang out. It’s about building a relationship. It's about learning to communicate by reading body language. It's about learning a whole new way of communicating.

Over the next few weeks, Ahnung and “R” built a relationship. There were weeks where all we would do is have Ahnung hang out in the room with us as we played scrabble and word games. Over the weeks, there was a calm energy that was created binding “R” and Ahnung. Now "R" can easily get Ahnung to "sit, laydown and rollover." Ahnung's not being "obedient" -- "R" and ahnung simply know how to communicate.

I loved to watch “R” arrive at The Lab at Homecroft. He would arrive in a yellow cab and on an occasional Tuesday, Ahnung was waiting by the front door. “R” would walk through the front door, and as soon as he realized Ahnung was there, I could feel his shoulders lift up, his body straighten with confidence, and his spirit soften. It didn’t matter how many others were around. It didn’t matter there was chaos and multiple conversations going on. All that mattered for “R”, and for Ahnung, was each other. “R” walked directly to Ahnung and got down on his knees to be at eye level with her. His face brushed up against Ahnung’s face and his hands brushed the top of her head. On one Tuesday, I heard him say to a couple other kids, as he stood proudly next to Ahnung with his hand on her head, “have you met my dog ahnung?”

I flashed back to the day they first met when “R” did not even want to touch a dog. These kids don’t have stability in their lives. They don’t have the good role models all kids should have. Many have been abused and neglected. Many witness violence on a regular basis. Many have been hurt time and time again, and have made a decision not to trust – a decision that helps them survive.

Here I am two months after I have begun a journey and volunteer experience working with Ahnung and youth at The Lab. I thought it was to help them heal. I am learning that this is as much about my own healing as it is about their healing. The trauma, abuse and deep losses of my childhood have been surfacing …. I imagine myself as a tree. The painful aspects of my childhood have remained buried for most of my adult life – roots buried under the ground. I am thankful to “R”, to Ahnung, to the kids at The Lab, for helping me recognize that it’s time for me to acknowledge my own roots, the good and the bad. It’s time for me to water my own roots. By watering my own roots, the branches of my tree can extend even further out than I could ever imagine.

These kids are not “at-risk”. These kids are full of love, compassion, creativity and possibility. We need to remove labels that define us and constrain us. We are all simply living beings with a desire to be loved, to be heard, and to be understood. If anyone is “at-risk” I have come to the conclusion it is me … I am “at-risk” if I keep my distance from what scares me and what makes me uncomfortable. I am “at-risk” if I refuse to water my own roots and peel back the layers of my own hurt.

I believe we all have a responsibility to make this world a more loving, gentle, compassionate world. I believe animals can help build a bridge. I believe we have a responsibility to be good role models for our youth. If we don’t then I believe we are all at-risk.

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