Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wow -- What a Week!

Last week was extremely busy.

It started on Monday with a 4-day mini-camp for children sent by an organization that works with families affected by domestic abuse. Our hope was that exposing the children to animals, teaching them ways to positively interact and communicate with them, and hopefully instilling empathy towards them we could help the children develop a way to overcome the damage they have experienced in their homes. There are very strong ties to how humans relate to animals and how that carries over in their social interactions with other people.

This was the second year we've done this particular program. Last year's group consisted of 5 children and they initially were afraid of the animals, lacked confidence, but were fairly well behaved. I realized that the groups would not be the same, but I would be lying if I said I was prepared for the behavior of the children last week.

Because we have to protect the identity of the children I have changed all of their names. Last Monday I met Keira -- 10 and a half years old, and her brothers 9-year old Terrell and 7 year old Taye. We also had brothers Jermaine -- age 8, and Jamal, aged 6. Finally there was 10 year old Andrew.

The week went something like this:

9am - the children get off the van transporting them and come into our Activity Room. Initially they are quiet while I get them name tags, introduce myself and my assistant and explain what we were going to do during the week. We talk about how to properly meet a dog, I bring out Mystic and several dogs from the back. So far so good.

10:30am. We have just finished a snack. The children start running around the room and playing tag. Knowing that kids have energy they need to expend and because the weather was so cold and damp outside I decide to let them.

10:45am. I decide to move on to the next activity and call for the children to come and sit down. They ignore me. I approach several of the kids and directly ask them to go sit down. They do so. As I'm approaching the other children the two who were sitting get up and start running around again. I continue to request that they stop their horseplay and sit on the floor. They continue to ignore me.

11:00am. We finally get the children sitting and start an activity. They pay attention for about 2 minutes before they start talking amongst themselves. One of the kids shoves one of the other kids. That kid hits in retaliation. I tell them both that is inappropriate behavior. We continue on with the activity with only some of the kids paying attention some of the time.

After lunch. I put in a video for the kids to watch and tell them they need to be quiet for 45 minutes. They ignore me and get up and run around. I get them back sitting down and then others get up and run around. The two littlest, Taye and Jamal, start climbing on the tables we have stored in racks. I tell them several times that they cannot climb on the tables and to get down. After the third time I put both of them in seperate corners for time outs.

In the meantime two of the other kids are hitting and kicking each other. I get them apart and put them in time-outs in two other corners. One of the kids starts to kick his foot against the wall. I tell him he just earned another minute in time out for that. Jamal gets up before his time out is over and I replace him and tell him his time-out starts from the beginning.

I was greatly relieved to see my assistant come back to work as I was terrified that she would call in sick for the rest of the week.

The children come into the activity room at 9am and immediately start running around and chasing each other. Taye and Jamal climb on the tables and I put both of them into time-outs. After 15 minutes I'm able to get the kids calmed down and sitting and quiet so that I can bring out animals.

Tuesday goes much like Monday with many times outs and a lot of hitting, kicking and shoving on the part of the children. Near the end of the day Andrew and Jermaine start to argue and I can see it escalating. They are tense with fists clenched, standing about a foot from each other making direct eye contact. I make my way over there, but am too late to prevent them from beginning a phyical fight. I step in between them and push them away from each other.

At this point it is almost time for the children to leave. Earlier in the day the children had asked permission to take off their shoes, and I had given it. I now ask the children to get their shoes on before they walk outside to get on the van. Some of the children put on their shoes. Others are busy horsing around with each other and don't do so until I repeatedly approach them and tell them they need to do so. Andrew, however, refuses to put his shoes on.

The rest of the children are ready to go, and I tell my assistant to escort them out to the van. I ask Andrew several times to put on his shoes, and he refuses. I get his shoes, hold them out to him and tell him he cannot go outside in his stocking feet and he needs to put his shoes on. He knocks the shoes out of my hands. I threaten to call his mother. He says he doesn't care. I go and get my phone and start to dial. He puts on his shoes.

Andrew and I walk out to the van, his whole body stiff and a scowl on his face. I see that he is safely on the van and I go back inside.

Andrew is not with the children when they arrive and they tell me that he was "expelled" because he started a fight on the bus. I later find out that the real story was that he and Jermaine started to argue again on the bus and Andrew and Jermaine started to hit each other. Subsequently the other children joined in -- taking Jermaine's side, and started to hit Andrew.

Most of Wednesday is better than Monday or Tuesday. The kids are listening better and Taye and Jamal only get a few time-outs.

Earlier in the week Keira had expressed horror at the fact that we spay and neuter animals. She claimed that we were "mean to take away their natural freedoms". I had tried to explain to her over-population and why we do it, but she was unconvinced.

I bring out the "Cats, Cats and More Cats" activity. Some of the children were impressed with how many kittens can be produced in one year from one female cat, and I hope I made an impact on them. I note that Keira is paying attention and I think she is starting to get the message.

Mid-afternoon I decide the children should go outside to play and ask that they get their shoes on. All but Terrell get their shoes on. I see Taye shove his brother, and I head over there to tell him he needs to go into a time-out. Before I get there Terrell retaliates by knocking him down, grabbing him by the leg and dragging him outside. I see that Taye's shirt is lifting up and his skin is being dragged across asphalt. I drag Terrell inside and tell my assistant to stay outside with the other kids while I deal with Terrell.

I tell Terrell he needs to sit in a time-out for 5 minutes. He objects saying that Taye started it by shoving him. I tell him I saw Taye do that and that before he dragged Taye I had planned to take care of it -- that it's not his job to punish Taye -- as the adult it's my job to deal with it. Again I tell Terrell to sit down for a 5-minute time-out. Terrell grabs a folding metal chair and throws it across the room and then kicks the chair rack. I again tell him to sit down. He refuses.

I call Terrell's mother and explain what is going on. I hand the phone to Terrell and he says nothing for a few minutes -- I hear the muffled sounds of his mother before he hands the phone back to me. Terrell's mother tells me to call her again if I have any other problems with him, and she will come get him. I don't have any other problems with Terrell for the rest of the day.

I am amazed when guest speakers come in with their turtles and talk about them and what kinds of pets they make. The children are for the most part very attentive, quiet and interested. They follow directions. Taye is tired and leans against me as he listens. I bring my arm around his little body and am amazed at how sweet he is being.

That same afternoon I have a chance to talk to Keira again. She brings up the fact that spaying and neutering is mean, so I ask her why she thinks so when animals have so many unwanted babies. Keira tells me that "all you have to do is keep them apart". I explain that it's not that simple -- pet owners aren't always responsible enough to do that. I talk about all the diseases that can be prevented by spay and neuter and how the surgery can make pets live longer. I hope that she has absorbed some of this and will eventually understand.

This is our last day of the program, but only Andrew, Terrell and Taye show up. Keira, Jermaine and Jamal had other plans. I breathe a sigh of relief -- three children will be much easier than 5 or 6!

It turns out to actually be a very fun day. The kids are for the most part very well behaved and listen to directions. At one point I have to prepare lunch and ask my assistant to take the kids out to play. Taye begs to stay with me, but I tell him he has to go outside. He bursts into tears and clings to me leg. It is very sweet -- despite all the time-outs Taye has formed a bond with me.

Terrell also seems to have formed a bond with me. He begs to come back on Friday. When I tell him we will be having an Open-House that day and it is for adults he says that he could help me with it. He asks several times

After reading the above you might think that I had wasted a week with these ill-behaved children.

Unfortunately these kids are a product of what they see in their home. Frustration tolerance does not exist and frustration is dealt with by acting out. Conflict is resolved though hitting, shoving and kicking.

Though it was extremely difficult and challanging to work with these kids, I saw so much potential in them. So far I've mostly reported the negative, but I really saw them express a lot of empathy and caring.

Andrew in particular seemed to want to care for the other kids when their feelings were hurt. If one of the other children were crying Andrew would go over, put his arm around the child and try to comfort himm.

At one point I also saw him get very distressed when he saw a picture of a cat. When I asked him why he told me that it looked like a cat he used to have that had died. Earlier one of his relatives told me that Andrew had seen his father abuse the family pets and that Andrew tried to save them by releasing them outside. It made me wonder if Andrew had seen his father kill the cat he was upset about.

Keira, while misguided about spay and neuter, was still concerned about how the animals were impacted by the procedure.

Terrell, despite his temper tantrum and belligerence, had an extremely soft side to him. When I think of Terrell I think of him sitting by Mystics side, looking at him with reverence and slowly petting him. He would do this for many minutes on end, and it would be difficult to get him away from Mystic to go on to other activities.

Taye also had a very soft side to him. At one point we brought out 3-week old kittens. All of the children were very quiet and respectful of these fragile babies. I remember Taye cuddling a very small kitten in his shirt while gently petting it.

I got to know Jermaine and Jamal quite a bit better than the other children (other than Andrew) since they were there the last day and there were only three children. Jermaine had a good sense of humor and a wonderful smile that could light up a room. His favorite animal was a rabbit named Hop-a-Long.

Jamal told me that he was afraid of animals when he first came to HAWS because he was afraid they would scratch and bite him, but he isn't afraid any more.

It is my belief that despite the turmoil, chaos and violence in their lives the children can overcome it. I hope that their experience at HAWS will make a difference in how they develop as people. All of the children will be offered a scholarship to attend our summer camp. I hope they can come -- not only because I truly would like to see them again, but because I believe that continued exposure to animals and humane education will help them to grow as human beings.

The drawings were done by the children on the last day. Andrew drew a picture of me walking Mystic. Jermaine's picture was a thank you note, and he references Hop-a-long -- the rabbit he enjoyed spending time with. And the last picture was done by Jamal -- that's a portrait of Mystic and myself.

HAWS is invested in changing the lives of children through their experiences with animals. As a non-profit it can be a challange to find funding for such programs, and we truly appreciate money donated for our education programs. Go to our camp sponsor page to find out how to make a financial contribution that will allow us to give children such as Keira, Terrell, Taye, Jermain, Jamal and Andrew a camp scholarship.

1 comment:

Gay Ruby said...

Thank you for working with these children - several of whom were quite difficult. I worked at the Women's Center shelter for a couple of years, and I know the great need these children have of exposure and education such as you and your assistant have given them. Besides teaching them about animals, you demonstrated the proper way to treat each other - and they need to hear that message again and again. Thank you for the hard work you are doing, Khris!