The Next Chapter

30 Jun

Today I left the keys on the counter and locked the door as I left Carpenter Place for the last time as a housemom.

A year and a half ago I convinced my husband that we should look into this job posting. It was for a houseparent couple to oversee an independent living program for young women aged 18-24. I appealed to his practical side. We could rent our house out. We’d save so much money. Our living expenses would be covered. We could do it for a year and pay down debt.

I really didn’t expect him to be open to it but I had learned about the program and then the job through my work with ICT S.O.S. and it just felt like something I wanted to be a part of. To my surprise he agreed to go with me to talk with Cory Long, the CEO, and learn more about what would be involved.

We spent the evening with Cory and his wife talking about this new program the home had recently started in a small apartment building. They had 3 young women at the time. Some had been homeless, others had struggled with family issues or aged out of the foster care system. They had no safety net. We talked about the rules and expectations of the girls, the goals for the program’s growth and what the day-to-day duties included. We saw the living arrangement. Yikes. 2 tiny adjacent 1-bedroom apartments would serve as the houseparent quarters. That was the last weekend in October. We stayed the next weekend on campus to get a feel for it and do a “trial run” of sorts. By Thanksgiving we had rented our house out, had a major decluttering attack and packed up the rest to move in.

The first few weeks were an adjustment. I was constantly doing a mental check in my head of where each girl was, what they had going on for the day and if they were staying out of trouble. We had some bumps in the road and some girls just weren’t ready yet to make the changes they needed to. We started to learn that the key to success was in accepting girls that were ready to take a new path. I don’t really know how to put my finger on it but there was some sort of “X-factor” that certain applicants had. The girl who was ready to grab a hold of the opportunity and fight for her future was the girl we could truly help. We needed to be a springboard. We needed to be a safe place to launch from while still providing a safety net.

Over the next several months we added girls and were soon at full capacity in our 6 apartments. We started to breathe a little and feel more comfortable in our role. The pace was hectic and plans changed at a moment’s notice but the girls were starting to ease into their roles as well. We were starting to become a family.

About this same time we gained a new co-worker and housemom, Claire. I could write a whole post on what a blessing she was and continues to be. Both to me as a friend and coworker and to the girls. We found a really cool balance between our personalities and ages. My ADHD tendencies were often softened by Claire’s quiet, graceful way of dealing with things. Claire is closer in age to the girls and she almost became a sort of wise big sister. I filled more of the mom role. Some things the girls would come to me for and others they confided in Claire. It’s a really interesting dynamic when you live in the same building you work in and share it with your coworkers. It could be really good or it could be really awkward! I’m so, so thankful that it was never anything but good. Claire and I shared the daily duties of driving girls to work and school, moving furniture and setting up apartments as girls moved in, and more than a few late nights dealing with some (mostly minor) crises.

Last summer ICT S.O.S. won a grant that was donated to Carpenter Place to remodel 2 apartments into a true houseparent quarters. In the fall we were able to purchase a security system with the proceeds from the Race for Freedom 5K. Over the course of several months volunteers helped with the remodel and several other updates to the building and grounds. As a result of the remodel 2 more apartments were opened up allowing up to 8 girls. The program continued to be full with a waiting list of applicants. June 1st the 9th apartment will open and a new young lady will move in. As fast as apartments become available, they are filled. The need is so great for safe housing and the opportunity that it provides.

Over the last year and a half I have seen four young women finish high school. I have seen girls learn to drive, buy their first cars and even learn how to use the gas pump. I have laughed until I cried and cried until I thought I had run out of tears. And then cried some more. I have sat in advisors’ offices as girls picked out and enrolled for their first college classes. I have taken senior portraits and sat in the salon while hair and nails were primped for prom. I have sat on bedroom floors, stairways and  in hallways and talked for hours about past hurts, future plans, fears, hopes and dreams. And boys. I have learned how to cut sewn-in weave out of hair. I have cleaned up toilet overflows and sat in hospital ERs. I have seen families repaired, confidence gained and smiles return. I have had family dinners that included 13 people representing every shade of skin color on the spectrum. I have had my crockpot chicken recipe mocked mercilessly and told that my cooking was, “fire!” (That’s a good thing.) I have seen grown women sit on the floor and let my 5 year old give them a makeover.

People often ask me how my own kids adjusted to our unique living situation. I won’t lie, it was a big sacrifice at times. My kids had to miss out on activities or rearrange their schedules more than once. They shared a tiny bedroom. My oldest continued school in Andover which meant a 30 minute gap between our home and all of her school activities, friends and her dad’s house. But they also gained so much. The relationships they built, the life lessons they learned and the experiences we got to have as a family were priceless. There is definitely something to be said for gaining 8 new big sisters. Inside jokes, family vacations, birthday and holiday celebrations all got bigger. Many times basketball games, YMCA soccer or school awards ceremonies meant showing up with their own entourage and cheering section.

I believe that our family is stronger because of our time at Carpenter Place. In sharing our lives with the girls we got to see our own faith grow. We learned to be more patient with people because we never know what they might be struggling with. I believe we learned to see the people around us more. We made some amazing friends and built relationships that I believe will continue long into the future. We learned better how to put others’ needs before our own. Sometimes even when it’s really hard. And we learned that even in the darkest stories, there is light.

As I type this post there are 8 amazing young women in the Independent Living program. Several others have graduated and moved on to their next phase of life. They come from a diverse set of circumstances. Some of them have past histories that read like a Shakespearean tragedy. The things they have struggled with and had to overcome at such a young age would crush many of us. But that is not what I think about when I think of them. What I see are strong young women with their eyes clear and their hearts set on the future. They are working, taking college classes, and giving back to their community through volunteerism. They are talented artists, musicians and writers. They have voices that demand to be heard. They are exploring their faith and finding their paths. They are compassionate, beautiful, smart and funny. They are a force to be reckoned with.

We thought we were taking a job. What we got was family. Our employment has come to an end as we take the next steps on our journey and move on to other business ventures and new opportunities to serve our community through ICT S.O.S. but our family ties will remain. I can’t wait to see our girls walk across a college graduation stage, dance at their weddings and have families of their own someday. (Not soon, I’m too young to be Grandma Jen!) 

Ladies, thank you for letting our family be a part of your story. This is a new chapter but not the end. We love you so very much and we are so, SO proud of each and every one of you.

Happy 2012

1 Jan

One of my goals for the New Year is to blog more consistantly.

Since my last post, ICT S.O.S.  has continued to grow. We have a lot of exciting things coming up in 2012, including the opening of the new Homeless Youth Resource Center.

I’ve also taken a position as a houseparent with Carpenter Place. My husband and I are responsible for the Independent Living apartments on the campus. Right now we have 4 young ladies aged 18-20 in our program.

We are embarking on a healthy living challenge in the new year as well. The Hubs and I both have some extra poundage to lose and we’re working on doing it together.

Epiphanie on the Treadmill

30 Aug

Yesterday after work I went to the gym to run. I’d had the itch for a few days and just hadn’t made time to go. I had a couple of hours between work errands and when I needed to pick up kids so I stopped by the house, changed and headed to the gym. While I was stretching out I was thinking about how nice it was to be there just for me. Not because I felt like I needed to go to lose weight, not because I felt guilty, just because I wanted to run.

And it was one of the best workouts I’ve had in a long time. I felt strong. I felt happy.

As I was running I started to think about how hard it is for me to do things for myself. I joke a lot about being “low maintenance” but the truth is, I rarely do things for myself because I feel guilty if I do.

Ask me to do something for anyone else and I’m all over it. I’ll drop everything at a moment’s notice if someone else needs me to. I’ll work for hours on a project for a cause I care about. I’ll donate my time, money and energy to others. I think it’s definitely safe to say that service is my “love language”.

But if that is the case, what does that say about the way I feel about myself?

I haven’t been to a salon in at least 5 years.

I’m terrible about going to the doctor for annual checkups despite a minor cancer scare a few years ago.

I don’t own a single hair, makeup or skin product that can’t be purchased at the grocery store.

I’ve gained 30 pounds over that last 6 or 7 years.

And there isn’t a thing in my closet that I would fight for if Clinton and Stacy from “What Not to Wear” raided it.

So here’s where the epiphanie happens. I realized that I NEED to take better care of myself so that I CAN do more for others. If I would eat better and get a little more excercise I’d have a lot more energy. If I felt like I looked my best, I’d have more confidence. If I presented myself in a more polished way, people would take me more seriously.

It isn’t any more selfish to spend time and resources on taking care of myself than it is to wallow in feeling crappy.

Back on Track

30 Jul

The Hubs and I are blessed to be part of a company that takes its employees on a trip every so often (Well, he works for them, I just reap the benefits.)

This October we’re headed to the sunny beaches of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

Yes, Please.

All inclusive resort:

white sand beaches:

gorgeous blue ocean:

fruity drinks with umbrellas:

swimsuits:

Swimsuits.

Ugh.

I have about 60 days to get into some sort of shape that will be acceptable for public viewing.

 

Broken Hearted

20 Jul

I’m writing this post here on my personal blog rather than at ictsos.org because these are my personal feelings about this issue. They may not be the feelings of others in the group and I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself.

Sunday, March 13th. My life was about to change and I had no idea. A story ran in that day’s paper about human trafficking. I didn’t read the story until a couple of days later after seeing it retweeted on Twitter. The rest of that day I was literally sick to my stomach.

I’m a volunteer. I love helping others and I have found a lot of fun ways to do so. I photograph events for different charities. I photograph military families reuniting after a long deployment. I’ve served on committees for events and even ran a half marathon to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. All great causes. All fun events. I leave those events feeling good about what I helped with and usually have a great time doing so. Win-Win.

Reading that story of a 13 year old girl who had been sold for sex, my heart broke. I knew I wanted to do something but I had no idea what that would be. And I had no idea where it would lead.

The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity. You can catch up on all of that over at www.ictsos.org. I’ve met amazing people and yes, a lot of it has been “fun”.

But I didn’t realize when I opened this door that I was walking into something that would break my heart over and over again each day. I have heard horrible stories of girls being beaten and brutalized. Children who were sold to grown men for sex…by their own mother. Ignorant comments about how a girl who chooses to sell her body is trashy or just a kid gone bad.

But here’s the thing…what girl (or boy) would CHOOSE that? And at 11, 12, 13 years old, is that even a choice they’re equipped to make? Absolutely not. So many of these kids have run away from bad situations at home, or have been abandoned by the people who were supposed to love them unconditionally. There is so much hurt that has happened before they ever reach a point where selling their bodies for sex may be their only option for survival. Their only way to eat that night or have a place to sleep that isn’t the underneath side of a bridge.

I have spent hundreds of hours reading, creating content on our website, Twitter and Facebook, and meeting with organizations and individuals. Every day I feel driven to do something more. And every night when I go to bed I feel like I haven’t done enough.

I think about how blessed my kids are. I can’t imagine a child facing some of the things I have seen and heard. No child should ever have to. Ever.

I know that the more involved I get in this issue, the more pain I will see…and feel. I can’t help it, I’m an emotional sponge. There will be more frustration as the wheels turn slowly for change. There will be setbacks. I will have doors slammed in my face. I will be told (sometimes by my self) that I’m not the right person for this fight. I will lose sleep. I will lose tears.

But there are days when I receive a message from a survivor. Days when I get an email from someone who says, “I had no idea this was happening, how can I help?” Days when I see our community come together and stand in the middle of the Douglas Street bridge to say this has to STOP. Those days I’m encouraged to keep going forward. And at night when I lay down in my warm bed, belly full and surrounded by family, I pray. I pray that somehow it’s making a difference. I pray that I’m doing the right things. I pray that God will work through me and through ICT S.O.S. for His glory. And I pray that He will continue to break my heart for what breaks His.

 

Be the Change

20 Jul

It’s been a while since I wrote an honest-to-goodness blog post here. But I’ve had a few things on my mind and this seems to be as good a place as any to spew them onto the interwebs.

Watching my children grow up I can’t help but see things that I want to help them with. Show them better ways to be. Teach them things that will make them better people. And the answer I keep coming back to is that I have to model those things for them.

Want them to be neater? I have to be better about keeping things put up and cleaning up after myself.

Want them to speak kindly to each other? I have to be more cautious of my tone.

Want them to be better organized? I need to manage my time and activities better so that we’re not always rushed.

I want my kids to have lifelong friendships so I need to be careful to cultivate the relationships I have so they will see what that looks like.

I want them to be compassionate to others so it’s important to me that they see me volunteering and include them in those activities.

I want them to have a strong sense of faith, so I need to strengthen and renew my own.

One of my favorite quotes is Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I get that. On a large scale, super hero, save the world scale…I get it. It’s not so easy to say, “I need to change ME.” But really, that is the heart of that message. Whether it’s small changes in your kids and family or tackling a large social issue, the change has to first start in our own hearts and minds before we can ever ask anyone else to change.

 

Yeah, I’m a bad blogger.

17 Jul

I promised I’d post something. And I promised it would have pictures. Well, since I’m working from a brand new laptop which I haven’t loaded a single photo on, the picture part isn’t going to happen. Sorry.

ICT S.O.S. took off in a way I never could have imagined. It has taken up a lot of my time, brought amazing people into my life and breaks my heart on a daily basis. It has thrown me into situations I never would have imagined and brought amazing opportunities into my life to serve others.

I’ve been blessed in my photography business as well. I’ve been able to witness marriages beginning, families bonding and newborn babies beginning life with parents who prayed for them, sometimes for years. Each time I’m asked to photograph a family or event, it really is an honor to me. Each and every time.

Our family’s summer has been busy and chaotic. ( As is every time of the year!) Basketball camp, Vacation Bible School, Church camp, swimming, a mini vacation and lots of other activities. The Hubs still travels a lot which means a lot of time playing mom taxi. But I’m blessed with a great job that allows me lots of flexibility to be with my kids.

If this dang heat ever lets up, I have a lot of projects I’d like to get done before summer is over. Mostly a yard sale to declutter the house and clean out the garage. But when it’s 110 degrees outside, who wants to organize (or shop at) a yard sale. Ugh!

So, that’s what I’ve been up to…how about you?

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