Monday, March 4, 2013

From the Outside In

When I was about 7, I was the girl who’d sit for hours scrawling out lists of potential names for each of her dolls. Or compiling my birthday party guest list. Or listing titles for the books I wanted to write. Places I wanted to visit. My favorite book characters. And so on.

These days, the lists are a bit more tangible. Like most adults, I write out to-do lists (both for work and home), and grocery lists, maybe the occasional “wish list” for apartment décor or whatever.

The other day, I took a nice break from these boring and responsible lists and went back to the day-dreaming lists of my youth.

I found myself listing each of the things that make me happy as they came to mind, from the obvious to the unexpected. The ocean’s waves and soft roar, bright fingernail polish, Webster, texts from my siblings, wine with my girlfriends. I didn’t list them in order of priority, but the first thing I wrote down was “Being known by my foster kids.”
Some of my favorite girls. Photo by Socorro Reynoso.

To be clear, I don’t actually have my own foster kids. But if you know me at all, you know that most Saturdays over the past few years I have“volunteered” at a program for kids affected by the foster care system. (And please, this isn’t the place for any praise about how great it is I do this. That’s not the point.)

When I first showed up for the program in early 2010, I was so intimated. I didn’t know a single person, but it was clear the others had formed a sort of family among themselves. They were friendly but unfamiliar to me. Most of the kids viewed me as an outsider. Not in a rude way, but it was clear I was not one of them.

Not only was I new without anyone to vouch for me, but it was also one of the few times in my entire life I had been around so many people who were black. Yeah, I went there. It’s not that I have a problem with being around people who are mostly of different ethnicities, but it is disconcerting, something to which I’m not generally accustomed.

Regardless, I knew I was committed. One of the main issues with foster care is that it doesn’t provide a sense of stability. I wasn’t going to be another adult to slip in and out of the lives of these kids. So I kept going, and I got to know everyone.

But even though I quickly learned the names of so many kids and most of the adults, it took some kids a while to even recognize me as a returning volunteer, much less to remember my name.

This year, we’ve turned a corner. Kids of all ages call my name as soon as I see them. They tease me, they hug me, they ask about my life.They know me, and I know them. I have grown with these kids. I’ve watched as some of the little kids become not so little (and not so wily). I’ve seen some of the older ones go through struggles they have worked to overcome.

And they’ve watched me go from being a little uncomfortable in my own skin to feeling like I’m completely myself around them. They’ve watched me go from being there just to be there, to consciously trying to learn and listen and contribute and be my best self for them.

It’s an interesting thing to be known by them. To be seen, and heard and mostly understood by these kids. In some cases, I had to work for it. And it was worth it.

So when I list things that make me the happiest, they are at the top because, when I’m with them, they feel like my home.

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