abuse and neglect, art, art therapy, children, family, foster care, Inspiration, mental health

The Working Title Is…The Power of Art

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

“Art provides people with a vocabulary about things they can’t articulate.”

One quote is from, arguably, the most influential artist of the 20th century, the founder of Cubism, a master painter, sculptor, poet and playwright. The other is the musing of a rapper whose hits include “Ms. Fat Booty.”

Both Pablo Picasso and Mos Def understood the deep impact artistic expression has on the one who creates as well as those who admire, interpret and appreciate the piece, no matter what the medium.

So neither man would have been surprised to learn how I have been transfixed by a work of art and unable to think of little else than the story behind its creation.

The artist is a ten-year-old boy who is a resident of Christ Child House, an intensive residential treatment facility caring for as many as 31 boys, age five through 16. The young men who call Christ Child House their home suffer emotional, behavioral and physical impairment resulting from severe abuse and neglect. Located on Joy Road in Detroit, the philosophy of this very special home is “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

The dedicated professional treatment staff is supported by many volunteers and patrons who offer counsel, financial support and hands-on assistance.

One such program is weekly Art Therapy currently being organized by my friend Karen Kearns. Every Tuesday, Karen (sometimes with the assistance of volunteers and sometimes flying solo) will join the Art Therapists working with the boys of the Christ Child House on an art project.

On this particular Tuesday, Sadie, Christ Child’s Assistant Art Therapist, shared that ten-year-old Stephen* came into the art therapy session ready to chat about his difficult day at school. He talked about how upset he became when the teacher insisted that he button his shirt up to the neck even though it made him uncomfortable. Stephen’s response was to begin scratching his own face. He pointed to the scratch marks on his face and said that they hurt pretty badly. He wasn’t sure why he had reacted in that way other than because he felt upset.

As they sat and talked a bit more, Stephen asked Sadie how she handles things when she gets upset. Sadie shared that she likes to take deep breaths or go on a little walk. After Stephen took a couple of deep breaths, he agreed that sounded like a nice plan.

The project Karen was working on that week had the boys pick out an animal with which they identified…their “spirit animal” that they then colored in a way that reflected who they were as individuals. Stephen picked out a lion and gave the lion long claws and scratches on its face. As he continued to work, taking deep breaths, Stephen went on to draw band-aids over the scratches. Sadie asked Stephen what environment they should draw around the lion so the lion doesn’t hurt its face anymore, and Stephen decided he should make a protected path on which the lion would walk, surrounding it with things that would make the lion feel safe, and for Stephen that meant smiling friends and rain.

I can’t stop looking at that lion. I can’t stop thinking about Stephen and what path his life traveled that led him to Christ Child House. I can’t stop thinking about what he has seen and heard, been exposed to and endured over his ten short years on this earth. I take deep breaths and thank God for the commitment and dedication of each of the staff members who make it their mission to build these boys up again…and for the volunteers like Karen who lovingly attempt to bring truth to the decree that “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

While my thoughts have been focused on Stephen, this reminded me of a poignant art related moment I experienced decades ago when working for Hospice. I was planning an event to support our Children’s Hospice Program. In order to save money on a four-color invitation, I had them printed in black and white and corralled every volunteer I could find to help hand color the invites. As this quickly became a more daunting project than I originally surmised, I got creative and reached out to the Activities Directors of local nursing homes.

At one nursing home, I made my presentation IN A VERY LOUD VOICE to the elderly residents in the activities room and told them some of the heartbreaking stories from our children’s hospice, why our program so desperately needed the funding this event would raise and why I needed their help.

As I passed out the invitations and crayons, I approached a man named Matthew and the Activities Director called across the room, “Oh, Katie, Matthew has suffered a number of strokes and isn’t really able to participate.” So I smiled and told him I’d leave an invite to look at anyway because it was so adorable. I then left to visit other nursing homes and coerce additional elderly into my philanthropic sweatshop. When I returned at the end of the day, the Activities Director came toward me with a huge smile on her face. Matthew, although non-verbal, made it very clear that he wanted to color his invitation and spent hours working on the one I set in front of him.

I framed it so that I’d be forever inspired by Matthew’s desire to be in service to others despite his own challenges, so I’d never forget his perseverance, and so I would never question the power of art.

If Stephen’s story brings out your inner Matthew and you’d like to make a difference in the lives of the boys of the Christ Child House, there are many ways you can do that. Email Karen Kearns (karenkearns@me.com) and tell her you’d like to join her on a Tuesday and work with the boys on an art project. Or email Carol Roney (roneyfam@comcast.net) and tell her you’d like to support the Education program as a tutor. Or you might even consider making a financial contribution to Christ Child Society by clicking here.

It’s never too late….

kmp

 

*The boy’s name was changed to protect his identity.

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family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…Wisdom from a Christmas Stocking

Behold, a hand-knit depiction of a right jolly old elf. And just as it is written, his droll little mouth is drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin is as white as the snow.

This is my Christmas stocking and my oldest personal possession. Almost exactly 51 years ago, this stocking was my traveling companion on the journey to meet my parents for the very first time.

These days, it is referred to as Gotcha Day or Homecoming Day; the day on which a person joins a family through adoption. But in 1967, it was simply thought of by my adoptive parents as the day their prayers were answered.

For the first time, they held in their arms the baby girl they had said “yes” to, the baby girl who had spent the first six months of her life in a foster home because she was born with a congenital deformity that labeled her handicapped and ineligible for immediate placement in a forever home.

I remember my mother telling me that the adoption agency would only tell her and my father that they had a baby for them, but the baby was handicapped. They would not reveal the nature or severity of the disability. My mom told me they didn’t even have to think twice about their answer. God had sent them this baby, and they were prepared to welcome her home.

And so they did. On a Wednesday afternoon in December, the little girl they would name Kathleen Mary first unreservedly offered a toothless smile in their arms as the social worker explained the very simple care of her “handicap” which was ultimately disclosed as a dislocated hip that would be guided into place within a few months time.

The precious Christmas stocking that accompanied the baby was filled with teething toys and rattles that had become comfort items during their little girl’s first six months of life. The stocking was handmade by her foster mother as her foster father, almost certainly, offered his loving praise over her handiwork.

My mother was told that this foster family had recently petitioned to adopt the baby girl but had been denied because their ages fell above the agency’s maximum allowable for adoption. During my first six months of life, this foster couple’s loving care included having me baptized at St. Agnes Catholic Church.

The social worker smiled when my mom told her they would give me the name Kathleen Mary, saying only that it was incredibly close to that which the foster family had me baptized.

A strange truth to many, I have never had the desire to seek my birth parents, but I have thought of this foster family every Christmas; throughout my childhood as my Christmas Stocking was hung with care in our living room and filled by Santa with treats galore and throughout adulthood as each year it holds a place of honor near our Christmas tree. When I learned a few years back that St. Agnes Parish was closing, I called to inquire about baptismal records with the hope to identify these foster parents who tenderly cared for me the first six months of my life.

I wanted them to know how blessed I had been to be placed in my forever home with a family whose faith life was the foundation of who they were and all they did. I wanted them to know that I had a remarkable journey through Catholic schools and the finest Jesuit university in all the land; a journey that led me to a lifetime of friendships and the love of my life. I wanted them to know I was a mom to two beautiful daughters of my own whom, unreservedly, have offered me their smiles for decades. I wanted them to know I still have that Christmas stocking and it means the world to me. I wanted to say thank you.

My call to the Parish Office was placed just days before it was set to close. In fact, the voice on the other end of the phone quickly led me to believe that the elderly pastor was personally manning the phones…and that I caught him in the middle of his lunch.   Between my inability to offer a concise summary of my request and his really loud chewing, I offered to call him back. Well, life interrupted, and I never did.

Not the dramatic ending you were hoping for, I bet.

I most likely will never know the identity of that foster family. In addition, those wonderful adoptive parents, my Mom and Dad, are now both deceased. But I have that stocking to console me–on their combined behalf– over the delicate and often paradoxical emotions of a season that almost demands one to be “merry and bright.”

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I envision foster parents handing over a baby they had nurtured over six months time and had petitioned to adopt. My heart hurts at the thought.

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I have a much clearer vision of the adoptive parents first holding a still bald, toothless baby because that joyous story is detailed in a memory narrated by my Mom. My heart bursts at the thought.

The wisdom offered by this Christmas stocking is not unique to my life story. In fact, it should offer a universal consolation.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are feelings beyond our control that impact our lives everyday and are often exacerbated during the holidays for a variety of reasons.

The holiday season may pose painful struggles; certainly for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, but also for people who yearn for the Christmases they had, but have since lost, or perhaps desired but never even had. Some may crave that family closeness…past or present, imagined or real. Others may mourn unfulfilled childhood desires…realizing your life didn’t travel the path you had hoped.

The wisdom of my Christmas stocking reminds me that in the midst of the darkest winter, the path to an amazing spring is waiting for me…in my own heart.

Maybe the universal message is one of accepting and loving who you are right now, especially if you are sad or angry or feeling empty or lost. Whatever the case may be, you must accept where you are in order to usher in the day when the light returns to your soul and your spirit.

Because I’ve experienced the darkness, I can savor the light in my life.

This past weekend, the candle of joy was lit on Advent wreaths in countless churches and homes around the world. It is that call to joy that led me to consider the wisdom of my Christmas stocking and pray for everyone in my life for whom joy is a really, really tough sell this year…be it because of disappointment or regret, an unfulfilled dream or a broken heart represented by an empty chair at this year’s holiday table.

I pray for strength and for peace in the hearts of those who are hurting.

And I thank God for the perspective my faith provides me, for the strength the Advent season instills within me, and for the belief that an Easter Sunday will follow every Good Friday in my life, until that day when God reunites me with those I loved and have lost– and those I have loved and never even met.

Hoping your Christmas stockings are filled with light, I wish Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

kmp

 

 

 

 

 

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