A True Tale of No Child Left Behind …Helping Older Children in Foster Care Know They Matter
His name was Thomas*. He had just turned 17 and he stood there, on the cusp between boy and man. It was my job to tell him that there had been a mistake.
We were there to deliver Dream Boxes, small boxes of hope to children living in long term foster care and we were short two boxes. My brain sizzled with anger. We had shipped more than enough boxes and the organization had miscounted when transporting the boxes to the community center for the party. Worse yet, I knew there were twenty new boxes sitting downtown that we had packed the night before specifically for older boys, ones just like this boy … but his box was sitting there … ninety minutes away.
Close to one hundred giggling, anxious boys and girls were lining up, receiving their beautiful gift boxes filled with school supplies, toiletries and toys. Decorated with messages of how much each of them mattered and why they were special. And there he was. A boy-man we didn’t have a box for.
I took him aside and asked his name. I had to crane my neck to look up into his face, and I could see the scruff of whiskers on his face. Reaching for his hand, I told him softly, “There has been a mistake. We have a box for you and it didn’t make it on the delivery truck.” My heart was in my throat. These children had seen more than their share of disappointment and “mistakes” never went in their favor. This day was supposed to be about making each of them feel special, treasured, loved. This was not a day to explain “mistakes”.
He thought he was skilled at concealing his disappointment. This was one of thousands of cuts big and small that his young heart had endured through dozens of moves through foster care. His automatic response, “It doesn’t matter. I’m too old for this. I knew it was just for the little kids, I didn’t expect anything anyway” shot right into the heart of my own childhood … it doesn’t matter … I didn’t expect anything anyway …
I touched his arm and said softly, “Please don’t do that. It DOES matter. And I’m certain this isn’t the only time you’ve felt this attention going to the little kids instead of you. You deserve it, too.” Surprisingly, he let me wrap my arms around his waist. He was so tall. This almost grown-up boy-man. I led him to the table where the presents were stacked and said, “Thomas, I don’t want you to be left out tonight. Everyone will open a box. What would you think about playing along with me? We have extra boxes for little boys here tonight. Would you like to choose one to open and then trade it out for one that is your age on Tuesday?” I felt his torso soften as he looked at the pile of presents. “You can choose, just for tonight, what age you would like to imagine yourself as. What do you think? Would you like to be 2? or 7? or 11?” His soft eyes told me everything as he nodded and said, “Could I be 4?”
My heart started beating again as our smiles turned into grins and I handed him a box that had been lovingly prepared by a volunteer with a 4 year old boy in mind.
All the children had now received their boxes, waiting to open them all at once. The anticipation built in the room as we counted down Three … Two … One … Go! I hope the sound that filled the room as lids were thrown off the boxes and treasures fell into open hands will never leave my ears. Thomas opened his box with all the other delighted children in the room and grinned broadly as he held up a pair of 4T Superman underpants, saying “Well, ma’am, I’m not sure these drawers are gonna fit me!” Cackles of laughter billowed up around the two of us, as the others at the table saw his pleasure in being included, and the playfulness that followed as he tenderly took out of the box a small plastic harmonica, little boy socks, crayons … many treasures … things he would have loved to hold when he was 4 and first entered foster care. Before the dozens of homes he was moved in and out of over the thirteen years that had passed between then and now.
I left him sitting with his foster mom as the two of them explored the rest of the treasures in his box. I could hear his deep laugh as I wandered off to enjoy the excitement of some of the other children in the room. Before the night was through, Thomas found me again to tell me how much he appreciated being included. I told him that there was no chance I would have left him out and was so glad that he was willing to play along. As I reassured him that his age-appropriate box would arrive by Tuesday, he lowered his voice and asked, “Do you think it would be ok if I keep the stuffed animal from THIS box?”
As I tucked into bed that night, and many nights since, I have thought of that 17 year old boy, on the cusp of becoming a man, and of that stuffed animal and the 4T Superman underpants that will remind him of the day he knew he mattered.
Want to know how YOU can show one of the thousands of children in foster care in your community that they matter? Let’s talk @DoWhatCounts or @TheDreamBoxes
*names and identifying details changed to protect the privacy of a child in protective custody
Denise Logan is the Chief Inspiration Officer at Chase What Matters, a mission-driven business, bringing together non-profits with the volunteers and companies who love them. www.chase-what-matters.com She also runs The DreamBox Project, providing gifts of hope to children in distressed living situations including long term foster care, refugee camps and orphanages. Learn more at www.thedreamboxproject.org