Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Her Name Was Kenya
I am haunted by a little girl I first met almost twenty years ago. It was during the pilot phase of a collaborative program I developed between the then D.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross and the YMCA at 17th and Rhode Island Ave. in Northwest. The issue of homeless families was front and center then as it remains today. I was looking for ways to provide learning and play activities for children living in shelters. In a nutshell, I recruited several adults from ARC and the YMCA to mentor a group of middle-school aged kids who were living in a city shelter a few blocks from the Y. The first Saturday session, we invited parents to come with their children to see, firsthand, what they had signed them up for. We explained that each two hour session would include a discussion on personal safety, first aid, conflict resolution and other timely topics. The rest of the session would be supervised use of the Y's exercise equipment and interaction with the adult volunteers. Lack of enthusiasm on the part of the parents who came we chalked up to weariness and frustration with their situation. It didn't dampen our spirits. The kids were a little wary at first, but soon opened up when they got to use the exercise machines. They were bundles of energy ready to burst! A six or seven year old girl who came with her older brother and their mom pried her way into the group. She was not old enough and had not been registered, but there was something about her that forced me to let her stay. From then on, when we walked over to the shelter to escort the kids to the Y, she was ready and waiting with the older kids. I remember her dancing along beside me, her hand flitting in and out of mine. Unless I was doing the presentation, she would curl up in my lap as we all sat on the floor for that day's discussion. She seemed fascinated with my hair and liked to play with it. Her own hair was uncombed and matted. Her clothing was dirty and I'm not sure she was ever bathed. Now I admit to being sensitive to smells and would usually try to get away from an unpleasant odor. But this child grabbed my heart and held on for dear life. One morning she had pushed up her shirt sleeves. I noticed bruises on her arms and as soon as I did, she yanked down her sleeves. Then she put on a phony smile and started acting goofy. When I gathered her back into my lap she quieted down. Then, looking more closely, I saw scars on her hands and head. The following session, neither she nor her brother showed up. I heard nothing from their mother and my phone calls dead-ended. I couldn't get that child out of my thoughts and my imagination took over. Had her family found housing? Was she in the hospital? Was she living in a car somewhere? I never found out. The family just vanished. Child Protective Services could do nothing at that point, so I had to try to let it go. I don't know what triggered these memories last night, but I had to get out of bed to put them in writing so I could try to set them aside -- again. She still has a place in my heart.