I’d like to share a story — and then a point.
Wheldon’s story is his own, but typical of a child of the favela. Unique but not exceptional, we sometimes say. His mother was a prostitute; the man who fathered him could have been any of her clients. By the time Wheldon was three, he and his seven-year-old sister were essentially abandoned to the streets to fend for themselves. He learned early the survival skills of a street child: begging, stealing, manipulating, doing whatever it took to keep himself alive.
Wheldon, as street children go, was one of the fortunate, defying the odds that say a street child will live five years at most. By the time he ran afoul of the authorities at age 13, he had seen—and been a party to—a lifetime of abuse, exploitation, and crime. When he came to the City of Youth, he was streetwise, angry, defiant.
No overnight transformation for him there either. He fought authority, structure, rules; he kept everyone at arm’s length. He failed all his classwork and fought with other kids constantly. Protected his own space. A street kid. No interest in becoming part of the Hope family.
He ran away three times in the first 14 months. Safety, food, shelter, and love were not enough to help him turn the page on his past life. The lure of the streets was too strong. The first two times, the police brought him back to campus. The third time he ran away, he returned to the favela of his childhood. On the second night there, he saw a childhood friend gunned down in a drug turf dispute.
The proverbial “light” comes on — and Wheldon returns to the City of Youth on his own. An older boy who had once tried to befriend him becomes not only a friend, but a mentor. Wheldon still struggles with structure, with authority, but begins to show improvement in the classroom. And then one day in chapel, he breaks. Sobbing, he asks Christ into his life. He becomes part of the Hope family. Three years later, Wheldon moves into the graduate transition home and begins to prepare for a life on his own.
He hasn’t written the end of his story yet, but after some really rocky opening chapters, the storyline is certainly headed in the right direction.
And now the point . . .
Wheldon’s story took a turn because there was place for him like Hope.
Two days ago, I was reading a blog from one of my colleagues in orphan care. He makes a very passionate plea for taking care of orphans. But then, halfway through the entry, he had this to say: “I will never advocate for institutionalized orphan care.” He, like so many in the orphan care arena, immediately assumes that big equals bad. I absolutely agree that, for most children, large institutionalized care is far inferior to small, family-oriented care.
But there are exceptions.
In locales with a large population of children who have been abandoned or suffered an extended period of abuse, a different solution is called for. The intensity, proximity, and coerced intimacy of a small family unit does not work for kids like Wheldon. Like so many of the children of the streets, Wheldon came to Hope suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a product of the neglect and abuse he experienced in infancy and early childhood. His first days at Hope were marked by his attempt to control his environment through manipulation, defiance, and fighting. If you put a kid like Wheldon in a family home, he will literally destroy it.
The Wheldons of our world—and there are plenty of them—need a different kind of care. Something less intimate than a single-family setting. A place where a group of peers can establish a culture, and then that culture can be an extraordinary shaping force in the lives of all the children there. A place where big mistakes can be made, but restoration is always possible. A place with role models. A place where adolescents can learn what it means to be family, but in an environment that lets them grow into the family relationships at their own pace.
At Hope we have hundreds of children who could not survive in a small family group. They simply do not have the necessary tools. But every day, in this large institution, children are being transformed … and claiming the promise of their futures.