Friday, September 07, 2007

A lesson in life from a homeless teen

Last week I attended a workshop on ending homelessness. The focus was on youth. One of the members of our table of 8 was a young woman currently living in a transitional shelter. When she was 17, and entering grade 12, *Tara ran away from home. When asked why, she said, "I wasn't safe at home." A scary thought to think the street is safer than your home.

For Tara, it was a wise decision. After spending some time on the streets, Tara knew she had to do something different. She ran to a woman who had befriended her at the local Boys and Girls club and that woman became her advocate. She helped Tara find an emergency bed and from there Tara moved on to a transitional bed in a long-term shelter where she now lives.

Last spring, only one year behind schedule, Tara finished Grade 12 and will be attending College this fall to pursue her studies in Social Work.

There were several youthful voices added to the mix of social workers and agency representatives at the meeting. It was a dynamic conversation about what's happened in their lives to encourage them to make change now, before drugs and prostitution and abuse sucked the life completely out of them. The teens were open, frank, positive. Their attitude was, yeah, it sucks when home is the place you feel most unsafe. But hey, I'm safe today. Let's get it on.

For the adults, it was more challenging. We wanted to talk about how we've failed these teens. How we continue to fail children today by not being better parents, better guardians of the innocence of their youth. We wanted to focus on how the system is broken. Who, what and when it all fell apart.

If we could learn anything from these teens it is to quit looking back, to quit measuring where we are today against the failures of yesterday. To start focusing on where we want to go based on the success stories that got us here so that we can start building new pathways to success. To be more forgiving -- of ourselves. Sure, we'll make mistakes. We don't know everything, and we definitely can't do it all right the first time, but we need to keep doing, not just talking, about it.

Seated at the table beside me was a 50 year-old native woman. Jan ran away from yet another foster home when she was 17. She hit the streets and fell into the life of a junkie and prostitute. Lost, frightened, without any sense of belonging or a connection to her native culture, Jan spent twenty years wandering aimlessly, searching for herself between the highs, and lows, of street life. Today, Jan is clean and sober. She makes a modest living, enough to support herself, and is committed to speaking up to create change in a system which she believes failed her throughout her life.

But Jan is still a victim. "I have no identity," she kept repeating throughout the morning. "Foster parents wouldn't let me have my identity when I was forced into 'care' as a youth. When I go back to the reserve now, my people shun me. They make fun of me. They want nothing to do with me. I have no place where I belong. I don't know who I am."

During one of these discourses, I turned to Jan who was sitting next to me and commented, "You've managed to kick an addiction, get off the street and create a life for yourself today. I'd say you're one powerful woman."

Jan couldn't focus on my words about what she'd done right. She was stuck in telling what had gone wrong.

I don't deny that amongst cultural/ethnic groups, natives are disproportionately represented on the street. Every colour. Every sex. Every size, shape, intellect, faith are represented on the street.

The street does not discriminate. It accepts all comers.

And that's the challenge.

There are no boundaries on the street, and in recovery, the boundaries we place are self-erected. No matter the circumstances of our lives, getting over the hurdle of our own limits is the first step towards getting free of victimizing ourselves through the past.

For Tara, the past is simply the road that led her to where she is today. Is it perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But Tara isn't bemoaning the imperfections of her life today. She's celebrating herself. Treating herself with respect, doing what it takes to build a better future for herself by focusing on what she can do today to make a difference, not what made her life different in the past or what makes it different today than the lives of her classmates.

In life, hardships abound. So does joy. Wonder. Adventure. Opportunity.

Oprah Winfrey said, "Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity."

Regardless of what happened in the past, Tara looks at herself as one lucky teen today. She isn't relying on luck, however, to get her to where she wants to go. She's preparing herself for the future by educating herself, learning new tools, new ideas that will change her life forever.

For Jan, there's little room for new learning as she remains stuck in 'her story' about what happened to her in the past. Finding fault with a system that is not perfect, Jan continues to abuse herself with the notion that there's nothing she can do to change her life today.
Long ago, Jan lost touch with her native heritage. Today, she struggles to find herself in a world that doesn't welcome her because.... well, she says it's because of the colour of her skin.

For Tara, the world was not a welcoming place. So, she created her own welcome mat. For the other teens at the meeting, it was an opportunity for them to share their stories, and for people like me to open up to the wisdom of youth, to be inspired by their courage to stop the abuse happening in their lives by learning to treat themselves with dignity and respect. They're teaching the world how to treat them. They're mighty powerful.

Sitting, hearing these teens tell their stories, I wondered, Where in my life am I stuck on abusing myself with the notion the past determines who I am today? Where am I limiting who I am today by keeping myself stuck in the past?

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