What I love best about what I do (“what I do” being the activities other than sending telepathic love waves to Robert Duvall, which is my primary occupation, and what I do best) is that writing about people, places and enterprises allows me to delve deeply into a subject matter for a brief, but intense, time. In the same week, I may be writing about hope, hospital laborists, and heart disease — a variety that keeps me both engaged and happy. I’ve always felt that it’s a gift to be able to peer inside someone’s life and work, and a privilege to understand what makes someone else tick.
This week, I’ve had the opportunity to be in Kansas, meeting with people from an amazing organization that works tirelessly to improve the lives of children and families. One facet of the organization is a residential treatment facility for children who are suffering in a way that precludes their remaining at home — suffering, unfortunately, that takes many, many shapes and forms, and has a mind-boggling variety of root causes.
The children in this treatment program have often been through a number of different facilities and processes before reaching this one. They are justifiably angry at the cards life has dealt them, and perhaps less than invested in ‘getting well,’ since wellness is a concept for many of them that has been utterly foreign in their lives and role models.
Safety, obviously, is the primary concern for the kids; safety from themselves, from others, and from the circumstances that conspired to disrupt their lives. The facility I visited is a masterpiece of forward-thinking and concern for its residents’ well-being. Just in terms of physical safety, there are no sharp edges, no furniture that can be climbed, rounded walls that provide better sight-lines, ligature-proof fixtures, shatter-proof glass, and chairs that are filled with sand to make them too heavy to lift — among many other things. The staff are highly-trained, committed, and resilient, and the facility provides not only therapeutic and medical care, but also a variety of activities to treat the mind and body, including art therapy, equine therapy, ropes courses, and gardening.
Being in the company of others, following rules, and submitting to any kind of authority is difficult for many of these children, who’ve had little to no structure in their lives. Redirecting the instinct to act out is a big part of the program, since living in community with others and learning to accept help and abide by rules is key to a productive, happy future. Thus, the kids are given behavioral assessments and assigned a color. If you’ve had a difficult morning and are on red, for example, there are coping and positive behavior skills that you must model before you can earn back the privileges that those who are on green receive; same with a yellow assessment, but to a lesser degree.
There are over a hundred and sixty positive behaviors that a resident may do to return to good standing — some of these as simple as rocking in a rocking chair for ten minutes (rocking being a soothing coping skill). The positive behaviors are drawn from a deck of cards.
But here are two things that I found amazing:
1. The behavioral assessments are done at every shift change — not, as I would have assumed, every week or even every couple of days. This is critical, because what this means is that if a child has had a bad morning or afternoon, the afternoon or evening provides a means of turning the day around.
As the gentleman leading the tour explained, even going an entire day without the chance to return to a positive state is too long. “Because the kids know another assessment is coming, soon, they have hope. They know that they have the ability to change their behavior, and see the results. Hope is essential.”
2. The deck of cards — the 160+ positive behaviors that a child can use to turn their day around — holds some special cards that may be drawn at random by any child, at any time. When one of them is drawn, the child no longer has to perform the skill that would return them to a positive behavior assessment; they get returned to green status just by virtue of drawing the special card. These are the Grace Cards.
Grace Cards. There is something profound in this; a visible, tangible reminder that grace comes to each of us undeserved, unbidden, and unearned, freeing us from pain, punishment, and obligation, and clearing our way towards redemption and restoration.
We all, from time to time, get a Grace Card from God.
The writer Anne Lamott, quoted above, explains grace this way:
“It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.” (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith)
My hope (beyond meeting Robert Duvall), is that I, and the people I love, learn to recognize the unearned generosity of God that abounds in our lives; that we learn to look at the cards that we’ve been dealt and see the Grace Cards that have been, are now, and will ever be, in our deck. The grace of God doesn’t play favorites, and doesn’t care what faith tradition, church, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or socioeconomic status you claim. It is given, freely, by a God who sees us only as his beloved children.
They’re calling my flight and I have to dash…May your day abound with grace!