Tag: Children

Project Sanctuary Redux

Project Sanctuary Bus at Snow Mountain Ranch

What is impossible for man is possible for God

Well, here I am again.  At a Project Sanctuary retreat, the only organization designed to serve the entire military family, helping them reconnect after a member returns from one of our perpetual wars.  Except it’s winter this time and we’re at Snow Mountain Ranch, a YMCA camp just over the Continental Divide from Denver.

Much is the same.  Lots of hyperactive kids who, before the week is out, have made some new buddies.  Plenty of opportunities to unwind:  ice fishing on Grand Lake, snowmobiling on the Continental Divide, a trip to the Fraser Rec center for the water slides or flips off the tramp into the foam pit.  Like last time, I’m sous chef for Tom who, despite laboring under the handicap of institutional raw materials, manages to whip up pretty tasty meals that satisfy the whetted appetites of everyone from kids in high chairs to their parents.

And, again, more of the darker aspects of a Project Sanctuary retreat.  The Post Traumatic Stress workshops.  The “Reconnection With Your Family” sessions.  The presentation from the Cohen Veterans Network on how to access mental health care for service members when, as is too often the case, the VA system falls short.

A Well Oiled Machine

Since I was there a couple of days longer this time, I had the opportunity to get to know a few of the families better than last time.

One of those was the Johnson family.  The husband, Jeremiah, is a military nurse.   His wife is Felicia.  They live near San Antonio, Texas.

My acquaintance with the Johnsons began when I sat on a bench next to an older daughter, Toby, looking across Grand Lake where one of the P.S. kids squealed with delight as he pulled a trout through a hole in the ice.

“So,” I asked, “what grade are you in?”

“Well,” she replied, “I’m in about 11th grade.  But my mom home schools us.”

“That’s nice; home schooled kids usually do very well.  How many brothers and sisters do you have.”

“There’s 8 of us, the youngest is 1, the oldest 20.”

“You’re kidding,” I said, looking over at her dark eyes under the Prince Valiant haircut.  “And you guys all drove up here?”

“Yep,” she said, “all except my oldest sister. She lives in Colorado Springs.”

“Amazing.  And what do you think you want to do when you’re done with school?”

“I want to be a farrier.  We have a horse and I like to work with them.

“Not easy work,” I said.  “Is that why you have that splint on your wrist?”

“No,” she replied, “I’m accident prone.  I cut myself.”

But wait.  There’s more.

That evening I got the chance to speak briefly with Toby’s mom as we stood in line for supper.  

“Toby,” I began, “tells me that you guys have eight kids.  And that you have a blog.  How in the world do you do it all?”  

Without skipping a beat, and holding the one year old on her hip, she pointed upward and said “We get some help from up there.”

“I have a blog also,” I said.  “What do you write about? And how often do you post?”

“It’s about Christian homeschooling.  And I post once a week.  Here’s my card.”

“The ‘Zoo I Call Home,'” I read.  “That’s a good one.  I’ll definitely take a look.  Here’s the card for my blog.  With all your spare time,” I concluded, as a little boy in boots that looked like they’d been through several kids before him began tugging at her, “maybe you can take a peek at mine sometime.”

Life with an open hand

In the “liberated” ’70’s, when I was a new believer and a student at C.U. Boulder, I knew a guy named Mike McElroy.  He ran the Christian bookstore on The Hill.  Mike was a brilliant, thoughtful guy who had a way of forthrightly challenging my comfortable assumptions.  I’m sorry I’ve lost touch with him.

Mike and I both attended the Hillside Church of the Savior, a Protestant church that met in the home of Gene Thomas and had a vibrant outreach to college kids.  

Once, for reasons that I’ve entirely forgotten, we got into a discussion about sex, contraception, and children.  Mike’s opinion was that the Catholics had it right.  And Protestants had it wrong.  “Catholic doctrine forbids the use of contraception.  And it’s not because the Pope wants us to procreate like rabbits.  It’s because sex without contraception is to be open to how God may want to intervene in our lives.  Contraception is our way of saying “No” to that intervention.”

Mike’s argument impressed me.  But it wasn’t something we adopted for our marriage; I had my tubes tied after our third child.  The prospect of the financial burden of having more kids frightened me.  And a good case, of course, can be made that fear is the opposite of faith.

I didn’t ask, but given that they live smack dab on the buckle of the Bible belt, I’d be stunned if the Johnsons are Catholics.  But regardless of their denomination, the Johnson’s, with their 8 kids, took a different path than ours.   One that, at least from the perspective of an outsider, is driven by faith.  One that’s radically open to how the Lord might choose to disrupt their lives with little ones.  A life that puts up with cars that have 350,000 miles on them.  A life that grins and shrugs when a hand me down boot has a hole worn through the top.  But one that that allows the Johnson’s to know, first hand, the promise and, no doubt, the challenges of Psalm 127:3:

“Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” 

 

“No, I got a D in calculus.”

image2 (2)Our son, Byron, is a smart guy.  But, growing up, he was not big on school.  He much preferred to spend his time reading books.  I don’t know how many times he read the Civil War epic, Rifles for Watie.  And he almost certainly doesn’t either.

It drove us, and particularly his mother, nuts to be aware of his wasted potential.  We tried a private, alternative high school for a while.  It was a goofy waste of money.  I suggested that we send him to a military academy in Kansas-my wife vetoed that idea.

When he got older and could learn to drive, we thought that preventing him from getting his license might motivate him.  Wrong.  He sat in his room and read.  And brought home, at best, uneven report cards.  Some A’s and B’s, a sprinkling of D’s and F’s.  We gave up on the license thing when it dawned on my wife that if he didn’t learn to drive before he went to college-if any of them would accept him-he would be learning to drive from other college kids.  Probably not the best teachers.  We surrendered, he won.  But he never seemed to really be all that interested in driving anyway.

He ended up going to Miami of Ohio-talk about a university with a geographic identity crisis.  Why a school of its caliber would accept him I don’t know.  Well, actually, I do: they wanted our money.

As he did at Cherry Creek High School, he played in the marching band.  We went back for parents’ weekend and were there for the homecoming football game.  Those were the glory days of RedHawk football-Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback.  So we got to see our son march at half-time.  And Big Ben win the game.

But it was all pretty much down hill from there.  Toward the end of the spring semester, we got a letter from Byron’s room mate informing us that he almost never went to class and did very little besides stay in the dorm room playing computer games.  The room mate also reported that he had to work to pay his way through school.  The kid was justifiably angry that Byron was not even warming a chair in class while he was working his fanny off.

When I picked up Byron at DIA that spring I showed him the letter.  “What do you have to say about this?  Is this what’s going on?”  My voice quavered with anger as we drove along Pena Boulevard.  He didn’t deny the contents of the letter.  I told him, “We’re done with this.  If you want to keep going to school, you’re picking up the tab yourself.”

A few minutes of stoney silence passed before he said, “I went to see the Navy recruiter recently.  I think I’m going to join the Navy.”

“Right,” I replied, still upset, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“I actually took the the military IQ test, the ASVAB, and got the highest available score.  They’re recruiting me into the Navy’s nuclear program.”

“Well,” I replied, “that sounds like it could be a good plan.  But you’re going to have to prove to us that you’re serious.”

But, skeptic though I was, a few weeks later a couple of impressive, ram rod straight Naval recruiting officers were sitting around our kitchen table.  I was a pretty easy sale.  My wife was tougher; she was afraid that they would pull the old bait-and-switch on him and he would wind up chipping paint on old hulks.  Nonetheless, a few months later, and after an emotional going away dinner, the recruiters showed up late one evening to take Byron downtown to be sworn in.

The next we heard from him was a frantic call from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center:  “I’m here.  I’m ok.  And I have to go.”  Click.

It was demanding, but he did well in basic training.  The fact that I was only seconds from missing my flight to Chicago to see him graduate from basic still haunts me, but I made it and the ceremony was suitably impressive.  We enjoyed a great weekend in Chi Town together.

He continued to excel through the various training schools.  The nuclear power training school curriculum is enough to make my head explode-you look at it and decide if you think you can pass.  I couldn’t have.

From there, he opted for submarines and helped run the reactor for several years on the USS Nebraska, a ballistic missile sub.  I joined the Big Red Sub Club and, in that capacity, was able to go on a one day ride along as the submarine returned from one of its 77 day patrols to its base in Bangor, Washington.

After eight years of outstanding Navy service, Byron finished as a Petty Officer, First Class.  The letter his mother and I received from his commanding officer announcing the promotion is impressive and, framed, hangs in my office.  He has a shadow box laden with commendations, medals, ribbons and pins.

On the strength of his naval record, and the recommendation of a fellow bubble head, Byron got a job with Google at their data center near Omaha after he mustered out of the Navy.  Again, regular promotions.  They’ve sent him around the country and from Finland to Ireland on various assignments.

I used to like to tell folks that “The only class that our son passed in college was marching band.”  And then go on to tell them how well he had done in the Navy-and now at Google.

However, one time Byron heard me say that and corrected me:  “No, dad, I got a D in calculus.”

I stand corrected.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

This last Sunday evening I made a quick trip to our local, suburban grocery store.  As I left the nearly empty parking lot and waited at the red light to turn on to Arapahoe Road, a young/old woman stood to my left holding a worn cardboard sign that read, “Single mom need help.”

I quickly went through the usual mental gymnastics:  are you really a single mom?  If I give you a dollar, will it just go up in smoke-or something worse?  Or really help the kids?  That she was a woman cinched it for me; I don’t give money to men standing at stop lights.

I pushed the down button on the passenger window and said, “Hey, I have something for you.”  I hurriedly pulled a dollar from my wallet; the light could change any time.  She acted like she hadn’t heard me; she could hardly see my car, let alone me, with the sun blasting into her eyes just above the mountains to the west.  I tried again, louder,”Ma’am, here’s a dollar.”

She heard me this time and took off the dark glasses that were doing a poor job of protecting her from the glare.  “Sorry,” she said, coming closer,  “I couldn’t see you.”

She reached into the car; I handed her the bill.  She thanked me and backed away.  The light changed. And I pulled onto Arapahoe.

What is our city, and country, coming to?

I grew up in Denver.  The only memory I have as a youth of panhandlers is one I would like to forget.  In high school, some friends and I went down to skid row, which, believe it or not, was where Larimer Square is now.  We brought some pliers, some dimes, and some matches.  And had a “great” time watching the wretches on the sidewalk burn themselves as they scrambled to pick up the coins that we pitched out the windows.

But aside from that shameful experience, I have no recollection of begging in this town back then.  But now it is common place to see one, two, or even three ragged souls at intersections holding up limp cardboard signs throughout the city.  Even in quite suburban areas on a quiet Sunday evening.

Do I know what to do about it?  No.

But I do have some thoughts on causes.

First, broken families spawn broken people.  In a whole range of ways, virtually every study agrees that divorce or bearing children out of wedlock negatively impacts everyone involved.  Divorced parents and single mothers are more likely to be in poverty.  Which, of course, spills down to children.

But the problems kids face go beyond poverty.  Children in these scenarios are more likely to do poorly in school, be involved in crime, act out sexually, and abuse drugs.

Will a stable marriage solve all these problems?  And mean that we see fewer panhandlers on Denver streets?  Almost certainly not.  But how could it hurt to set it as a goal?

Second, undiagnosed mental illness often plays a role in panhandling and homelessness.  And this is something I am qualified to speak about from personal experience.  I am bipolar.  In my early 20’s I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks and put on medication.  But, like many in my situation, when I was released, I quit taking the medication.  “I don’t need that stuff.”

And for the next thirty years I was on a roller coaster.  Sometimes maniacally high.  But much more frequently in the grip of the black dog of depression.  True, I was never homeless; but I was suicidal many times.  But, I was blessed to be surrounded by a supportive family that was more than enough reason to keep living.   Now I see a psychiatrist quarterly and take daily medication.  But take it from me, mental illness is debilitating.

I can see how someone can wind up on a street corner holding up a “Single mom need help” sign.  But what to do about it is another matter.