A Holiday Gift from Me to You. Really!

As we celebrate Thanksgiving and enter the holiday season, I am reminded of our annual family tradition, one that I imagine is shared by many across the United States. After gathering around the table with our plates piled high with turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings, we take turns sharing what we have been most thankful for during the previous year. The items listed are usually things we’ve had the good fortune to receive — whether they are material and concrete like a new purchase or relaxing vacation or something more abstract, such as the love of family, the company of friends, or recovery from an illness.

Having just returned from Washington, D.C., for meetings and events related to my volunteer work with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), I am rethinking what gives me the greatest satisfaction — and what I am most thankful for. CFSY is a national organization whose goal is to ensure that youth under the age of 18 are never sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives without hope of release. Based on the fundamental physical and emotional differences between youth and adults, CFSY believes that young people convicted of serious crimes should be held accountable for the harm they have caused in a way that reflects their capacity to grow and change. They believe that a just alternative to life in prison without the possibility of parole (JLWOP) is to provide careful periodic reviews to determine whether individuals convicted of crimes as youth continue to pose a threat to the community.

During my visit, I was able to speak with a critical group of supporters of CFSY — parents of children who were murdered by young offenders. These moms and dads, in tears as they told of the loss of their sons and daughters, made it clear that victims and survivors of serious crimes committed by youth endure significant hardship and trauma. They deserve, without question, to be provided with supportive services, and they should be notified about sentencing hearings related to their cases. What I wasn’t completely prepared for, however, was the depth of their commitment to ending JLWOP — even for the young offenders who had killed their own children.

For instance, I spoke with Linda White, whose 26-year-old daughter was killed by two 15-year-olds in 1986. In videos produced by CFSY, Linda has explained her perspective this way:

I understood the concept of getting even, but it seemed to me that it wasn’t quite what we needed. People can change. One of the two juveniles who killed my daughter is still in prison. One is already paroled and he’s a remarkably different person. It will never be about saying to him that it’s OK. He knows even better than I do that it will never be OK.  But that’s not what forgiveness is in an issue like this.

At the CFSY reception that evening, Father Gregory Boyle addressed the group. Father Greg is a Jesuit priest and the founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based non-profit that provides hope to former gang members by offering them free job training, employment opportunities and supportive services ranging from anger management counseling to tattoo removal procedures. Founded in 1988, Homeboy Industries is now the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program in the United States, assisting up to 1,000 people in any given month.

Father Greg sees his work as a calling. “I don’t save people. God saves people,” he has shared in interviews. “I can point them in the right direction. I can say, ‘There’s that door. I think if you walked through it, you’d be happier than you are.’” When asked how he can get up every day and smile at kids who use drugs, sell drugs, assault and steal, Father Greg has explained, “I would rather stand in awe of the burdens these kids bear than stand in judgment of the way they bear them.” In his book, Tattoos on the Heart, he tells the story of a homeless, heroin-addicted teenager named David who felt angry and disappointed with himself. “Look, David,” Father Greg told him. “You have to crawl before you can walk, and then walk before you can run.” David replied, his eyes filled with tears, “Yeah, but I know I can fly. I just need to catch a gust of wind.” For tens of thousands of young people, Homeboy Industries is that gust.

Driving back the next day to my home in North Carolina, I reflected upon the “three Ts” of philanthropy: time, talent, and treasure. I had just spent several days away from my husband and young daughters, putting 600 miles on an already beat-up car, sleeping on a friend’s couch, rushing around to meetings in a cold wind, and I realized that I didn’t feel depleted by my efforts but energized and inspired. I was struck by the truth underlying the cliché — that one of the greatest gifts is the opportunity to give of ourselves.

During the ride, I happened to catch a radio interview with Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House International, the largest privately funded agency in the United States and Canada that provides shelter, food and crisis care to homeless kids. When asked how young people become homeless, whether they are runaways or have been thrown out of their homes, Ryan explained that for the vast majority of young people, it’s not a choice: “They’re young people whose families imploded, could be because of drugs, could be because of poverty. It could be because a parent died. It could be because of abuse and neglect. Most of the young people who walk in the front door at Covenant House have endured very serious abuse.”

Ryan spoke of a young person who had endured 35 different foster care placements, and then at age 18, the Texas Child Welfare System “graduated him out the door,” ending its services.  “There are more than 26,000 young people every year who leave public child welfare systems in the United States to nothing,” Ryan explained. “To no family, no guardian, no forever anything. It’s just the streets.”

The interview concluded with the question of what Covenant House would do if it received unlimited funds from a generous donor.  Kevin Ryan replied that he would expand the agency to serve more homeless kids and start health clinics at the locations that lack them. “Any pediatrician who practices with this group would tell you that the disease profile for homeless kids is quite significant and very worrisome. They look like a population that’s much older than 18, 19, 20,” he said. “If we had unlimited resources, I’d want Covenant House to be a bridge to economic opportunity and healing for all the kids who are out there.”

So, when you are approached this holiday season with requests to donate your time, your talent, or your treasure, please remember that the solicitor is actually giving you a gift, rather than the other way around. They are providing you with an opportunity to feel a sense of joy, exuberance and inspiration, for what you will get back is so much more than what you give.

I plan to share these sentiments with my family and friends when we gather for our Thanksgiving meal on Thursday, and I encourage you to do the same. If the adults are distracted and the kids are clamoring for dessert, get their attention the way I did with this column’s headline: announce that you have a holiday gift for everyone.

In fact, now it’s time for you to open my gift. Please click on the links below, give one of the three Ts, and get ready to be inspired.

This column also appears at The Huffington Post and Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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About Tamar Birckhead

School of Law
This entry was posted in Children, Conditions of Confinement, Delinquency, Homelessness, Juveniles, Organizations, Poverty, Race, Class, Ethnicity, Rehabilitation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Holiday Gift from Me to You. Really!

  1. tbirckhe says:

    As a follow-up to the column above, I encourage you to check out the following:

    1)Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope by Kevin Ryan and Tina Kelley. This moving book tells the story of six young people who stayed at Covenant House and were eventually able to find stability and success. See http://www.almosthomethebook.org/

    2)Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Father Gregory Boyle, a collection of his essays about kinship, redemption and the work of Homeboy Industries. See http://www.amazon.com/Tattoos-Heart-Power-Boundless-Compassion/dp/1439153159

    3)Juvenile In Justice by Richard Ross, with essays by Ira Glass and Bart Lubow. This is a collection of 150 images, accompanied by the life stories that young people in custody shared with Ross. The portraits were taken over 5 years of visiting more than 1,000 youth confined in more than 200 juvenile detention institutions in 31 states. See http://www.juvenile-in-justice.com/shop/juvenile-in-justice

    –Tamar Birckhead

  2. Usagi says:

    I believe your numbres are off by a zero, which makes things ten times worse. A third of Ottawa’s population is 270,000, not 27 thousand. That means there is one bed for each 10,000 youth. That means that one in six is 45,000! And only 27 beds! Crisis indeed.