Kari pushed the swing to go higher, closed her eyes and threw her head back, her legs straight out and she could not hold back what felt like happiness and smiled. As the swing slowly came back down, the smile went away. And just as the swing went back and forth, so did her smile.
The swing gave her the feeling she was flying away free. She could look down from and see the other kids climbing the monkey bar and on the seesaw as if they were in another world. She imagined that while she flew away, the staff would start looking for her and then call the police. But this time, they would not be able to find her. She will be reported missing and come out in the news. But she would have flown so far away and grown feather wings that they would not be able to recognize her as she rested on a branch.
Kari’s daydreaming was cut short when she saw a volunteer walking towards the swing. It was Emily O’Donnell, a new volunteer helping out as a recreation team helper. She also sang during the morning chapel time. She had a very nice voice and blue eyes.
As the swing started to slow down, Kari noticed she was not wearing the camp T-shirt but was dressed rather nicely and she tried to talk with Kari, but Kari was not interested. Kari jumped off the swing and kept walking. Kari remembered the Director told her she will be meeting today for a one-to-one conversation. Do birds have one-to-one conversations? Kari wondered.
“Kari!” Emily called out and caught up to her. “Let’s go to the multi-purpose room. Visitors are going to start arriving at about noon and before then, I have to join the other volunteers and prepare the snacks.”
Visitors meant foster or adopting families. Summit Hill Residence held its first week long summer camp, which ended yesterday and kids, both boys and girls, of all ages, from the other homes that belong to St. Bartholomew Parish, participated. It had been Kari’s first camp experience, which luckily, happened just a few weeks after she had arrived. Today was the camp’s closing celebration. Twelve years old and recently removed from the third foster home, Kari knew the chances of her being in a permanent home were slim and she was not interested in going back to another foster home. Ever.
They walked down the hallway that had one wall filled with hundreds of photos of the girls are and had been part of Summit Hill. Kari’s photo was not there yet. They walked into the empty room at the end of the hall. Emily pointed to the other side of the and said,
“Why don’t we sit over there, next to the window? It’s a pretty day outside and we can look out the parking lot while I braid your hair.” They had plenty of time, but Emily thought that sitting by the window would put both at ease. After they accommodated two plastic white chairs one in front of the other, they sat down and Emily started brushing Kari’s hair.
At first it felt awkward. They remained silent for a few minutes. Emily felt each slow stroke down Kari’s long hair was speaking the words she couldn’t say. Of the eight girls currently at the residence, ranging between the ages of six to twelve, there was something that drew her to this pale, long limbed and skinny girl. Emily noticed Kari had a distant gaze she never saw her smile. By the third day of camp, Emily started to ask the staff members about her. Yesterday, Emily went into the Directors office to discuss foster care and ask about Kari. The Director first asked Emily several questions, and at first, she was very hesitant, but then proceeded to tell her about Kari’s biological parents.
The Director walked over to a file cabinet as she spoke. “You can read about her case in more detail in her file but I can sum it up by saying they gave custody of their daughter to a relative and moved to India when Kari was just a few months old. The uncle had a teenage daughter, who was handicap, and he died when Kari was four years old. Not having information of any other relative, the State then placed Kari in various foster homes before arriving at Summit Hill. When Kari arrived here, she was undernourished, emotionally scarred and failing in school. Broken physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Emily walked out of the office with Kari’s thick file and two other slimmer ones, of two younger girls, by suggestion of the Director.
As soon as she arrived at her house, she went over the files, took notes, researched online and barely got a few hours of sleep. During the past year Emily had been preparing herself for the decision to bring a child into her home. She was referred to Summit Hill by a co-worker and felt confident of taking the next step.
She saw up close the dedication and love of the leadership team for the kids without a home. With the other three residences in the city, she was astounded to learn that they provide services to more than 5,000 children, youth and families annually. Emily knew she was capable of providing a loving home for a child, a “forever home” as they called it. She wanted to provide a permanent home for a school age girl. She dismissed other factors such as a specific age, look or ethnic background. After several months of getting acquainted with Summit Hill and attending pre-service training, she took a week of vacation from her job as at an Insurance company to volunteer.
Today, she finally got the chance to spend a few minutes with the girl that captivated her.
“Kari, I heard this was your first camp experience. What did you like most about camp week?”
Silence. After several brush strokes, Emily pressed on asking,
“Was there anything in particular, during or after camp that sticks in your mind that most likely you will never forget? Maybe a song, or a game, a snack or a name?”
Emily started dividing her hair. Silently, she prayed the Lord’s Prayer. After what seemed eternity, Kari mumbled,
“The story. Of the potter. And clay.”
Emily remembered seeing clay figurines on the arts and craft table and some were quiet impressive. She remembered seeing small jars or cups, hearts, cars and flowers. Each piece had the kids name and she made a mental note to go by there and look for the crafts that Kari made.
“Kari, I noticed how you pay attention, and played with the other kids as part of a team. You always showed respect and that you were having a good time, which is really good.” She tied the end of the braid and after a moment, she got up and kneeled in front of Kari. Kari turned her head. Emily noticed Kari was breathing hard. With a low calm voice Emily started to talk slowly.
“During camp, volunteers would meet in this room each night and we shared about how we thought the day went, how we felt. All of us said, ‘tired but great!’ We also shared what we needed for the next day and we then closed with a prayer. Each day, we knew we needed God’s help to do our best for each one of you. I wanted to sing my best. As we got to know some of the kids better, we prayed more specifically. It was so important for us to see that each one of you was having fun and learning something new.”
She paused for a few seconds and then said, “A few of us stayed late into the night, we walked over to the wall with the photos and prayed for each girl, even if their photo is not on the wall.”
Kari just stared out the window, without even blinking. Her breathing slowed down.
Emily continued, “This has been my first time volunteering in a kid’s camp. I didn’t know anyone really well or what I was doing. But this has been by far, the best experience of my life!”
Kari turned her head to look at Emily. Emily looked into Kari’s hazel eyes and even more softly said, “I will like to be your friend.”
Kari quickly turned her eyes to look out the window. Emily looked over and saw several volunteers walking towards the building, wearing the neon bright orange ca T-shirt and carrying grocery bags. Emily placed her hand on Kari’s hand as she stood up. “You can answer me later Kari. I will be ready whenever you are ready.”
They started to walk out of the room, Emily turned the light off before closing the door. Her hand is soft like her voice, Kari thought and realized this was the moment that she would never forget.
Story by: Brenda Liz Saldana
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