By Kaeleigh E. Gale, Berea College (2016)
When I was accepted into the Shepherd Poverty Consortium, I was excited to be able to work closely with populations living in poverty because it ties closely with what I know, what I have experienced, and the areas I most commonly serve. After spending two conferences with predominately middle and upper class students and eight weeks serving homeless families in a city of high poverty and homeless rates, I was humbled to be able to see and hear opinions, experiences, and perspectives from both ends of the social economic class spectrum.
Kaeleigh interned in the PACT: Therapeutic Nursery with the Kennedy-Krieger Institute in Baltimore. She is pictured her with other SHECP Baltimore Interns in 2015
I have always been a part of the working class community; my childhood carried over into my experience with others at Berea College. I have consistently been surrounded by financial struggle. When asked to present what I had learned about poverty at the closing conference, I was not sure what I was going to say. I had learned many things throughout my experience, so I was not quite sure where to begin. I thought about the overarching purpose of the Shepherd Poverty Consortium and about the population I served. I reflected on how my previous experiences compared to what I had just witnessed this summer, which drew me into focusing on the complexities of poverty. I dug deeper into how my experience of poverty was different from that of those I served and I realized how poverty is really on a form of a spectrum. I was able to see that homelessness is really in a separate category than what I have experienced. While it does have similar outcomes, the struggle and issue is far greater and much more complex.
My placement was in Baltimore, MD, working as a Child Care Substitute at PACT: Therapeutic Nursery, which is an infant mental health daycare that focuses heavily on the level of attachment between the parent and the child. I learned about prevention and how attachment can affect infants/toddlers and about how significantly children’s environment can influence them physically/biologically. Young children are very sensitive to their environment and can change their behaviors according to external stressors. For example, the added stress of being without a home produces a higher risk of anxiety for caregivers, which commonly results in a faster heart rate. When nursing or bottle feeding, the infant matches the heart rate of his or her caregiver. If the caregiver has a faster heart rate, this may cause infants to have a faster heart rate and to breathe heavier, which can ultimately render them more likely to choke on their milk. Also, if there is not an adequate environment for sleeping, the infant may not get the proper amount of tummy time for sleeping, which can result in slower or abnormal physical development.
Aside from this, I also learned theories behind children’s behaviors, which helped me, as a caregiver, better empathize and understand the needs and wants of the children I was working with. I also spent time observing an Occupational Therapist, where I was able to learn more about my future career from a more direct perspective. The experience with the Occupational Therapist taught me the importance of mindfulness and taking care of oneself emotionally in order to better rehabilitate physically. My time at the nursery reinforced the importance of mindfulness through interventions with the parents of the program to a point in which I plan to incorporate mindfulness in my daily life.
As a person who loves interacting with children of all ages, I especially loved being a positive set of helping hands for the children. Although working with infants and toddlers for forty hours per week for eight weeks can be challenging, they were my motivation for being there. The children are the future, and it is up to us to guide them in positive directions. I learned that parents who may not know how to interact with their children and connect with them are not necessarily bad parents. It was motivating to learn that I could make a difference in the children’s lives by simply interacting with them and their parents. I witnessed multiple instances of progress for both the parents and children in a program where toddlers often come in crying until they adjust to trust the caregivers and that their parent will come back for them. One of my favorite moments occurred when I was sitting with a child who had been crying for her mother. She was holding a picture of herself sitting with her mother. I asked her to point to her mommy. When she pointed, I then asked her to point to her own smile. Her cry turned to a smile as she said that her mommy loves to see her smile. A two-and-a-half year old communicated to me the love she shares with her mother. I melted. My faith in this type of program was reinforced daily by moments like that one.
“We do not need material items to serve,” writes Kaeleigh (Berea 2016), But, “rather a compassionate and empathetic heart.”
On another occasion, I was consoling a crying child by telling her that her mommy will be back and everything will be okay. The child mentioned above grabbed a photo of this crying child and her mother and exclaimed, “Here is a picture of your mommy. She will come back.” I melted again, spilling over my loving cup. Another small act of kindness reinforced my faith in the humanness of parent-child relationships.
Reflecting on my own experience of growing up in a low socioeconomic class family, I have become more aware of the complexities of homelessness and I have seen all types of people impacted by the situation. I have seen and learned how it has affected adults, children, and the entire family unit. My experience at PACT working with the homeless population has shown me how important service is to one another as well as to one’s self. As human beings, we cannot serve others until we serve ourselves. Witnessing the service from peoples who do not own much has inspired me to believe that we do not need material items to serve, rather a compassionate and empathetic heart.
These moments taught me that service within community is found in many different ways and by many different people. Service has no minimum age limit. We do not have to be a certain height to ride that ride. All are welcome and all can take initiative. And these moments will motivate me to continue to serve daily within the community and to see service in the smallest of things. From homelessness, to childcare, to parent-child attachment, to supporting family members, and to education, I took away so much more than I signed up for.