Children yearn to feel empowered, a theory I developed and observed during the summer of 2017. From June 5 to July 28, I interned at Agape Youth and Family Center, a non-profit organization located in Atlanta, Georgia. Throughout the schoolyear and summer, Agape works with hundreds of families in the local area who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. It offers them childcare assistance, after-school tutoring, fresh meals, and many other services. Agape has an eight-week summer program for children ages eight through thirteen, running from 8 AM to 2:15 PM Monday through Friday. The summer program is fitness- and academic-based, using the titles, “GoGirlGo!” and “FIT Camp” for the girls’ and boys’ groups, respectively. This summer, we worked with around 60-70 children, 98% of whom were Hispanic or Latino. Many of the children were one or two grade levels behind the average academic standings for their ages. My fellow SHECP intern, Hallie Mattingly from Berea College, and I worked as counselors, teachers, and coaches during our time with Agape.
GoGirlGo! and FIT Camp did not have mandatory attendance for the campers, and many of the children attended the Agape summer program because they wanted to, or because their parent(s) worked weekdays and could not have their children home alone. Regardless of the reasons for their attendance, almost all the children hopped off the bus every morning with wide smiles across their faces, giggling and talking energetically with one another. As many children put it, Agape is “family,” and many of these children have been with Agape since they were three years old. Fortunately, Hallie and I were fully welcomed and embraced by this family.
One of my best decisions of this internship was going into the camp with an open mind; I held no preconceived notions of how the children would behave, and I did not seek out specific information about their individual backgrounds. Rather, I allowed this information to come to me organically and naturally as the summer weeks passed by. Through numerous bus ride conversations, lunch table discussions, classroom icebreaker activities, and more, I slowly unlayered the bits of information about the children’s lives. For instance, the reasons why some children behaved less well than others seemed to correlate directly with the quality of their home life. I am grateful that I did not know some of the children’s life situations for it might have inhibited my efforts to know the boys and girls personally.
One example of these personal relationships occurred through an eleven-year-old child that I will call E, preserving confidentiality. Early on in the camp, E and I got off to a rough start when she shoved me out of the way when exiting the breakfast room. I recall feeling shocked, angry, and annoyed that E was not respecting me the way most other children were. She marched to the beat of her own drum; higher authority did not stifle her aggressive tendencies. As the summer wore on, however, E and I developed a unique relationship, a relationship that incorporated directness and zero-tolerance attitudes with fun, humor, and mutual respect. To put it simply, we became friends. On the sixth week of camp, a coworker informed me that E sleeps in a room with six other people every night and struggles immensely during the school year. This information, though not unique to the children we were working with, created a sense of thorough helplessness, sadness, and anxiety within me. Helplessness because I knew I could not change E’s home situation; sadness for the children who are denied what I take for granted, like a bed to myself; and anxiety because I did not know, and am still figuring out, how to make a sustainable impact to diminish these problems. However, I returned to camp the next day and treated E the exact same as I had the past six weeks. In fact, E made such excellent improvement during the summer that she received the class award for her age group in GoGirlGo! when camp concluded.
My relationship with E was just one of the hundreds of examples of growth and further understanding of children that I experienced at Agape. I became more aware of what to do and what not to do when teaching and working with children, I significantly strengthened my teaching abilities, recognized the self-confidence and reliability one must sustain in classroom settings, and witnessed the undeniable impact that being a poor immigrant in the United States has on the development of a child. Most importantly, I grasped the importance of empowering children, especially those who come from under-resourced backgrounds. As noted, these children come into Agape with smiles on their faces, a mere glimpse into the amazing resilience they exhibit in their everyday lives.
On my last Thursday in Atlanta, two other interns and I attended a talk given by Father Gregory Boyle, S.J., at a local Catholic parish. Fr. Boyle, famous for founding Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, discussed the various lessons he has learned from rehabilitating former gang members. Fr. Boyle offered two observations pertinent to my internship: “Service is the hallway that leads to a ballroom of exquisite mutuality and connection. But if you stay in the hallway, it’s about you… the ballroom is about us”; “You don’t go the margins to make a difference, you go to the margins so that you might be made different.” Fr. Boyle allowed me to fully encompass and comprehend my eight weeks with Agape. Walking out of the parish, I realized that my impact on those children was barely equal to, maybe less than, the impact they made on my future career decisions and myself.