A story of happiness pursued
An op-ed by Trish Brady
I work with homeless teenagers. I am not a licensed anything, except driver. I work on a per diem basis, as needed.
I love this job, what I am learning from these teens. How often I reflect back to my own teen years of feeling homeless within a home. I grew up in the suburban nightmare of green lawns, summer vacations, going to camp and Christmas parties — not the street nightmare these kids know, but the one where everything is hidden, pretending various abuses aren’t happening.
What I like about my job at the homeless teen center is the honesty. These kids are homeless for a variety of reasons, but they are homeless. There’s nowhere to hide their homelessness. Many times they have come up to me and said, “I hate being homeless.” I never pretend to know what that must feel like.
Some suffer from mental and emotional illness, others are angry, some despondent. At first, some intimidated me, could snap and melt down at any time.
All were teaching me.
One day at the center, I was the first one a teenager approached for help. I made the various calls that were needed. I felt for this one, his pain obvious, palpable. His inability to look me in the eye and the scars on his wrist told me what I didn’t want to know.
I looked out for him. When he told me he wouldn’t be coming around anymore, that he’d found a place to live, I said, “Oh, I am really going to miss you.” Then I thought, Wait, this is a homeless center, so I quickly added, “Hey, that’s great news.”
They come, they go.
There is just as much drama at the center as in the hallways of any high school. I watch the changing-of-the-partner dance, the mood swings. One day I mentioned to a case worker how I was inspired by the teens’ honesty about their situations. “They are not as honest as you think,” the case worker said. “They hide a lot.”
I suppose that is true, but to me the situation itself is the honest ground. I learned to pretend, to hide, and I had a home. In my homeless home of youth, an encouraging word was gold, a smile of acceptance fertilizer to grow. I want to give something positive to them. I know the value of encouragement.
It can take a lifetime to realize what you have to give is what you didn’t get.
There is a very bright teenager at the center, sharp and a whiz a chess. “My talents are being wasted,” he said to me.
“No, no,” I cried, “don’t let them be!” A tragedy, I thought at first, what a waste. But upon closer examination, I realized the real tragedy was my immediate judgment of him. How many times had I felt that way, and the last thing I would have wanted was someone’s judgment that I was a tragedy, my life a waste because it didn’t meet someone else’s expectations?
I am learning so much from these kids, in ways they may never know. What makes life so rich and fulfilling — though often painful and confusing — is we get what we need and find out what we have to give in the most unexpected places.
I look forward to the days I work. I want to smile and say something positive to each and every one of them, plant a seed, give them some fertilizer to grow, and then go home feeling I have done something useful. That’s what they are teaching me. Every time I show up, I learn to be more honest within myself, more thankful — not for what I have, but for the power of knowing I have something to give.
These homeless teens have helped me find a home within myself.
Trish Brady lives in Cumberland.