You can’t get better at something without doing it, and most importantly for children, they cannot get better at something without seeing it modeled for them. Believe me, I know, I get it. The children in our care have picked up some heavy baggage along the way, and I also know that simply ‘love’ will not fix it. Not in the Hallmark Channel style that we are so accustomed to seeing. There are so many more variables at play. Giving matters.
One sunny spring day, not many months after our foster daughter had been placed in our home, my mother and I sat in camping chairs watching Alexandra brushing the horse that was to be hers to care for, to learn to ride and become a partner with. Then, the timid little six-year-old girl had worked up the courage to brush the horse on her own. She stood alone in the pen, looking up at a 1,000 pound animal that was to be her friend. She had been intrigued with horses and wanted to work with them. Both my mother and I were relishing this moment of connection we saw unfolding before us between the beautiful little girl with long, dark blonde hair, and the very patient, elegant red horse. This mare was not young and had two foals of her own. She knew how to be careful around someone smaller than her and was the perfect horse for my daughter to learn to be around. The mare looked on lazily with large brown eyes, slowly munching on her hay and enjoying the warmth of the sun after a long cold winter. Beautiful sunlight was streaming through her strawberry mane. Having foals had also taught this mare to be calm, even when much was going on around her. She was enjoying the attention from our little girl, and the soft bristled brush that was making her red coat gleam in the sun.
Horses love to be scratched, brushed and groomed. The soft bristled brush had a hard-wooden handle, much like a scrub brush you would use on the floor. We could hear the gentle “wisk, wisk” sound of the brush against the mare’s body. Little did I know that this brush would soon become a weapon. This scene had changed. In one deft move, the smooth, wooden side of the brush our daughter was using was flipped around and smashed hard with a loud crack against the unsuspecting horse’s cheekbone.
This is how our daughter reacts to connection. Reactive Attachment Disorder. It was not just the horse. Soon we discovered that any family pet was not truly safe alone with her- the 85 pound German Shepard was getting his feet stomped on, the little dogs were getting “accidentally” tripped over and the cats stayed clear of her. Any person with an injury had better be on the lookout, because if your foot was in a cast, or sore- it would get kicked, stepped on or you would get tripped. That is as far into the backstory as I would like to go at this point. It was not pretty.
Practice Makes Progress
How does this fit in with giving? While I’m trained as a photographer, I’m mostly just a mom and my photography work over the past year primarily has been donating my skills at two local humane societies. It is a lot of work hauling a van full of equipment, setting up a studio and patiently giving 12-20 often nervous animals a custom portrait session to help them become adopted. Would it work to take my children with me? By this time Alexandra was ten and had made much progress. Our son was eight and absolutely loved to help set up photo gear. We thought we would try it.
From the first time I took them there I knew it was the right thing to do. Away were all my anxieties about the word “adoption” floating around humane societies. I had wondered how this would make my children feel and all I could think about were bad possible outcomes. Both of our children had been adopted a few years prior, and both were so young that I was unsure how they felt about the word “adoption”. Would donating time here cause havoc at home? Would “adoption” be a trigger word? How wrong I was. My worries were all for nothing.
What this year of volunteering has done for these children is nothing short of miraculous, and has really taught me a new perspective on “practice makes progress”. You can tell your child how to act, how to behave and the acceptable way to interact. But children learn by doing, and by seeing modeled behavior.
What unfolded over the past year of photography sessions is way beyond what is learned simply by what can be seen in the home with a family pet. Of course you love your pets, they are yours. Your foster/adoptive child may lash out at your family pet because it IS yours, or because the child feels a connection forming and that can feel threatening. The child may even be jealous of your family pet.
However, a pet that needs help presented a completely different story for our family. What does donating time at an animal shelter give/teach your child that your family pet cannot? Empathy and compassion. Your family pet has it made to a child in a foster placement because it has you. The family pet has a home, which is something your foster/adoptive child may not feel they have. They have security. Your pet’s situation, to this child, may be highly enviable. Envy does not evoke empathy. Therefore, for some children, it may be hard to learn empathy from the family pet.
In the year of giving at the shelter, this is what I watched unfold before my eyes. My children had finally found someone or something that knew EXACTLY how they felt. They looked into those animal’s eyes, and understood the loss, confusion and fear. The rows of cats in cages, the kennel full of barking dogs, the lonely bunnies, ferrets and kittens in other rooms. Week after week we went. There were new faces and a few and old faces every week.
They saw first, that yes, there was sadness. It was no small thing to allow our children to see the plight of homeless animals. It also hit a little too close to home for them. We used this as an opportunity to teach them that while there is so much sadness in the world, to not be overcome by it. The adage of, “don’t curse the darkness, light a candle” is the way our conversions around this aspect grew. Yes, it is sad. No, we cannot bring them all home. Yes, we can help by not only spending time with them, but also through creating a beautiful image of them. We also talked to the animals during the sessions, something like, “Oh baby, we are so sorry we cannot take you home, though we are going to do our best to help find the perfect home for you.”
Empowering children in the face of a crisis, teaching them they can do something good is powerful. Teaching them that they can create a huge difference in someone else’s life- this has created a huge difference in their hearts and lives. Compassion. Why were some of these animals here? More empathy, more compassion. More of something they can relate to.
After volunteering there are always times for connection. We would often head out to a meal or a walk to process what we had just seen and experienced. Then, something miraculous happened. They connected. And isn’t that exactly what we are trying to get them to do?
Today, Alexandra is a compassionate young girl. She has made the connection.