jumpingforjoyMy joy of traveling full time for my job has been tempered lately by the children we meet on a regular basis. I have a dream job working as a “Sole Ambassador” for the shoe charity Soles4Souls. Last year my husband and I hit 33 states in our RV, distributing new shoes to people in need. In between, we have plenty of time to visit every major attraction in the area as well as the most obscure museum imaginable. (Antique Sewing Machine Museum, anyone?)

We visit children living in group homes for abused children, foster children whose foster parents yell at them and young adults who aged out of the foster system and suddenly find themselves all alone. Instead of coming into a room with confidence and a feeling of, “Hey cool. I wonder what’s going to happen now?” they arrive sullen and withdrawn.

My husband, the perpetual clown, always goes into a routine where he pretends he can’t pull off the child’s shoe to check the size. He grimaces, groans, falls back on his knees and displays Herculean strength in an attempt to take the shoe off. Do this with a group of middle class kids from stable homes and kids giggle and totally get into the act.
When Allan performs his same shtick with foster kids, they usually stare with a blank expression. A few muster a weak smile if they understand he’s joking. For most of these kids, parents and case workers aren’t seen as funny, light-hearted people. Their lives are filled with fear and despair rather than understanding that some adults act silly while taking off shoes.

Seeing Children without Joy
newshoesAccording to the Dave Thomas Foundation for adoption, 123,000 children are in the foster care system. We met a beautiful 17-year old girl at a well run group home for abandoned children. She arrived at the home when she was 10, so basically her entire childhood took place without a family.

Sure, adults were there to help with homework, see that she’s fed and gets to Girl Scouts. But where was the parent to give that special good night kiss? Who made sure her birthday was extra special? What adult took the time to listen to the umpteenth knock-knock joke…and laugh each time? As we chatted with her, we found out she had never traveled more than 15 miles from the group home. She’s never been on an airplane or stayed in a hotel in a new city. She had the basic necessities of life, but never experienced the thrill of traveling and discovering news sights, food and experiences.

Just yesterday we gave away new shoes to foster children in a major city. A man came in with two boys around the age of 9. “These are foster kids”, he said gruffly. “They need shoes.” I smiled at the boys and asked their names. No response. “Tell her your names,” he ordered. I gave him an irritated look and said, “Why don’t you sit over there so I can get the boys the shoes they need?”

stackingI brought some shoes over to the boys and asked, “Which one of these do you want to try on first? It’s up to you.” They sat there, motionless. Thinking I had given them too many choices, I held up a brown pair of shoes and a blue pair. “Which one of these shoes would you like to try on?” One boy shyly pointed to the blue pair.

Throughout the whole experience, they spoke only in monotone short sentences. Nothing I did provoked even a glimmer of a smile. When they were done, the man they came with said, “You can’t wear those shoes now. Take them off and put on your old shoes.” They reluctantly put on their ragged, too-tight shoes and walked off, heads hanging down as if the weight of the world rested on their shoulders.

We’ll continue to visit group homes for sexually abused children and shelters for battered women with their children. At each location, we bring out the children to see a map of the United States pasted on our RV. We add a colored sticker each time we cross into another state. As they look at the map, we explain the joys of traveling to see the giant Redwoods, the Atlantic Ocean and the Grand Canyon. Our goal is to give them hope of seeing a world beyond their group home or shelter. Hopefully we also can give them a few minutes where adults smile at them and a silly man falls backward trying to take off their shoes. 
Visit me at:  www.silvanaclark.com. Check out Silvana’s latest book, Fun-Filled Parenting: A Guide to Laughing More and Yelling Less, available at your favorite bookstore or on Amazon.