Last year over 5,000 children were removed from their homes in Bexar County. Each one of those children has a story. Each responded in their own way. Each one set off on a different path. The numbers are tragically huge, and the individual children are often misunderstood.
When children are removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or other unsafe situations, they suffer compounding losses. Not only do they lose family and familiarity, but they often lose their voice – the ability to tell their own story. They become part of a system of legal necessities and automatic consequences. As they are swept into some of the most tumultuous months and years of their young lives, it’s easy to forget that they are children with favorite toys, favorite songs, and best friends – many of which they had to leave behind.
Through music and drama, the students in Christi Eanes’ 7th and 8th grade drama class at Lopez Middle School tried to capture that voice and amplify it for the donors and volunteers at the Roy Maas Youth Alternatives (RMYA) 40th Anniversary Gala on Oct. 15.
RMYA accepts children from the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services, the City of San Antonio, the Family and Youth Service Bureau as well as various County Juvenile Probation Offices. They handle emergency short-term care through their emergency shelter, The Bridge, as well as long term care at the Meadowlands Charter School.
Eanes and RMYA Senior Director of Community and Donor Relations Renee Garvens are both active in the San Antonio theater community and believe in the power of storytelling.
“It’s another way (for kids to share) their needs and their hopes and dreams for the future,” Garvens said.
Garvens often looks for ways to share these stories while protecting the minors’ privacy. Eanes’ drama class agreed to lend their voices and provide a vehicle for the kids in the RMYA system to tell their stories. The RMYA children and teens wanted to speak out against abuse and broadcast their hope for a better future.
Garvens and Eanes knew the Lopez students would benefit as well. Many of them had never been exposed to situations so vastly different from their own. If they could learn to identify with their peers in the RMYA system, the teachers knew that their worlds would be broadened. For some, it may even lead to more inquiries into social justice, nonprofit work, and the network of services needed in a city like San Antonio.
The drama class spent the day collaborating with students at The Bridge. They used a series of dramatic exercises, along with games and ice cream to get the conversations started.
Participation was voluntary. Some kids were eager to share their story and explain how they intended to pursue a better future. Others chose not to participate.
“It was really all over the map as far as the kids willingness to open up to the Lopez students,” Gardens said.
Garvens encouraged the Lopez students to reflect on the importance of that choice.
Students at The Bridge are between ages five and 17. They have been removed from their homes, and are awaiting placement in either a group home, foster care, or waiting to reunite with their families. Most stays are between 30 and 90 days. Depending on the situation, some are still stunned by a dramatic separation. They need to have control over what they share and do not share.
Other children seemed almost comfortable with the instability.
Eighth grader Cara Staffier spent the day with a six-year-old girl, eating ice cream and playing games.
“(Her story) was depressing for me to hear, but she just said it like it was her everyday life,” Staffier said.
The adults in charge helped the Lopez students understand that the children’s nonchalance about their situation and their excitement to see the drama class, which could be mistaken for levity, does not diminish their distress.
They also had a “maturity” that belied their age, according to eighth grader Hannah Randall. She recalled a conversation with one resident whom Randall assumed was her own age, or maybe a little older. She seemed tough, capable, and worldly wise. The girl was 11 years old.
By understanding the way their peers adapt and survive, the Lopez students gained insight into the human side of statistics and news stories.
Eventually, the kids at The Bridge were willing to share more and their age-appropriate vulnerability shone through.
“A lot of them talked about how they missed their parents,” Randall said.
Garvens described the poignancy of blending the two groups, watching kids be kids.
“I had a flash where I couldn’t recognize the difference between my kids and the Lopez kids,” Garvens added.
The class, with the help of The Bridge residents, took direct quotes and anecdotes to compose a dramatic reading, taking the listener through the tough situations – abuse, neglect, homelessness – that led to the children’s removal from their homes. They used a cappella versions of the kids’ favorite songs to set the emotional tone for the longing, fear, and concerns that weigh on the kids as they sit in limbo wondering about their futures.
The students also want to celebrate the optimism of the young people they met at The Bridge.
That’s one of the strengths of the RMYA program, said Eanes, that they do not let those futures remain uncertain. They work with the students to help them set goals for the future, to lift their eyes toward a dream so that they will not be engulfed by their tumultuous present. According to Eanes and her students, the lessons have taken hold.
“They know they can’t change the past, so they might as well change the future,” eighth grader Emma Pol said.
The Lopez students consider their own futures changed by the experience.
Immediately after leaving, they planned a backpack drive for the 120 kids in the RMYA system. They were stunned by stories of kids showing up with their belongings in trash bags, or simply whatever they could hold in their hands.
By their own assessment, the students at Lopez are relatively privileged. They also admit that they may be inclined to forget that in the face of the common adolescent hardships they do face. Hearing the stories of their peers at The Bridge reminded them of the broad spectrum of challenges and made them thankful for the things they have been given.