My youngest daughter is beginning Kindergarten this year. She is excited, but a little nervous, as she prepares for this new grand adventure, filled with growing responsibilities and a charge to be a big girl. We can sense and clearly see that she is both filled with a sense of boldness, new kitty cat backpack and all, and battling a growing fear of the unknown. Just the other day she told her mother and me that she wants to be a baby again. While she answered, when pressed, that she wanted to stay home with mommy and daddy, I knew what she was longing for. It’s the same thing we all long for: peace. She wanted to stay where life was safe and secure and not venture out into the unknown.
Peace, it’s that illusive feeling that everything is all right, that the world is not spinning out of our control and that we can let our guard down and rest. My daughter didn’t know how to express the anxiety that she feels with changing schools, but she knows how it feels. Today, she is surrounded by friends she has known for the last few years and has teachers, in VPK and childcare, that she trusts. In just a few weeks she will be stepping out and beginning a new adventure in life. In this time of unrest, it is very important that we, her parents, instill a sense of peace that this journey will be safe as well as challenging.
From experience, I know that one of the factors that can make peace hard to hold on to is the number of changes that one is facing. It seems like most of us can handle one or two changes at a time, but beyond that the complexity of life and the instability of the future weighs heavily upon us — especially if one or more of the changes are significant, i.e. employment, housing, family relations. While this is true in the lives of adults as we often feel the weight of the world upon our shoulders, it is not only true, but much more damaging, for our children. When life is filled with insecurity, the development and wellbeing of children can be dramatically affected.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the lives of those children who experience homelessness. As my family begins preparing for the new school year, there are a large number of families that can barely begin to think about the coming year because for them a month is a lifetime away. Not only are their children right now, living in shelters, bouncing from couch to couch or forced to sleep in their cars, but there will be children and families that experience homelessness all throughout the school year. Every year, as reported by the Broward County School Board Homeless Education Program, there will be over 3,500 school age students who experience homelessness.
For these children, there is no peace. Their little lives are marked by uncertainty and constant crisis. With the vast majority of homeless families being single mother households, the family experience is filled with tragedy and hardships including physical and sexual violence and abuse, isolation and the cumulative effects of persistent poverty and stress. As a result, the children who experience homelessness are much more prone to encounter mental, physical, social and emotional trauma and developmental deficiencies. As a result, these children have more than double the rates of anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior than other children. They do not have peace in their lives.
For all of my three kids, school is a manageable challenge because their home life prepares them to face it. They have a stable home, enough food and sleep, and all the physical necessities to be able to focus on learning and growing. These very basic things are not there for the families facing homelessness. These families, on average, moves three times during a single year, many times from shelter to shelter. These moves are all accompanied with the lack of food security and the ability to find restful sleep. As a result, over 80 percent of these children perform below grade level and they are four times more likely to score at or below the tenth percentile in vocabulary and reading.
Give hope to a family in need
Yet, despite these challenges, there is hope for the many children that will experience homelessness this year. There are efforts that our community is doing to ensure that all children are given the opportunity to succeed and there things that each of us can do to make a difference. While the home life of these children may be changing and unstable, the school board bus system ensures that children can stay in their school of origin. That means that as the family may move multiple times, the children get to stay in the same school that they began the year in. This is just one way that a child’s life can have stability.
This year, many of you will hear challenges from the various homeless and foster care organizations that they need back to school supplies. I challenge you to use this as an opportunity to teach your family about the need in our community. As you fill the list for your children, think about filling the needs for another child that will be starting school unprepared. Consider offering your time to a local school as a tutor or a child mentor and get involved with agencies that provide housing for families and children. Every little act goes a long ways towards providing peace.
Ultimately, those that are reading this know that the only true and lasting peace comes from knowing and loving Jesus Christ. It is precisely during the times of unrest and uncertainty that we can have comfort in the loving arms of Jesus, knowing that He is ultimately in control. We can have a peace that surpasses all human understanding because of His love for us. If Jesus wants that for all of us, how much more does he want us to be His hands and feet for the children in our community that need His peace.
*Stats and information taken from Homelessness and its Effects on Children, prepared by Ellen Hart-Shegos for the Family Housing Fund, 1999.
Robin Martin is executive director of HOPE South Florida, a non-prof- it organization serving homeless and hurting individuals and families through partnerships with churches and community services. He is also a veteran of the U.S. Army and served in the Bosnia Peace Keeping Mission. He can be reached at [email protected]