Youth Involvement Saved My Life

I am in the second row, with my older brother over my shoulder and my younger sister below me. This was at a church where we grew up.
I am in the second row, with my older brother over my shoulder and my younger sister below me. This was at a church where we grew up.

Big raindrops pounded on the windshield as my little sisters laid next to me. There were three of us packed into the backseat underneath a crunchy old blanket in the darkest nighttime. I didn’t know where we were, but that didn’t matter when I woke up to one of them sobbing. I looked out and saw a solitary streetlight shine across the road, and I wondered what we were doing the next day.

Three road weary kids and their mom and dad packed into a late 1970s sedan, white on the outside and dark burgundy on the inside. While we drove, my eight-year-old hands picked at the tar along the window’s edge that was soft and gooey from the hot sun. We had been on the road for weeks after following the strict edict that “if it doesn’t fit in the trunk it doesn’t come along.” Once the tar smeared on my stuffed cat, my only prized possession. Things are meager for kids who are homeless for years at a time.

Eventually our car broke down three times in a week, twice from car accidents and once from being too old, and we stayed in that city somewhere in Middle America. Living in roadside motels with Formica countertops and pink-tiled showers, my young mind struggled with the realities we faced. Anxious to flex my skills, I made a sign for the front door of our motel room that said, “Adam’s Advertising.” I was excited to draw and I knew people would pay me to help get people to buy into their ideas with my great presentations, whether drawing or talking. The sign only stayed there for a day, but the intention stayed for a long time afterwards.

After we landed, I tried getting a job as quickly as I could. I wanted money to buy toys and I wanted to share with my parents. Quickly my parents told me why I had to use my sister’s social security number, along with why my dad lied at the border about my family’s citizenship and why it felt sneaky when we traveled home to Alberta, Canada. It turned out that I didn’t belong in the United States, but with some workarounds nobody would know.

There were stays in “extra” rooms in peoples’ houses, then an old mobile home in a trailer court. My mom wanted more for us though, at least to live in a neighborhood with real neighbors, sidewalks, streetlights and curbs. After a while, we moved into a house with separate rooms, a basement and a yard.

From the time that I was 9 to the age of 12, I worked as a door-to-door salesman with my dad selling vacuum cleaners. I hung flyers with him too and helped on his handyman jobs. He was a Vietnam veteran struggling with severe PTSD and just beginning his road to recovery from alcoholism. Constantly struggling to get and keep jobs, I reveled in the times he referred to me as his “right hand man” instead of being his kid.

All of that fed my insatiable desire to do things. Next, I worked as a newspaper delivery boy, booming my route from 30 papers to 140 deliveries by selling subscriptions door-to-door. Our neighborhood was constantly in strife though, transitioning after desperate white flight sent middle class white families to other areas in the city. Racism filled the air, and collective depression held back many of the working class and poor families I lived with to struggle hard. The young people around me were deep in those struggles, and my family’s challenges keeping on the lights and water as well as keeping food in the cupboards made us comrades with a lot of people around us. We were seen as the successful family though, with the anomaly of being white and having both parents at home leading a lot of my siblings’ friends to regard our house as their second home. That didn’t keep us away from drug use, alcohol abuse, street fighting or gangs though. Along with working in my early teens, my tendency to steal small things grew bigger over the next few years. My appetite to be heard grew too, and I graffitied more than ever and tried to be an artist.

School offered me little hope as a young man. Starting in the fifth grade I was suspended regularly for misbehaving, including talking and fighting and laughing all the time. Eighth grade gave me a respite when my art teacher invited me to join the junior high mime show. Starring in 21 out of 25 skits, it was the first time I led something so vibrant and had so many people watching me. Soaking up the adoration and appreciation, I wanted to continue but was kept from the next production because of my grades. This didn’t motivate me; instead, it drove me further away from school and my peers there. I hung out in my neighborhood more, striving for real connections that made sense. I found those connections—but oftentimes they didn’t make sense to anyone looking in from the outside.

By the time I was in high school, my parents started taking me along in things they were involved with. Dad helped unload the van for the neighborhood food bank where we frequently got food, and mom was involved at the elementary school. I began unloading the van and mom signed me up to be the school’s first Santa Claus in 25 years. Wearing a musky old Santa suit wasn’t like guarding half-built Habitat for Humanity houses that Dad and I would sleep at to keep the site safe from theft, and it wasn’t as tedious as hand-editing the newsletters my mom made for the PTA. When I asked why we did all this, Dad said, “It’s just what we do.” That became my ethos.

I got my first job working with youth when I was only 14 years old. Early that summer, a guy Mom worked with came to our house and asked me to be his assistant over the summer. Asking him what I would be doing, he replied that I’d be teaching drama to little kids. “I don’t know anything about teaching,” I protested, to which he replied, “You’ll come and watch me and figure it out as we go along.” When I continued saying, “I don’t know anything about drama,” he said, “Adam, you’re 14—you know a lot about drama!” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was funny and charismatic though, and I went with him. For the next three summers we taught drama to low-income young people throughout the community. At the end of our time together, I decided that I wanted to be just like him, charismatic and funny and well-regarded. That set the trajectory for my career.

Extracting myself from the claws of the criminality, gang culture and violence around me, I started going to more and more activities in our neighborhood. First was Scouts, then church youth group at the big old Gothic building on the corner, then was the neighborhood council, and so much more. I eventually found reprieve at school in the marketing club and debate—but my grades rarely rose again. When I earned my Eagle Scout award dozens of people surrounded me with their love and support; when I graduated high school, I became the only one of my siblings to do it on time. This was before the era of quantifying ever contribution, so I can only estimate the hundreds of hours I volunteered to serve my community in so many ways.

Whether it was creating a youth council for the youth-serving programs in my neighborhood, writing a column or delivering a speech for the church newsletter, becoming a leader for the city’s youth in my church, or sitting in the neighborhood association meetings to learn more, I thrived in these opportunities for youth involvement.

By the time I was an adult, I actively choose to be involved in my community in positive, empowering ways rather than detract from it in other ways people said I was destined for. Engaged as a teacher, promoter, volunteer, servant leader, advocate, and much more I became determined to share these experiences with other young people who were like me. Today I continue my efforts through the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement. Over the last 20 years of this effort, my work has evolved from training young people, writing articles and teaching adults morphed to speaking at conferences, building networks, developing strategic partnerships, and designing collective approaches to systems change, and much more.

I’m still working to reach myself as a kid: a poor border-crossing homeless kid who is struggling to find their purpose and place in the world. An inspired young person who caught a spark and wants to help others light their fires. Someone who has learned to teach, train, speak, write and consult, and who wants to teach, inspire and challenge others to do the same.

More calmly now and with a reserved fire, I am determined to build the desire and abilities of others to call for interrelated, intergenerational partnerships throughout society. I want to move further away from the spotlight and position more people more powerfully to be in the center working for change and challenging the status quo. Most importantly though, I am working to sustain this effort to recognize, uplift and expand youth involvement. It saved my life, and I know it can save others, too.

You Might Like…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s