Too Sad. Too True. Too Wrong to Continue.
Sometimes the greatest challenge is to honestly witness your life. And in my role as Executive Director of The Justice Project, I wanted to bring back an honest report on some of what I have seen, heard, learned and felt. But rest assured this is not going to be a travelogue. Rather it will be a series of reality snap shots that have deeply touched my life and my heart, and I feel responsible to share this aspect of my work with you.
To lend perspective to what you are about to read, here is the back-story. As a writer, I value the way in which books have been influential in shaping my life, and I believe reading is a portal to a richer life and a view beyond the horizon in any life. While considering the range of just actions for our foundation in the arenas of educational, economic, environmental, and social justice, I was struck to learn that illiteracy remains a significant issue in 21st America. To engage this problem, we created the A Book of My Own initiative. The goal of this program is to provide maltreated children (who suffer from dramatically disproportionate levels of illiteracy) with a new book; one that is chosen specifically for them and has their name written inside the front cover. It is our hope that holding this book instills in children a recognition of heightened self-worth and that their future is in their hands. Because reading is a gateway to education, and with education comes a promise of a better tomorrow particularly for children whose yesterday was a tragedy of broken promises.
To date we have made an impact in the lives of thousands of children who have been victims of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, and/or neglect. These are kids whose parents are often incarcerated. These are kids who are shuffled between foster homes over and over and over again. These are kids whose suitcase is a paper bag. These are kids who feel that they don’t matter. These are kids who are in the stranglehold of poverty, illiteracy, and intergenerational illiteracy. These children are the victims of pain and indifference and are left in the margins of society, without the necessary tools to afford them a sense confidence for achieving success. These children are paying and will pay with their lives, and we as a society are going to be footing the bill in ways we never would have imagined.
There is a boy in Indianapolis who has been shifted between 18 foster homes. His court appointed representative told me the boy’s suitcase was a paper bag until it broke, but “it didn’t matter because,” he said “because the book we gave him was the only item he carried from home to home because it was the only thing that was ‘his.’”
I heard from two different experts working in the offices of elected officials who told me that illiteracy rates in the 3rd grade were the indicators that states were now using as a watermark for how many prisons they had to build in 20 years.
I met a doctor who told me that sex-trafficking victims among foster children and illiterate children had the highest incident in court records. Many of these victims of sex crimes have been implanted with microchips, so that that they can be tracked if they run away from the brutal realities of life inside a sex ring. Others of these children have been tattooed with barcodes, so their “owners” can claim their property.
I met a 15 year old boy who I looked in the eye and told he mattered. He looked back in my eye and started crying, bawling. “No one, no one,” he said to me between sobs, “has ever told me that I mattered.”
I heard a 14 year old young woman whose mother had stabbed her with the sharpened end of a hair brush, but, nonetheless, begged the court to let her go back to live with her mother because “…my mother must have done this because it is my fault.”
I met a man with a huge heart who has been a foster parent to 60 children over 30 years, and of these 60 children, 20% of them have committed suicide –a rate even beyond the mind numbing suicide rates for vets returning from combat. With this figure, it may not be a stretch to say that to be a foster child is like living in the war zone of life.
This is an excerpt from a letter and photo I received from another foster father: “This is my kid ‘Jane.’ She came out of a group home and was my first foster kid. She was ??almost 15 when she came. The other kids told her I accept foster children off the street. She endured a lot as a kid, was half-white and half-Navajo. Her father was one of those who took over Alcatraz and were removed by the FBI. I had a memorial for her on the night after she died….”
I received this note from a beautiful young woman who shyly chose her book with amazement that she could choose and sent me an email when she had finished the book as she promised she would do. “Yea for me! I just got chosen Princess at my school. And my friends think it is so cool that a famous author gave me his email address so I could brag to him about how well I am doing.” When I read this email it was my turn to cry.
I have met hundreds of kids in juvenile courts, in housing projects, and outside of buildings where I was speaking. When I speak with them it is, one on one, and without crowds or baloney. My message is clear: “Look me in the eye. I’m not running for office. I’m not looking for anything.” Then I tap my heart and then theirs. “I just want you to know that you matter. And it doesn’t matter what other people do or say to you as long as you are okay with you. Be good to you and know that this man, this one man, is here to remind you what you must promise to one day remind another kid, that you are great, and God made you great, and you can do anything. Promise.”
Our goal at The Justice Project and with our A Book of My Own initiative in the year ahead is to make a difference in the lives of 25,000 children. To do that and achieve our larger objectives, The Justice Project needs funding of $500,000. And while we have been graced by support from individuals, companies, and foundations, we would be honored in this good work by your help. With your support, kids who never had a chance will not be the victims of chance. All of us know how much a life can be influenced by one thing that one person does for us, and when I say thank you for caring, it is not my voice. I am reed, and the breath of 25,000 kids who you will never meet, is the voice of gratitude.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or others you might suggest who could be an ally, please let me know.