Serving in Faith Community in Atlanta, Georgia was my first experience in social work, and though I moved to Georgia--a state I had never visited --with confidence I was making a move God intended for my life, I also had no idea what I was signing up for. Obviously I understood that I would be working at a homeless shelter for young adults, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to accept how much of our kids lives are in God’s hands and out of my control. I didn’t know how challenging it would be to see a young person leave the program full of uncertainty. I also didn’t anticipate how many ways I saw God working in front of me: through me, through my co-workers, and through the kids I served. That move changed me into a person I never imagined I could be, but I am confident I am the exact woman that God intended me to be all along.
My first year with Faith Community I served as a Residential Advisor in the crisis shelter for our youth at Covenant House Georgia (CHGA). CHGA housed approximately 50 youth in the shelter each night, so I was used to seeing all the clients enrolled in the program during my shift. Part of my routine became walking around the gym in the afternoon when I got to work to say hello to each of the kids and ask them how their day was. There was a client who stayed at CHGA for a few weeks who I will call Adam. I remember when I would say hello to Adam he always seemed surprised that I was talking to him, like he was uncertain what my motivation was. I never pushed him far to talk, usually leaving it as “how is your day going? Okay that’s good see you around.” I don’t remember having many conversations with Adam beyond the surface level, but I still said hi to him each shift in an attempt to provide consistency in what he could expect from me.
A few weeks after he arrived, he left the program to stay with a friend. I remember being worried about his safety, but one of the principles of our program at Covenant House is giving our young people choice. No one is mandated to stay at Covenant House and youth in the program have already been abused and exploited by enough adults who should have protected them. We aim to work with our clients to place the power back in their hands as far as what their goals at Covenant House are and what their next step will be. It’s not so much difficult watching our kids make their own choice to leave the program, but what is difficult is not knowing if you’ll see them again any time soon. We don’t know how they’re doing unless they stop into our day services or call to talk to staff. The best lesson I learned was to trust that God saw fit to bring these children to the doors of Covenant House, so I had faith that He would continue to protect them and bring them back to Covenant House if they needed shelter again.
A few months after Adam left my first year of service ended and I moved from Atlanta to Manhattan to start my second year of service on the Youth Development Team at Covenant House New York (CHNY) to focus on arts programming. In the first week or two of my service in New York I was entering information on our computer system and saw Adam’s name on a list of clients residing in the shelter. I wondered if it could be the same person, but figured the site was so large the chance of it being Adam was slim in an organization serving over 200 people every day.
That evening I walked into dinner and saw Adam sitting in the cafeteria. He smiled when he saw me and waved me over from across the room. I realized I had never seen him smile before. He told me about how things with his friend in Georgia didn’t work out, so he moved back to the city to be with his family and how he ultimately decided to come to CHNY. He asked me how I had come to be at CHNY and I explained that I transfered sites but that I didn’t work in the shelter anymore. It was the longest I had ever heard him talk before. What struck me most about our conversation was that when he saw me he didn’t hesitate to wave me over. I had never seen him seek out a staff member like that, and even though I knew Adam already, I knew I was seeing a different side to him.
I didn’t work in the shelter anymore, so I didn’t see Adam every day, but it was nice to be reminded of my work in Atlanta. Leaving a smaller program to come to a site as large as New York was more difficult than I had imagined. Saying goodbye to the youth in Atlanta was difficult because I had thought my part in their story was over. I never expected to see any of those clients again. When I did see Adam it was usually as he was leaving dinner since my office is near the cafeteria. Just like in Atlanta, I would ask him how his day was going, and this time he was honest. He would tell me about his job hunt or issues he was having with his girlfriend and I felt I was starting to see more of who Adam was --certainly more than he had revealed in Atlanta. Adam seemed to have difficulty trusting people, and I perhaps it was easier to talk to me because I was a familiar face.
The clients we serve at Covenant House are so diverse that there is no one story that could capture what it is to work with our youth, but Adam’s story has a lot of themes that circulate our work with these kids. He came back to Covenant House when I least expected it (and in a city I never expected to see him in) and even though I didn’t notice it in Atlanta, he must have seen something trustworthy in me. It’s not as though he learned to trust adults because I said hi to him every day for a few weeks, but there was something that made him call me over in the cafeteria. Maybe he just wanted to talk to someone he already knew and that someone just so happened to be me, but he didn’t have to call me over.
I didn’t do anything remarkable for Adam’s life, but I was there for both of his stays at Covenant House. Our work isn’t about saving children (though I truly believe we see our young people save their own lives), but about being present and paying attention.
Our youth don’t always let us know in ways we see that they appreciate the effort we put in, but part of this work is trusting that we are doing God’s work by planting seeds that will stay with them when we don’t see their progress anymore. Today I don’t know where Adam is, but I trust that if he needs us he will come back through our doors. And if he doesn’t, I trust that God is protecting and safeguarding him. The hardest part of this work for me is the uncertainty of our youth’s lives when they are no longer in our care. And the only way I know how to deal with that anxiety is to leave my burdens at the cross, because I trust that I have a loving God who is intentional and is protecting the kids I care for so deeply.