- Kyla Giffin | Cowboy Life Editor, Galleria Editor
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” So said the famous journalist and writer of English literature, Rudyard Kipling.
“We live in a society where we are inundated with horrific stories.” So said Jennifer Harper, the Director of Developing and Marketing at the California foster care and adoption agency, Alternative Family Services (AFS).
Combine these two quotes, and one could be brought to the understanding that, if we were to hear stories of the terrible things that happen in the world, we would not forget them. Rather, they would be carved into our minds with the intricacy of a Greek marble sculpture.
At-risk youth, the topic and massive group of children discussed in my previous article, possess such powerfully devastating stories. And while most of the ones I have gathered are not first-person narratives, due to confidentiality and safety reasons, that should not limit how eye-opening and heart-wrenching the realities of at-risk youth are to readers.
Harper provided several accounts of at-risk children, gathered from social workers at AFS.
One boy was neglected to the point where he “had such bad teeth…that kids at school called him Dracula.” The state would not provide braces for any cosmetic reason. However, Harper continued, someone who worked at AFS got a $5,000 grant to pay for braces for the child.
A six-year-old girl lived in a house that was a hostile environment. This included her mother’s boyfriend killing the girl’s cat by throwing it against a wall. When AFS took her away from the situation and provided care, the foster family the girl was placed with gifted her with a new cat.
The foster youth system also struggled to keep together five siblings that were victims of domestic abuse, until one family took all of them in.
A 14-year-old girl was deserted by her parents, left with all that she owned in a single bag beside her, and had to resort to prostitution while not attending school for a year. She entered the foster system, but it is unknown what happened to her after she left the network at age 18.
Jeff Halbe, an English teacher here at Livermore High, has taught at Del Valle High School, where he not only saw two kids who were severe diabetics, but also saw two kids addicted to oxycodone, an opioid, as well as students who were homeless or “couch surfing.” Though there are likely students with further mental health issues, at Del Valle, at LHS, and at any other schools, Halbe says that “there’s really nothing [he] can do.” He also says, in regards to teachers and staff being taught how to notice and respond to symptoms of an at-risk student, “No, we’re not trained on that.”
“Their job is to teach, and run a classroom,” says Edress Waziri, one of the guidance counselors at LHS. “Their job isn’t to solve those problems.”
Waziri, however, added that teachers are trained to report signs that a student is at-risk, and that it is important for their peers to also report such signs if there is “a legitimate reason.”
“Most at-risk youth try desperately to fit in because they don’t want people to know about their hardships so it can be difficult to identify at-risk youth,” said Harper on at-risk youth seeking help. “Oftentimes it takes a friend or a trusted adult to identify that a youth is in need of help.”
Waziri, however, in an effort to quell at-risks’ students fear of discovery, said they will find that, when they seek help, confidentiality is kept, and unless the child is in danger, no one needs to be informed of what the student is going through and is talking about with their counselor.
Some students who have trouble in a regular high school instead attend alternative schools, such as Vineyard High School. An alternative school, said Waziri, “helps because they don’t require [students] to be there five days a week.”
But are alternative schools the solution needed for our at-risk youth? Is there a solution? And, perhaps the most gnawing question of all: what happens to children who are at-risk if they do not find a solution?
Chuck Leek, 49, lives in San Diego, California. He could be just like any person you meet on the street. But he could also not be. He is a former white supremacist. He utilized Life After Hate, an organization for helping people transition out of white supremacy and overall hatred and anger.
Leek was 19 when he became a part of the white supremacist movement, though he was introduced to it at the age of 16, drawn in by acquaintances who were a part of the movement themselves.
Thirteen years after joining the movement, at the age of 32, Leek left the white supremacist movement because of “disillusionment…constant conflict with supposed ‘comrades,’ [and] going through divorce.”
“I became fed up with the backstabbing and double talking,” said Leek. “Getting away from the people was pretty easy, but leaving the hate inside me behind was difficult and took many years after my exiting the group setting.”
Leek added, about how his life changed, “On the surface, there was a movement away from violence and chaos. Inside I learned what it means to love and forgive, both myself and others.”
What is it then that makes Leek stand out? The fact that he was a former white supremacist? Perhaps. But then, what makes him like an all too vast number of people? Perhaps it is the fact that Leek was an at-risk child. He was a victim of sexual abuse.
“Shame is the emotion I remember most, which developed into rage and self-hatred,” Leek commented on his being sexually abused. “These feelings were then expressed as [hatred] toward others and violence.”
Leek then said, concerning what was done about this abuse, “My mother knew, but other than attending a couple of therapy sessions not much was done. To the best of my knowledge the perpetrator was not reported to authorities.”
While Leek recognized his “involvement in the movement [as being] more than partially due to the abuse,” he does not necessarily blame his antagonizer, taking self-responsibility in saying, “I regret the pain and harm I caused to people around me.”
Watch as the pieces fall into place. What some may see as a problem is a person. What some think of as an outlier is an overly repetitive pattern.
But all is not lost. There is still hope. Maybe that hope does not always lie in what people will do for these at-risk youth, but in the strength some at-risk children have.
Joey Rodriguez, an LHS science teacher, reminisces, “I [once] worked in a summer program with at-risk students.” There, he met a third grade boy who lived with a foster family. Four years later, Rodriguez met him at “an after school program that he was a part of. He grew up to be a respectful, hard working student student despite his living conditions. He was in a foster home and was not well taken care of. I remember him being sent to baseball tryouts without any equipment because his foster parents used the foster care money for personal gain. Despite this, he was still a hard working, caring person who had the brightest outlook on life. He did not let his living conditions ruin his goals to do big things in the future.”
Rodriguez continued on to say, “I don’t know what has become of this student since last seeing him [five] years ago, but I hope he continued to have his bright outlook in life and I hope that he has continued to do well with his education.”
No one could know what a child is going through. No one could know what is going to happen to them, or what has happened to them. But when you have the chance to know the untold stories, do you take it? And do you remember them?
“If history were taught in stories, it would never be forgotten.” Let’s prove Kipling right.
Header Credit: The Bowery Mission