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Blog: 40 Years of Learning
BY: RONNIE D. KOEHN, PH.D. Staff Psychologist

For forty years, the question of what happens to the children and families at Casa de Esperanza has been and continues to be critical. Less frequently publicized but inseparable is a second question: What happens to everyone who works at Casa?

There is a child in front of you. They are hungry, sick, and scared. No one else is around. It is only you and a hurting child. What do you do?

Your decision to offer help requires courage and sacrifice. Granted, an effort to help a fallen child on the playground get up, dust themselves off and rediscover they are OK is not much of a sacrifice of time or effort, nor does it take a lot of courage. Your response was automatic, thinking nothing of it. But what if the child’s injuries were outside the norm of childhood? What if that child’s behavior and inability to control themself was so severe that the successful ways you previously offered comfort wouldn’t work?

Forty years continue to teach three lessons.

LESSON 1: Every day, we discover new evidence that all of us continue to underestimate the harm done to children we fail to protect.

It takes courage to accept this reality. Courage to accept that prenatal exposure to drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, illness, and malnutrition have permanently altered a child’s brain. Courage to accept that the scars left by neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse will never go away. Yet, it is this acceptance that provides energy for change.

Courage and sacrifice are necessary to face all of the sadness, despair, rage, injustice, and helplessness resulting from the previous failure of the world to protect the child in your care.

LESSON 2: Recognizing that just because all our known, familiar means to comfort a child may not work on the children when they first enter our care does not mean that any child is beyond hope.

If you accept never being able to fix or undo prior damage as true, then what can you offer to make a difference in a hurt child’s life? The answer lies deep within our biology and even deeper in our sense of being, and is found in the simple-sounding act of putting another’s needs above your own. An act that is not simple because it is an act that brings change.

Our biology dictates we need air, water, food, and shelter to survive. Our biology, especially in our earliest moments of life, also requires attachment. The human infant who does not have a protective attachment does not survive. Just as our bodies alert us to these needs through thirst, hunger, being cold, and so on, our biology alerts to our need for attachment through our experiences of loneliness, wanting to be loved, and feeling that we belong and have value. Regardless of age, our being human means we are all yearning for moments of “warm togetherness” when we do not feel alone, empty and afraid. It seems no accident of nature that meerkats, puppies, kittens, and many others sleep in piles. Warm togetherness is an essential part of life for many.

Your actions to put another’s needs above your own are the most explicit demonstration to say to another, “I want to be with you so much I’m willing to change what I do and who I am.”

Children come into our care because their circumstances dominate the disruptive flaw in the availability of the warm, protective togetherness their life requires. Your sacrifice and courage to not turn your back on this child offer a willingness to provide aspects of the warm togetherness missing in their lives.

LESSON 3: All of those who come to Casa contributing to help change the lives of children end up with their own lives changing. The significance of this willingness to change on behalf of the children in our care cannot be overstated, nor is there space in this writing to properly acclaim its meaning.

When we let someone else change who we are, we’re permanently “attached” to them. Casa’s design has allowed us to maintain these connections across generations. Every interaction at Casa de Esperanza has a profound impact. Whether it was a single donation, feeding one infant, or picking up one child who fell on the playground and dusting them off - you unquestionably showed the child they had value, meaning, and deserved to be loved. Our history has also taught us that no matter how brief or trivial any of those moments may have felt to you, your actions gave that child their development, sense of self, way of thinking, and making sense of the world, a life-changing opportunity.

Casa de Esperanza offers many things necessary for life and good health to children: food, clothing, shelter, medicine, enrichment opportunities, etc. Yet, as important as those things are, none compare with what you offer through your actions that demonstrate to the child they belong and are worthy of being loved and capable of loving in return. An offer that can ONLY come from one human heart to another. An offer that, when you make it, changes not only you but all of us.