The Complexion of Connection

Today I'm feeling calm and passionate because I just spent two days at our state counseling conference. My learning session on Mindfulness was scheduled from 4:30 to 6 pm yesterday and I wasn't sure anyone would feel like staying that late when they could be enjoying an early dinner on the water in Galveston, but the room was filled with so many lifelong learners, school counselors eager to grow with me. Two of them were my former students, which makes my heart happy. I shared this image from my #JoyfulLeaders friend Bethany Hill as we talked about and then traded out our resentments for our appreciations.

This morning's keynote by Dr. Omekongo Dibinga of UPstander International set us on fire to be that one person who changes the trajectory of the lives of the marginalized students, 
the lost, 
the lonely, 
the listless, 
those who don't come to us with the complexion of connection. 

He told us that schools ought not be places with policies like check your feelings at the door. He reminded us that every day we get to choose what happens inside of us regardless of what happens around us. And he recommended that we let go of our resentments as we appreciate and grow through our experiences. 

Then he encouraged us to care for ourselves because people are counting on us, and we can't serve from an empty vessel. So tomorrow I return to my school family, ready to keep on carrying the baton that prioritizes social and emotional learning for all students. It's always refreshing to be away for a bit, for perspective, for rest and restoration. 

I'm also feeling thankful to be able to share this poignant reflection from a cyberspace colleague across the country. As soon as I read it, I knew I had to ask Amanda if she would share it with my readers. And to my delight, she said yes! Here now, a peek into what caregivers get to do every day as we hold the hearts and invisible backpacks of our most precious treasure, our children.

Holding Backpacks by Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Today, I have chosen to stay in bed
My throat burning with new illness
My head heavy with pressure
This morning, I almost walked out the door anyway--
But I listened to a faint inner voice that said:
“Be Gentle With Yourself”
Words that I so frequently gift to others,
And decided today would be a day that I would
Accept this for myself.
We must take care of ourselves.
And yet, in addition to a virus growing within me,
There is additional suffering multiplying
Exponentially outside of me.
In my professional world, always;
A microcosm of the greater world around us.
As such, at the end of some weeks,
It feels simply too heavy to carry.
As a School Adjustment Counselor
For close to six hundred kids in an urban school,
I am tasked with truly holding the weight of the world
For as many of these children as I possibly can
And yet, it is truly the best job I have ever had.
Each day is a brand new opportunity to
Work like hell to MAYBE make it
So that children feel just a bit lighter each day.
And yet, it’s never that simple.
But I try anyway.
Each day, I get to talk to and listen to these
Complicated kids armed with defense mechanisms
Like steel walls, yet who are still young and unscathed
To search me from head to toe,
For a nugget of support and acceptance.
And so I give just that.
I sit with them, while we knead kinetic sand
And squeeze stress balls, and listen to music
And take deep breaths and let
Vulnerability and compassion
Fill the room with a sense of safety that is essential.
And on certain occasions, with certain kids,
I tell them that one of my abilities
Is that I can see *both* of their backpacks.
I can see the one that holds
Their books and papers,
The ones that most
People know about and can see.
And they listen to me ramble on, often confused,
but always intrigued.
I go on to tell them that I can see the invisible one
That they carry too.
The one that is filled with invisible but very
HEAVY stones.
In my mind I name their stones:
“A loved one overdosed”
“Someone went to jail”
“Your parents are getting divorced
and you are happy because the fighting
will stop but so sad because a lot of things
are going to change”
“You have had a lot of homes and feel unwanted”
“No one talks to each other at your house”
“Alcohol, suicide, self harm, guilt, regret,
self-blame, self loathing, anxiety, pressure,
depression, stress, neglect,
chronic illness, learning disabilities, bullying,
sleeplessness, lack of connection,
shame, shame, shame
.and more”
But to them, I simply say:
“You have a lot of things that are hard for you
in your life. Each of those heavy
stones represents those things.
*And I can see them*
We don’t have to talk about them if you don’t want,
but I do see them.
And I see you struggling to
carry them sometimes. And you are so strong.
Way stronger than you should have to be.
At school, we only need you to carry your regular backpack.
If you want, that invisible one can stay in here with me.”

For these kids, putting on the disguise of
“good student” “kind friend” or “happy kid”
is like trying to put on a strange costume
That is two sizes too small, on top of
An unwanted backpack that is already too heavy.
We can’t wear normal when normal isn’t
Wearing us.
So I tell them plain and simple:
“It is OKAY to not be okay sometimes”.
And I always pair it with:
“But it’s also okay to give yourself permission
to come to school and just be a kid and not
think about anything else.
And allow yourself to feel happy if you want.”
*Because sometimes they need permission*
And usually at first, I smile for them.
But eventually after we’ve connected,
We often smile together.
And smiling with children, that fills me up.
*I will hold your invisible backpack*
Recently, a student asked me
Why the character “Sadness”
From the movie ‘Inside Out’ was my favorite.
(I had forgotten I told him this,
And was a bit surprised that he remembered)
I told him that I believed that
Sadness is an important feeling and
I think a lot of people want sadness to just go away,
But it is a part of life and something we all feel sometimes,
And, I told him, it can be helpful too.
He said “But you’re always happy”
I paused and stayed quiet for a moment,
Thinking of all the things I could
Tell him so that he knew that sadness
Was absolutely a part of my life too.
But instead, I agreed and said,
“Well yes, usually whenever I am at school,
That is when I am my happiest.”
Today, I choose to be gentle with myself,
As I sort out all of the stones that I have collected,
And stretch my weary muscles.
And next week...
*I will find more backpacks to hold*

About the author: Amanda is a Social Worker currently serving as a School Adjustment Counselor in Haverhill, MA. She adores her work with the children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13 and 6) and enjoys spending time with them "taking in" all the beauty and wonder in the world, while at the same time "talking over" the nonsensical parts of life. She has always enjoyed writing as a creative outlet and a coping strategy for staying balanced and whole. She is hoping to publish something one day and can be reached at amandasymmeslicsw@gmail.com

Thank you, Amanda, for your beautiful {heart} work. Keep on crusading for good as you grow alongside others and teach them to take it in and talk it over. 

And now, dear reader, today's challenge: Find that child, with or without the complexion of connection, and offer to help him or her with that backpack for a bit. There's at least one that needs you right now. One lost boy. One lonely girl. One listless child. Carry their backpack. Lighten their load. Be their sunshine.


If I Had My Way

Today I'm thankful because I actually got to sleep in. Until 9:30. And it was glorious. I woke up slowly, lounged around in PJs, enjoyed a sweet latte, jumped onto a tweet chat for a bit, then went on a long walk. The first song that played on my iPod was Linda Eder's haunting ballad If I Had My Way

She wrote it after 9/11, but it still fits today, 
especially after what happened this week in Parkland, Florida.
It has made me reflect on some of the things we take for granted.
On what I think we could do better.
On what our world could be like if I had my way.

If I had my way ... 

We would see all children as our children,
even the ones with mental illness,
{especially the ones with mental illness}
because it truly does take a village to raise a child.
We would serve as healthy role models so that
they all know, embrace, and feel from little on 
that we see them, 
that they belong, 
and that they matter.

We would give our youngest leaders leadership opportunities
so that they know how to lead when the time comes.
We would help them work through angry, hard feelings
by letting them know that it's okay to not be okay
and giving them healthy strategies for emotions expression.
We would make our schools safe zones where
we put social and emotional learning first;
we would remember to focus on nurturing the whole child,
mind, body, and spirit.
We would willingly step into each other's stories,
be kinder to each other on purpose, with intention,
and love unconditionally.

We would honestly care-front one another
and initiate courageous conversations that need to happen.
We would hold one another accountable for their choices
and help each other restore what they've harmed
not just by saying sorry, but by doing sorry.
We would report stuff that doesn't seem right
so that we can work together to fix it and move on.
We would lavishly shower grace and forgiveness
and live and lead with a servant heart.

We would listen to understand more often,
and listen to respond less frequently.
We would comfort one another when they're hurting
and let them comfort us when we're hurting.
We would hug more and give the gift of hope to each other.
We would choose joy and positivity.
We would make gratitude a verb.
We would focus on progress not perfection.
We would work to be a better version of ourselves every day
while we help others do the same.
And we would connect with each other
as if our life depends on it,
because I'm pretty sure it does.

If I had my way, we would hold each other's hearts so close,
as if today were our only chance to get it right. 
We would show and tell people 
what we're thinking, 
how we're feeling,
what they mean to us.
Right now.
Because we never know what tomorrow might bring.

Such an incredible gift today's reflection time has been.

What would be different if you had your way?


Our Empathy Building

Happy Thursday. First, this beautiful collage of gratitude from Germany as a follow-up to our Sweets For Our Soldiers campaign. It makes our hearts happy to see them bathed in our Valentines, support and love.  

Second, this chair.

It just showed up in my office last week. Randomly. Because our handyman Fred noticed that I'd been sitting on a kid-sized chair with no padding and no wheels. The most thoughtful gifts are all about the noticing, aren't they?

Third, please join me in praying for the Parkland community and the Douglas High School family. Their hearts are broken as they try to understand the horrific events that unfolded there yesterday. 

School shootings, says character-education guru and parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba, are preventable. It takes intentional work every single day, 
but it's more than worth it for 
every child that we help, 
every heart that we heal, 
every life that we save.

Enter her newest brainchild, End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy.

Click here for purchasing information at Amazon.
 This comprehensive guide to elevating empathy and positively transforming your school culture is a must for every caregiver, for every parent, for every grandparent, for every person working with and around children of all ages. Use Dr. Borba's 6Rs Bullying-Prevention Process with proven strategies to nurture, stretch and build social and emotional skills and make caring connections a priority woven into the very fabric of your character building.

Click {here} for a freebie download with 45 ways to build empathy and end bullying that Dr. Borba has generously shared.

Want more info? Click {here} for a Q&A with the author to see for yourself that this is a book you will not want to miss. It has my enthusiastic endorsement.


The Kindness Olympics

Happy Random Acts of Kindness Week. We've been on such a kindness kick at school this year that it almost feels like we're training for the Kindness Olympics, as if there were such a thing. We kicked off the year by collecting quarters so that our Student Council leaders could buy some fleece to cut and tie these beautiful blankets to help warm up our friends who are struggling with homelessness. We collected enough quarters to buy the fleece for fifty blankets . . . 

and fill Mr. Whitlock's van for distribution in Houston.

We had just finished with the fleece when we received this incredible donation of blankets from our friends at Warm Up, America!, knit, crocheted, and tied as housewarming gifts for those friends who are just now returning home after Hurricane Harvey displaced them six months ago.

What a delight it has been to distribute this generous gift. Even as I was finding homes for these gorgeous throws, we were busy in Art class creating our Kindness Rocks. Just this past week, this one came in from a school in Racine, Wisconsin.

At the end of January, we welcomed the Kids For Peace Kindness Team . . . 

 to build our Peace Garden and dedicate our Peaceful Hearts Playground. We are so grateful to GameTime, Hasbro, Kind Coins contributors, and our PTO for our new state-of-the-art play space.

Our #kindcoins spokesperson, Jet Stream Jax, has gone on location several times these past few weeks to video chat from the playground with schools who donated to help make our dream play space a reality. It's super fun to watch him interact with other kindness crusaders from coast to coast. 

Before we could even start breaking in our new Challenge Course, it was time to launch our annual Sweets for Our Soldiers campaign. We made these colorful, creative Valentines for our troops in Counseling Classes . . . 

and sent out this request for baked goods.
And did our school family ever respond in kind; just look at this table filled with kindness from our kitchens waiting for our student leaders to put together our priority mail packages.

Thirty six of these care packages are heading to the ten deployed servicemen that we adopted at the time of this post.

And for fun, we cut up our PSA posters like this one . . . 

 and put them in the boxes to give the soldiers a puzzle to build.

We are so grateful to the Friendswood Rotary for their
$500 donation to help defray the cost of postage.

You may think that we're done donating for a while, but just this week I saw some adorable PSA posters being hung in our halls, announcing a Pet Supply drive to help our shelters who are still housing Hurricane Harvey rescue animals. 

See what I mean about the Kindness Olympics? Just imagine if the world were as determined, dedicated, and driven to warm our world with kindness as our olympic athletes are to win a medal for their countries.

I'm so thankful to work in a place where we truly are 
in training for the Kindness Olympics all year long.

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