A little over two years ago, I was sent to south Louisiana to work disaster food stamps in Houma for nine days following Hurricane Isaac. Two of my coworkers were sent with me along with about fifteen others from our region within the department. One child welfare worker, Rhonda, was sent on this trip and she was a relatively new employee – only about four or five months under her belt – in a smaller, outlying parish and she didn’t know a soul in the group.
Our roommate assignments got messed up in a major way. I had intended to be roommates with my new friend, Renva, whom I had met about a week earlier when we worked a local shelter due to the same hurricane. Well, Renva got paired with Rhonda and I got paired with Mrs. Amelia Johns. I vividly remember standing at the hotel front desk with Renva when we found out we were the last two to be assigned and saying, “Who the heck are Rhonda McGraw and Amelia Johns?” It was a bit awkward sharing a hotel room with an absolute stranger. Mrs. Amelia Johns and I bonded over the train wreck that is Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and the fact that our Boxers came from the same Boxer dad. Mrs. Amelia Johns has Sayid’s half-brother, Champ! Rhonda really had no choice but to share a room with a complete stranger since we were all strangers to her. Suffice it to say, it all worked out wonderfully. After a few days, a group we called “The Dream Team” hightailed it to New Orleans with hopes of more hours and we all got our own rooms in Houma. We also got some new friendships. Our new friends found out that The Dream Team took off with the van they’d been riding in so we made room in ours. I remember having some good laughs with our new friends, Rhonda, Mrs. Amelia Johns, and Mrs. Chris. Our van became crowded with the extra passengers, but boy, did we have fun. There were a few laughing-so-hard-it-hurts type of moments.
We returned home and were sent two days later to Baton Rouge for another week of disaster food stamps. The vast majority of our department was sent to Baton Rouge, so my longtime friend, Valerie, also went. Rhonda, Valerie, and I were each at sparsely populated hotels without any of our friends and Valerie was one of the employees who drove her personal vehicle. A lot of people chose to work double shifts, but the three of us only worked one shift – around 5:00 AM until 1:00 PM, if I’m remembering correctly. I require more than four hours of sleep per night. Once we were driven back to our respective hotels after our shifts, we usually took naps and then Valerie would pick each of us up and the three of us would go eat together. We all got along so well that we planned to take a trip to New York City together the following fall. Rhonda ended up getting a different job and moving to Arkansas so it didn’t work out for her to come to New York with Valerie and me, but we had planned for over a year to go visit Rhonda one Saturday in Arkansas.
It finally happened. This past Saturday, Valerie and I drove to Monticello to visit Rhonda. She works at the Arkansas Baptist Children’s Home as a case manager, but on this day, she was filling in as relief for the house parents over the middle school girl’s house. We spent all day with eight middle school girls. Then Rhonda’s daughter joined up in early afternoon and we had nine.
Have I mentioned that I love that age group? I’ve always loved middle schoolers. They’re in that awkward phase where they’re still happy-go-lucky, but also in transition. I think they’re very impressionable at that age and I think it really means something for someone to give them the time of day. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day around these girls at the children’s home. They were really good kids. They were polite and well-mannered. They got along remarkably well. They were sweet and energetic and funny. They were generous towards each other.
After they did their chores and cooked lunch (frozen burritos, taquitos, and tater tots), we all loaded up in the big fifteen passenger van and Rhonda drove us to a few places to shop. They sang along to the radio, sang songs that were not on the radio, and made typical silly teenager comments to each other. They tried to squeeze extra shopping time out of Rhonda. They wrapped up their outing with frozen yogurt. On the way back to their house, I was personally invited by the most outgoing of the girls to come be their relief sometimes. I told her I didn’t live there & she simply suggested I move there. Then she moved on and made the same suggestion to Valerie – “How about you? Come on. You know you like kids.” Valerie’s matter-of-fact response was, “No.” She also suggested we come back another weekend, spend the night, and go to church with them on Sunday.
Before we left to head home, about half a dozen girls ran down the hall to give us hugs. Valerie and I walked out to my car talking about how much fun we’d had. We didn’t really want to leave. Valerie admitted she was a little unsure about spending the day with a bunch of kids, but it turned out being a great day. If it had been elementary aged kids, I would have felt the same, I’m sure. But middle school? I love middle schoolers. Goodness, it was fun.
That day got me thinking. For one thing, I’m so glad these girls have Rhonda in their lives. Rhonda is a very fun, very laid back person, but they absolutely respect her. It was obvious they love her. She’s the perfect person to be working at a children’s home.
For another thing, it made me think of when I used to help with the youth group at church. I enjoyed it. I liked the middle schoolers when they drove some others nuts. During that time of helping with the youth, I found the little brother I never had – Matt. He is now a successful college graduate who is about to start his career in New York City. Matt stands out because he’s so special to me, but there were several kids who I think and hope I was an encourager to during those years. It seems a lot of people are drawn to the younger kids and tolerate the preteens. It’s different for me. The younger ones make me a bit nervous. The middle schoolers are my crowd. (No comments are needed regarding my maturity level, thankyouverymuch.)
I thought about how if I lived in the Monticello area, I’d be all about being a relief worker for those girls. But, alas, I’m not looking to move. But surely there’s something I can do, right? So I’m now thinking about Big Brothers Big Sisters. Maybe that’s something I could do. I have one friend who is involved in this in his area and he’s told me a little about it. If anyone else does this, please tell me your story. I’m interested.
I thought about how I’ve got these Compassion kids in other countries whom I’ve formed friendships with. I love these kids. I make it a point to encourage them and they encourage me right back. Can’t I also be an encourager to a kid right here at home? Surely there are some who need it.
I think there are always things we can do to help others and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in whatever is going on in life and ignore the possibilities. Last Saturday my eyes were opened a bit and I feel incredibly thankful that I got to spend the day with Rhonda, Valerie, and a bunch of middle school girls. The wheels are turning.