In chapter six of Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption by Katie Davis and Beth Clark, Katie describes how her experiences with two children, Sumini and Brenda, profoundly changed her understanding of what she was to be doing in Uganda. Sumini would become part of Katie’s family; Katie ministered to and prayed for Brenda while the child was dying in the hospital. Brenda “miraculously” recovered and was sent home; Katie never saw her again.
Wham! Suddenly I’m 37 years back in time, in a completely different culture that what Katie is describing, and yet…
In 1974, my wife and I moved to Houston from Beaumont, Texas. I had gotten a job at the headquarters of a big Fortune 500 oil company while she finished her journalism degree and worked at the Houston Chronicle. Over the next year or two, I became interested in doing volunteer work, and through a voluntarism program at my company, I eventually connected with Cambio House, a residential facility for emotionally disturbed children.
The children ranged in age from 6 to 12. There were never more than 10 or so at a time. Each child had his or her own room. The children lived there, went to school there, ate there and played there. Their emotional disturbance was officially classified as mild. The more severe cases were assigned to another facility.
My job as a volunteer was the provider of field trips. For good behavior during the week, the children got to go on Saturday field trips. The staff maintained a chart of points, and if enough good behavior points were accumulated, the child got to go on a field trip. It was a big deal – it was often the children’s only experience outside the home each week.
We took trips to the zoo, to Hermann Park, to the movie theater – whatever might be on the staff’s approved list. Some weeks I might have five or six kids; some weeks two or three; and some weeks, none at all. On those Saturdays, I worked with the staff inside the house. They were not fun days. The kids would be angry and sullen, and sometimes destructive. Temper tantrums were common. So was screaming. It could be ugly.
I was allowed to read the children’s admitting files, and the reading was grim. I read stories of child abuse, child prostitution, and abandonment. It seemed impossible for these stories to be happening with the shadow of downtown Houston, then often referred to as the “golden buckle of the Sunbelt.” The place was awash in money, oil money, and yet here were the stories of children abandoned, abused and forgotten.
One little girl, whom I will call Sophie, was 10. She had been brought to the home after police found her and her mother living on the streets. She took care of her mother, and provided for their food. She often secured leftovers from garbage cans. When they needed money, well, let’s say Sophie knew how to earn it. Her mother was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and her parental rights given to the state by the courts. Sophie bounced around the foster care system, and ended up at Cambio House.
She was small for her age, blond-haired and knew more profanity than most adults. Adults were people you didn’t trust, who took advantage of you and hurt you.
Keep in mind that Sophie was considered a mild case of emotional disturbance. When she lost control, which was often, she was a terror. She might have been small, but she could do serious damage.
Sophie rarely accumulated enough points to go on field trips. But for whatever reason, I came to represent something for her. Perhaps it was because I was associated with fun things, or because I wasn’t there all the time. I did see her in one of her tantrums from time to time, but it was rare. Even the staff noticed she tended to be on best behavior around me.
We’d read together, talk, play games. She drew a picture of me and my wife that I still have, filed away in a cabinet in our basement. The day she gave it to me, I understood what I represented to her. I was hope.
And then one Saturday, I showed up as usual, and discovered that Sophie wasn’t waiting like she always was. I went to her room and found it stripped bare. Sophie was gone. Her behavior had gone from mild to severe in one fell swoop that week, a tirade had turned to serious physical destruction, and she had attacked one of the staff members. She had been sent to a residence home in the woods of East Texas.
I never saw her again. If she is still alive today, she would be 47. Did I make a difference in her life? I don’t know. I hope so. I hope she made it.
But I know what motivates Katie Davis in Uganda.
Next week, I’ll continue the discussion of Kisses from Katie with the story of Joe, another of the children at Cambio House.
To see more posts on this chapter of Kisses from Katie, please visit Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact. Jason and Sarah Salter are hosting our discussion of the book.