Updated: Nov 14
Last year at this time, I received a private Facebook message from an individual who was struggling. She was a professional who was concerned about youth but didn't have much time to volunteer or mentor, but after hearing me speak, she felt motivated to do something to help foster youth. I remembered her because we had talked at an event for a while, trying to find something that would work for her schedule.
In the end, she decided to sponsor a foster child for the holidays. Connecting via a church that was near her she decided to sponsor a child and provide gifts and necessities over the holidays. She thought it was an excellent way for her to positively impact a child. She detailed in her message how over several weeks she went to the store, really trying to pick out things that would be perfect for the child she had. She wanted to be thoughtful.
For the particular program that she chose, the exchange did not happen anonymously, but instead, there was a huge Christmas Party held, and you got to meet the "secret admirer" if you will. She couldn't wait. She felt that she had picked wonderful gifts a mix of necessities and "wants" and she couldn't wait for the child to open the gifts.
She arrived early, arranged them just so, and proudly adjusted her nametag. When the child walked in, she was greeted with a smile, and the two sat and chatted, school, homework, the upcoming holiday break. She said she was elated when it was time for the child to open the gifts.
As she handed the first gift over, she felt her stomach drop. The child cautiously opened the present and said thank you as she set it on the table, not paying much attention. She immediately thought that perhaps the child did not like the gift and offered to return or exchange it for the child. The child refuted her attempts. "Perhaps the next one will be better." But the reaction was the same from the child, every time.
She was now writing me because she didn't understand what had happened what she had done wrong. She had so been looking forward to the opportunity to have a positive interaction with a child in need, and this was not what she had hoped.
I read her message to me several times and then asked her to email me. I was buying myself time to respond. I knew immediately why it had gone that way, but I needed to think about the best way to translate to this woman who was trying to do the "right" thing.
I have talked in previous blogs and even in the book about my struggles and difficulties with accepting gifts. I have to work at it. I never feel that I am giving the right amount of enthusiasm that one should. I am always grateful that someone took the time to purchase a gift for me, but I still feel awkward.
I thought on her message overnight. When I woke up, I thought the best approach would be to do some follow up. "Have you talked with the group that put the event on?" You may be interrupting the emotions and feelings about the event incorrectly. I know for me that it is often hard to express myself at the moment, it is awkward and feels forced, because I want to give the person as much satisfaction as I can, but I feel like I'm doing it wrong. Joy is tough for me to share, and perhaps it is with your child as well. I've talked to lots of former foster youth who all say that while they enjoy shopping and picking out the perfect gift for someone else, they find it very difficult to acknowledge or accept gifts from others. In fact, most like me, prefer to avoid those situations. I would do anything to have my birthday wholly forgotten. I do not enjoy having a big deal made out of it.
Perhaps it is because my birthday was forgotten as a child; maybe it is because whenever someone did something for you, there was an expectation for something in return. Perhaps it's my brain's way of telling me that pure joy isn't a brain pathway that I developed and that I should try and live in that space a bit more. It could be guilt as well. I always feel a bit guilty when I receive something, both of do I deserve a gift and what about all the others that don't get anything? I'm not sure, but I do know that gift exchanges are something I struggle with to this day.
We had a bit of back and forth, and eventually, she was able to get resolution. She received a wonderfully handwritten note from her child thanking her for all the beautiful gifts. She also received a phone call from the organization letting her know that they had never seen her child smile so much and that several of the gifts found their way to other children in the home that had not been able to participate in the exchange.
Foster care and trauma are complicated. Children who have experienced these difficult life circumstances do not always behave in the way that we may like; they grow up to be adults who still struggle to express themselves, but I can tell you that your good deeds do not go forgotten or unseen. You perhaps may have wanted to see the child jumping for joy, and their reaction may have been a letdown. However, that doesn't mean you didn't plant a seed of goodness, a seed of hope and isn't that what the Holidays are supposed to be about?
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of the grassroots movement #4600andcounting You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.4600andcounting.org .