While waiting at the Ronkonkoma train station, a man in his thirties, built like a football player, approached me and said, "Father, do you remember me?" He was beaming from ear to ear. It took me a moment, but I did recognize him by his grin. However, I must admit I was a little reluctant to call him by name. Over the past thirty years I have had thousands of students in my classes and thousands more who have lived at Hope House on Main Street in Port Jefferson.
My pause seemed like an eternity, but within a few seconds I was able to retrieve his name along with countless memories of the two years he shared life with us. CJ was living in Jersey City. He came out to Ronkonkoma to visit some extended family members. A cousin he was close with growing up had been in a serious accident.
The hour plus ride to Penn Station seemed to pass in an instant. CJ talked non-stop. He spoke about his life, where he came from, where he was, where he is and where he hopes to be in the future. He was excited to share that he was working in a hospital, hoping eventually to go into nursing. Presently he is number six in line for the Fire Service in Jersey City.
His enthusiasm was contagious. He was very excited about his potential career paths. He acknowledged that it took him a little longer than he had hoped to get there, but he was grateful that he has finally committed himself to a direction. He spoke about how the last dozen years have really helped him to grow and mature as a person. He was proud to confess that he has never done drugs or been arrested.
He admitted that there were months when he had lived hand to mouth because he did not have much of an education beyond high school. However, even though his material resources were at times very impaired, he always found time to volunteer for the local ambulance corps and the local Boys and Girls Club.
CJ admitted that he learned the value of giving back while he lived at the house and was in high school. He was very grateful to be able to express that on our train ride since he had lost touch with us over the years.
However, he said what was most important to him was that he re-claimed his self worth when he came to live with us. He talked about the dysfunctional family he was born into. His mother was and is today an active drug user. From his earliest memories, he recalls being constantly moved from one foster home to another. Oftentimes he was physically abused and neglected. When he did go into a good home, he was afraid to get close for fear if he did he would be moved again. Thus, close relationships have always been hard for CJ.
HUGS and other leadership and community building programs in high school helped CJ to work harder on his interpersonal relationships. In his sharing, he expressed amazement as to how he still connects with people from his high school days, even though he lives a few hundred miles away.
As our train pulled into Penn Station, CJ thanked me for listening, but as he gave me a big bear hug, he thanked me for the opportunity that he feels saved his life, even though he is not where he really would like to be.
I expressed my gratitude that our paths had crossed again and reminded him that we are all works in progress. It is not about perfection, but rather progress is moving forward. CJ is really moving forward and that what was so refreshing to see that day on the train.
On my trip home, I thought a lot about CJ and so many guys his age who have had to struggle with life. They did not ask to be born into the mayhem they were forced to deal with, but nonetheless they had to find a way to survive. Some did more than survive, others barely survived and unfortunately some did not make it at all.
Over the years I have met young people from each group. It amazes me that so many young people who have been dealt such a lousy hand learn how to transform their lives and become productive, life-giving human beings. I realize that the transformation takes place because they have a positive sense of self and along the way that sense of self is either strengthened or impaired.
It is saddening to see the growing number of young people who are born into adverse circumstances and never get the chance to really live. At a very early age they are damaged by very disturbed adults and can't seem to recover. Their sense of self is so damaged that they see no real purpose in trying to become anything. Too many just give up before they have even lived.
In the last number of months there has been much written about the growing gang activity in Suffolk County. Many of us want to believe that it is a problem that just exists in our cities. If the truth be told, it is a serious social concern that is becoming epidemic around the country. No community is immune.
Much of the literature about gangs centers around why they have grown so rapidly and why they are so strong.
The profile of the average gang member is a young person seeking a place to belong and people to be connected to that love and care for them.
Their bond of loyalty and commitment is hard to fathom. It is motivated by wanting to have a family to belong to.
Most of these young people have had their sense of self and self worth really damaged. Unfortunately, the gang gives them a place to belong, where they are made to feel like they are important and worthwhile, even if it pushes one to engage in negative behavior.
Too often we damage our children's self esteem and self worth by what we do and say or by what we fail to do and say. Teenagers need to be held accountable and responsible for the choices they make. They also need to be affirmed for the good things they do.
Negative reinforcement is infectious and often destructive. As adults, sometimes we don't see how damaging this infection can be.
Sometimes just a kind word can make all the difference.