Aug 162010

I stopped watching the weather forecast a month ago.  That is when the weatherman said the dreaded words:

heat dome

In Oklahoma, we know what that means.  It means that a high pressure system is sitting right on top of us.  It means that the atmosphere has a lid right over our heads, a lid that allows the sun’s rays to find their way in but never out.  It means that you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, or cook dinner on your car hood if you wanted to. 

Heat.  Pressure.

His shoulders slumped slightly, as if he carried the world on them.  Quiet at first, but when I asked about his younger siblings, he spoke up, telling humorous stories about his attempts to keep them somewhat out of trouble.  The conversation shifted to his dad, and the quiet returned.  Alcoholic, violent, angry.  When dad was awake, the kids hid.  In their rooms, the garage, under the porch.  One day a neighbor saw the kids playing and brought them some lemonade.  A conversation started.  Over time, they felt safe.  Then one night, when they needed a hiding place, they ran to the neighbor’s house.  There are new challenges now, but no hiding.  No drunken rage.

Some kids feel heat and pressure every single day.  It doesn’t go away when the seasons change.  But it can be relieved when we are willing to be a refuge, a safe place for those around us who need it.

Will you be a refuge?

May 212010

A few months ago I met this lady. She had everything going for her. Great family. Nice house. Lots of control over her day. But she had this little voice in the back of her head telling her to get involved with foster kids. It had been there for a long time, and every once in a while she would explore her options. Attend a class. Sign up for more information. That sort of thing.

Then everything changed.

She heard about a kid who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Who desperately needed a family. She mentioned it to her husband, who didn’t hesistate. She made the phone call, and the next thing you know, their family grew.

To a casual observer, she may come across as reckless. After all, getting involved with this kid will take time away from her family. Will cost her some money and some tears. Will mess up her schedule. But the truth is, she isn’t reckless at all. She is simply wrecked. She can’t stand the idea of a kid who has no mom. Can’t imagine a teen who has no home. Can’t tolerate knowing about foster kids without doing something about it. Her heart is wrecked.

Or, perhaps you could say she is wreckless.

I wonder if Webster will add that one to the dictionary…

Apr 302010

At 16, she clearly had more street smarts than I do at 38.  On the surface, she was really kind of a mess to look at.  Her skin bore the evidence of darker days, as numerous superficial scars covered her wrists and thighs.  She had hoped that causing pain on the outside would alleviate the pain on the inside, but it did nothing of the kind.  She also sported a couple of not-very-well-done tattoos, and several piercings that I could easily see.  She grinned a little and mentioned that there were others, but I left that subject alone.  

I just had to know more about her, and she was kind enough to humor me with her story.  Her parents were drug addicts, high on whatever they could buy or steal most of her life.  At age 7, she was living with them in a tent by a lake, and it was at that age that she would sneak leftover cigarettes when her folks were passed out.  By 10 she was an alcoholic, and by 13 had used nearly every street drug known.  At some point she could no longer self-medicate her reality, and she began to think about ending her life.  The thought of death was somehow much more peaceful than the thought of continuing to live.  By anyone’s standards, her life was a mass of shattered pieces. 

Then she met this boy.  A really good boy.  Who told her she was smart.  And funny.  And beautiful.  And who believed in her.

One by one, with patience and care, he began to glue her life back together.  Piece by shattered piece.  Until she was off drugs.  And alcohol free.  And in a GED program.  And thinking about the future, and marriage, and being a mom someday.  “My life is a mosaic,” she told me.  “There are still a lot of pieces, but now they fit together to make a picture.”

Not just a picture.  A beautiful work of art.  A masterpiece. 

There are lots of broken and shattered people living in our neighborhoods, in our communities.  Works of art that are unrecognizable until someone takes the time and effort to glue the pieces together.  Are you willing to play a part in creating something beautiful?

Apr 132010

pro-tec-tor – (noun)  a person that protects; a guardian or defender*

The October sky was blue but there was certainly a chill in the air.  His small frame covered with a thin long-sleeve shirt didn’t offer much of a barrier against the breeze.  He sat on the steps of his home, trying to figure out what to do.  At 6 he was the caretaker of his 3 and 2 year old siblings.  He got them up in the mornings and fixed them breakfast – had an old burn stripe on his finger from touching the hot coils of the toaster.  He knew how to make macaroni and cheese, and to microwave soup and fix sandwiches.  He made sure their noses were wiped, and changed his little sister’s diapers the best he could.  And he tucked them into bed at night.  All the while his mom spent most of the day either passed out on the couch or away from the house, looking for her next fix. 

Most of the time he didn’t mind helping – he knew his mom had a lot she was struggling with, and he wanted to make it as easy on her as he could.  He loved her very much, and as he shivered against the wind, his mind wandered back to days when she read him stories and gave him big hugs.  When it seemed like she loved him.  He hadn’t gotten that kind of attention for at least a couple of years.  And his siblings never had, except from him.  That thought snapped him back to the reality of the porch.  He tried the door again, but it was still locked.  His mom had woken up in a bad mood and was screaming and throwing things at his little brother.  When he intervened, his mom had dragged him out on the porch and locked the door. 

He began to walk down the street, slowly at first, but then with increasing confidence, toward the fire station a block away.  “Can you help me  sir?  My sister and brother are in danger, and it’s my job to protect them – can you help me?  We need a better life than this.  There has to be something better than this.”

Courage is found in many different places.  Sometimes it is even packaged in the small body of a 6 year old.  What about you?  Will you be courageous?

Mar 162010

Yesterday afternoon I spoke at a conference hosted by the Nation Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges ( a great organization that spends it’s time, energy, and resources improving the court outcomes of kids in foster care.

I was invited to talk about health care for foster kids and kids who enter the juvenile justice system. As an expert. Someone who should know something about foster kids and health issues. There were lots of other experts there too. Experts on law and mental health and families.

And yet, all the expertise, all the knowledge in that conference room doesn’t necessarily translate into one single changed life. We get that, don’t we? For instance we KNOW that we should eat lots of vegetables and exercise regularly. But knowledge doesn’t always translate into behavior. We KNOW there is such a thing as a speed limit. But we don’t always drive under it.

The truth is, only one thing changes lives. 


That’s it.  Nothing else.  Just love.  The problem is, that loving someone is risky.  It costs us.  And sometimes it is painful.  But if we are willing to go there, to love people anyway, then maybe, just maybe, we can change the world.

Are you willing to get your heart broken?  I am.

Feb 152010

Loss is a common part of the human experience. Some days it is closer to us than others, and this week it has been uncomfortably close. Two friends grieving – one over a life fully lived and another barely begun – both abruptly lost.  In the quiet darkness of the early morning, as I think about my friends, my mind drifts where it often does – to foster kids.  Physical death in children is thankfully rare, even among such a high risk group, but I have come to realize that there is more than one way to die. 

She was 15, the eldest of four siblings.  Life had not been kind – her parents had died unexpectedly when she was 12, and after living with a couple of  different relatives, her aunt had reluctantly taken them in.  The basics were provided – food, shelter, education – but there wasn’t much emotional connection, so at such a young age she took on the responsibility of “mothering” her younger siblings. 

I remember the first day I met her – she had just arrived at the shelter and was very upbeat and smiling.  Seemed strange.  When I inquired why she was there, her eyes got more serious.  Her aunt had gone on a trip and left them alone.  She had tried very hard to get her brothers and sister up in the morning, fed, dressed and off to school, then had met them in the afternoon, prepared supper, helped with homework and tucked them in bed.  But they were beginning to run out of food in the house.  She was worried, and asked their neighbor for help – the neighbor provided them some food, but also contacted the authorities and the kids were picked up. 

She was OK with being at the shelter – OK with not having to stress about providing for her siblings.  She was hopeful about the future – she wanted to be a pediatrician and hammered me with lots of questions about college, med school, and what it was like to work with sick children.  It was impossible not to fall in love with her spunk and her hopefulness. 

She came frequently to the clinic while I was there – at first just to hang out and talk, which we both seemed to enjoy.  Then with some minor complaints – an occasional headache or stomachache.  Then more serious ones.  Weight loss.  Sleeplessness. Depression.  Her siblings left the shelter, one by one, each to a relative. 

But no one wanted her.  And her soul died.  Her hope died.  Right in front of me.

We cry when the body dies.  But who cries when the soul dies?  Who cries for foster kids?  Who cries for her?

Jan 252010


Firestorm-of-frustration moments* are those that occur when we experience something wrong with society that drives us crazy – that keeps us up at night.  For me, that moment occurred when, as a medical student, I first encountered child abuse.  I grew up in a small town and came from a fairly sheltered childhood.  I had never seen child abuse, and once I did, I never could get the kids and their stories out of my head.

Not that I didn’t try.

I tried hard.  Explored other areas of medicine.  Interviewed for residencies that had nothing to do with child abuse.  Imagined myself doing other noble things, like serving as a doctor in some third world country.  Nothing worked.  Late at night my mind wandered back to those kids. 

At some point, more than a year after that first exposure, I tried something different.  Instead of running away from the cries I heard in the night, I took a step toward them.  Then another, and another.  It turns out that the best thing we can do when we have a “firestorm of frustration” moment is to feed it – to fan the flame of that thing  we can’t stand, and turn it into a raging bonfire that will burn away impurities and leave behind only that which is most valuable.  A dozen year later, I spend almost all my physical and emotional energy working with high risk families and kids in foster care.  Lives are changed because I fan the flame.  People are impacted.  This year foster kids got school supplies and Christmas presents.  Foster families provided support and resources to high risk biologic families.  Friends of mine became foster parents.  Organizations encouraged their employees to mentor foster kids.  And I played a role in all of that.

I intentionally fan the flame of my own firestorm of frustration, my own holy discontent, and I have absolutely no regrets.  Nor any plans to stop.  The world needs us to not just experience frustration, but to burn with it. 

Are you brave enough to set yourself on fire?


*Holy Discontent, author Bill Hybels, 2007, Zondervan Press

Jan 242010

6a0100a7f8a70c000e010980c16b47000b-500piWhen I was a kid, I loved watching Popeye cartoons. Even though I hated spinach, I loved that the scrawny little cartoon sailor turned into a superhero when he downed the stuff. More than that, I loved that he used his superhuman strength to protect someone who was weak.*

Somewhere in the middle of my medical school experiences with abused and neglected kids I found myself wishing that I liked spinach. I saw kids in foster care who seemed hopeless. I met biologic families who were struggling with poverty, mental illness, anger, and substance abuse. I interacted with foster parents, case workers, and district attorneys who really weren’t convinced that they could ever solve the problem of child maltreatment. All of those people were desperate for a hero to come along. Desperate to find a can of spinach that would give them superhuman strength.

Extraordinary strength may not be found in can of spinach, but perhaps it does emerge from the motivation that we get from moments where we see something wrong with society, something that we just can’t stand anymore. Bill Hybels* calls these moments “firestorm-of-frustration” moments. Moments that change us, that cause us to redirect the focus of our lives. For me, the 17-year dream to become an ER physician disappeared in a few short months and was replaced with a new priority – to do absolutely anything that would allow me to work with abused and neglected kids.

Have you ever experienced a “firestorm of frustration” moment?



*Holy Discontent, author Bill Hybels, 2007, Zondervan Press