Every week at Kids ROCK* is a surprise. We never know if we’ll be inundated with volunteers or kids- the two groups are rarely ever equal. On this particular week I come to lend an extra hand to my coordinator. We’d had some, shall we say, “overly energetic” kids attending and they have been challenging to handle.
The afternoon starts off with a curious version of baseball; the rules quickly fall by the wayside. Up next is a confusing game of capture the flag. Next, freeze tag! This one was a winner! It gave the kids an excuse to run in random patterns and scream at the top of their lungs, if they so chose. They seemed a bit tired, which meant that it was the perfect time to go inside and sit down for the Bible story. One by one the little ones went inside the trailer. Except for Gerardo. He’s wearing dirty clothes, has a semi-shaved head, has a mouth filled with silver fillings, though he rarely smiles. Even though he’s only 7, he looks tough. Gerardo doesn’t want to go inside. One of our volunteers valiantly tried to convince him to go inside but he wasn’t having any of it. So I send the volunteer inside with the others and decided to take my chances with Gerardo.
I try to make it fun: “I’ll race you inside, first one to sit down at a chair wins!” Nope. I spoke to the fun time we’d have singing songs afterwards. Nada. I tried to compromise with him: “If you go inside now, we can play tag at the end!” Zilch. This kid is harder to crack than a sealed vault. I quickly realize that this little boy has more life experience than most 7 year olds. I need to talk to him like an adult, not a kid. So then I cut the small talk. “What’s wrong?” I ask him desperately. Gerardo doesn’t look at me and jumps from the cement ramp onto the flower bed nestled in the corner of the building. So I do what any rational adult would do: I follow him into the dirt. Here we are, squatting in the middle of a sparse bed of flowers. Alone. Safe. I ask him again, “What’s wrong?” He studiously avoids eye contact when I ask the question and finally mumbles that his brother had hit him when we were playing freeze tag. I ask him if it hurts and he nods his head. I ask him if I can see where it hurts but he shakes his head no. I ask him if we can go inside and sing,
“I don’t want to sing”, he replies.
“Ok, we don’t have to sing. That’s ok. But we do have to go inside with everyone else,” I respond.
Gerardo doesn’t even budge. But then he does something surprising. He grabs a daisy and starts picking off its petals. Inspiration strikes me like a thunderbolt. “Hey, can I show you a game?” He looks at me with distrustful eyes, “Game?” I proceed to show him how to play the childhood game He loves me, he loves me not. But for him, I feel the need to change the words to he’s my friend, he’s not my friend. I’m not sure if that’s better, but I don’t have a lot to work with at this point. He plays one round. I play one round. He grabs another flower and we play again. He’s enthralled. Finally I ask him if we can go inside. “Not yet,” he says and then he grabs some more flowers, “2 for you, and 2 for me” he proudly says. I’m surprised at his kindness and sense of fairness. Before we start I tell him I’ll only play if he promises to go inside with me and sit down. He agrees. I’m not convinced, so I make him agree to the most sacred of oaths: The Pinky Swear. He grabs my pinky in agreement.
Gerardo kept his promise. We went inside and sat on a piano bench, on the outskirts of the group. I wish I could say that he sat still and listened attentively for the duration of the Bible story. I wish I could say that I had the bright idea to bring up Jesus always loving him as a way to end the He loves me, he loves me not game. That idea only came afterwards. I had to hug him and hold him tight for a good portion of the Bible story. He did however, do a pretty good job of at staying quiet, or whispering. At least, he tried to. For me, that was a win. Next time I see him, I’ll know I inevitably repeat to myself, he’s my friend, he’s not my friend, but I think we’re well on our way towards being friends.
Throughout the three years that Gerardo has been attending Kids ROCK off and on, I often think back to that moment picking daisies. Though he still has the exterior of a tough guy, he’s quite a sensitive and thoughtful little boy. We’ve learned the secret to “cracking his vault”, the quickest way to get him to calm down is to give him an art project. He sits down and hunches over his projects, completely focused on creating art. I’ve noticed he has a fondness for animal and nature not matched by any of the other boys his age, especially soft fuzzy puppies. The boy you see cutting and pasting is the opposite of what he first appears to be.
A few months ago I had another bonding experience with Gerardo. His mom was late picking him and his brother up. All the other kids had left and it was just us three. “We’ll walk home” he says nonchalantly. Absolutely not, I reply. I know where he lives, and though it’s not far, there’s a busy street to cross and I’m responsible for them. So we all pile into my car, with the boys in the back seat. “Seat belts on” I call back to them and they oblige replying “Oh yeah, it’s so we don’t get hurt.” During the short 2-minute drive Gerardo comments that he really likes how clean it is- he’s never been in a new car. As we pull into his street him and his brother, once talkative and energetic, get quiet. They tell me to drop them off in the corner. “I can do better than that,” I respond cheerily. I really just want to make sure they get home safely.
As they try to get me to change my mind, I get the sense they’re embarrassed about where they live. It’s certainly not the best part of the town; the unpaved road, lack of sidewalks, would-be junkyard of furniture and animals running loose are a testament to that, but it also reminds me of my own hometown. So I park in front of their house and as they pile out they timidly say thank you and start walking to their house. I respond that I’ll see them next week. I wait in my car until I see their grandmother open the door for them.
I don’t know how much of an impact we’ll have on Gerardo and his siblings. Is a weekly two-hour program enough to keep them off the streets? I’ve been to his house and have met most of his family, his half-brothers and sisters as well as his aunts and grandparents he lives with. He doesn’t have an easy life. All I know is that we’ve seen a positive change in him throughout the years, and he keeps coming back. It’s the Saturday afternoons that I least feel like going where I’m always reminded of why we’ve committed to maintaining this program year after year: the kids that will show up week after week, ready to play and just be kids.
“Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.” –Lady Bird Johnson
*Kids ROCK is a Saturday afternoon ministry run through the CAPS office. The program is held at the La Escuelita trailer of the SACHS Norton Clinic every Saturday from 2-4 p.m. The goal of the program is to create a Christ-centered environment that serves as a safe haven for the kids in the Inland Empire. To find out more about Kids ROCK go to: http://www.llu.edu/caps/volunteer/kids_rock.page
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