From my front row seat

Friday, August 30, 2019

How dare you get better!

“Miss Susan!  Today was a good day at school!  I didn’t slap, scratch, or bite anyone!”

“Well, that is certainly a good day when we don't do those things. Great job!”  Everyone within earshot of this boy cheered.  “Yay! Good for you!”

I looked at this four-year-old and saw how excited and proud he was to please his mother who bragged on him as she grinned from ear to ear.  The magnitude of this news may have been lost on an outsider.  It really was a big deal that no one had been slapped, scratched, or bitten that day because lately, any one of those things could happen – or maybe even all three.  Again, yay! 

As I leaned down to give him a hug, the boy's mother stood behind him with an expression that showed how much she loved him.  This little family has struggled to overcome lots and lots of trauma, most of which would cross over into the category of “horrific”.  I could only imagine how she might want to relish this moment as long as she could because there is still a lot of work to be done, and it is not going to be easy.  Trauma for a young child leaves a lasting impression and can manifest itself in lots of ugly ways.  Fortunately for this family, through Blue Monarch, this boy and his mother are getting counseling and intense support to recover from their wounds.  Progress is steady but can sometimes feel very slow.

As I looked at this little boy and how eager he was to make his mom proud, I couldn’t help but imagine her as a young girl.  I was aware of the atrocities her own mother subjected her to when she was growing up, and I realized she probably never saw that same pride on her mother’s face.  Does she even know what that looks like? 

This time of year, there is something that always catches my eye and reminds me of women like this young mother.  I often feel blessed to work at a beautiful farm in the country where, during the summer months, I drive between beautiful cornfields to get to my job.  Every year, I spot one tall corn stalk that outgrows all the others.  It towers over the other rows and stands completely alone.  To me, this represents some of the courageous women we serve.  They often stand alone as well.

Sadly, a lot of our residents do not get any family encouragement or recognition for their amazing accomplishments.  I remember how stunned I was to witness this for the first time.  A mother attended her daughter’s graduation at Blue Monarch one year and was not shy about showing her overwhelming disapproval.  She fumed over her daughter’s achievements and made no effort to hide her feelings as she fidgeted, huffed, and groaned.  This bitter woman sat on the front row at our graduation ceremony and glared at her daughter the entire time.  She did not clap, she did not smile, and she did not congratulate her daughter.  As soon as the event was over, she stomped out the door.  I still remember the hurt and embarrassment on the daughter’s face on this day that represented the first thing she had ever successfully completed. 

Little did I know this dysfunction was something I would witness many times in the coming years.  In fact, we once had a woman who resented her daughter’s success so much, she tried to get her kicked out of our program by planting drug paraphernalia under her mattress, for crying out loud.  

It is not uncommon to hear our residents on the phone with their mothers, desperate for a pat on the back, but getting nasty ridicule instead.  There are lots and lots of tears, and hours and hours of counseling over this very thing.  For reasons like this I am grateful our program is so individualized and long-term.

So, how do we understand this?  How can any mother be angry when her daughter gets stronger and healthier?  How can she resent her own child’s recovery?  

I am no expert, but I truly believe it is because the family structure is crumbling, and no one knows their roles anymore.  It is like shaking the family tree until limbs begin to split and fall off.  

Perhaps the mother has always felt like the heroic rescuer, and when the daughter no longer needs rescuing, she is left confused about her role in the family.  Or, what we often see, is that the mother is struggling as well, perhaps even in prison herself, and she is jealous of her daughter who is getting better.  Maybe the mother’s failures become more vivid as her daughter learns what it means to be a healthy parent.  And then there is also the mother who has selfish needs and wants her daughter to take care of her.  (Like the mother who felt she was too old to be an exotic dancer any longer so she wanted her daughter to pick up where she left off…)

We also see siblings who resent the recovery and success of a sister.  Perhaps the sibling has always been the good child and the bad one made him look even better.  But now that the bad child is doing well, where does he fit in?  This often reminds me of the colorful parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) 

In this parable, the younger son goes off and lives a reckless, chaotic life – much like the women we serve. When he finally hits rock bottom and decides to change his life, he returns home to find a father who immediately embraces him and celebrates his “recovery”.  But the older son is angry and resentful of the attention the Prodigal Son receives after all the poor choices he made.  It’s just not fair.  

Of course, in this parable the father represents our Heavenly Father who will always be there.  But what if the Prodigal Son returned home to an empty house?  What if there was no one there to receive him and lift him up, not a parent, not a sibling - no one.  It makes me think of a race held one year to benefit Blue Monarch.  The organizers of the event did not think about a plan to celebrate the winner, so the poor guy ran through the finish line with not one person watching or cheering.  I have always wondered how that made him feel. 

That is what often happens to our remarkable women.  They work, they persevere, they cry, they struggle, they fight the temptation to give up. They do this day, after day, after day, until one brilliant day, they see things have changed.  Their children are listening to them for the first time. They aren’t shouting at each other anymore.  They aren’t having “using dreams” and they no longer crave their drug of choice.  They have a sense of peace and literally feel the presence of God throughout the day.  They are excited about their futures for the first time.  They are healing.  Isn’t it only natural to want a family member to share in the excitement?

At Blue Monarch we try to celebrate our residents' successes as much as possible.  From time to time we have even been accused of spoiling them.  But you know what?  We do it anyway.  We present them with charms when they accomplish something notable.  We invite them to share their incredible stories of recovery with others.  We acknowledge their amazing journeys in the bags of granola we sell.  And we try to always remember that “great job” goes a very long way.  As hard as it is to imagine, some women hear those words right here for the very first time.

We realize this will never replace what some of our residents so desperately want from their mothers.  But we do our best to make sure the children we serve get the real thing from their moms, in real time – even if it’s for simply going through the day without slapping, scratching, or biting anyone.  After all, that deserves a “great job” for sure!  And the truth is, it's always easier to say it when we are accustomed to hearing it.

Thank you, Lord, for granting us the amazing privilege and honor of delivering an important message to the women we serve.  Let us never forget to say "great job", especially when they need to hear it the most.  Amen

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Postcard from The Land of Intensity

Most mornings as I am leaving for work, my husband will ask, “What kind of day do you think you’re going to have today?”  I typically laugh and say, “I don’t know, but I’m going in!”  There’s always an image in my head of a soldier charging into battle, unsure of what he will encounter – but he’s going in anyway.  The one thing I know for sure is that whatever I face, it will be intense.  Good or bad, it will be intense.    

Despite the heartbreaks and disappointments, there are many weeks when I feel like I have been given a front row seat at the greatest show on earth – hence, the name of my blog.  Sometimes I think God hands me those times just when I need them the most. I get to see one miracle after another – things that literally take my breath away.  And those are the intense moments that carry me through the darkest times.  For example, here are three blessings from “The Land of Intensity” that happened just last week.  

Let’s start with Angela.

Honestly, I’ll have to admit, when Angela first came to Blue Monarch, I really didn't expect her to make it.  She never spoke, she carried around an angry expression that never changed, and it was clear she was simply going through the motions.  “Fake it until you make it” is a common expression among those who have just arrived from jail, but Angela wasn’t even doing a good job of faking it.  Just take a look at her mug shot.  Honestly, I think if I found myself behind her in the checkout lane at Wal-Mart, I’d be tempted to move to another line.  No offense, Angela.    

Angela’s husband had recently died of an overdose.  He was the father of her two young children.  True, she had a lot of reasons to be angry, but I wasn’t so sure she didn’t prefer to feel that way.  I once had her do a creative writing assignment that I like to use.  It's a great tool to see what's going on in someone's head but it was scary in there.  Angela's paper was strikingly dark and depressing.  She was going to be a tough nut to crack.  That is, if she even stayed.  

So here we are a little over a year later.  Angela is no longer that angry person.  She has developed a beautiful relationship with God that has totally changed who she is, inside and out.  And she has started school to be a dental assistant – in fact, she aced both her first tests!  So last week, I found myself tearing up when I saw her looking so professional in her black scrubs with that amazing smile across her face. It was hard to imagine she was even the same person.  She absolutely took my breath away.  (I'll pause for a minute so you can look at the before and's hard to stop comparing, isn't it?)  

There was another moment last week that will play over and over in my head for a very long time.  One of our graduates who is currently living in our WINGS Community is in the process of getting her pilot’s license.  (If you haven’t read my blog post about her, I’ll put a link below.)  Lauren had been a resident here years ago, got discharged for fighting, and struggled for several years.  But she returned a couple of years ago with her two children and begged for another chance.  I will never forget the day Lauren sat in the peach chair in my office - crying, reeking of cigarettes, overcome with anxiety, and completely broken.  We took a deep breath, allowed her to come back, and she impressed us all.  

Lauren was serious this time and really dug into her recovery.  She worked her tail off.  So, when she took my work ethics course right before graduating from our program, I could see she needed a career that would be incredibly exciting or else her short attention span might lead her back to drugs.  “Have you ever thought about aviation, Lauren?” 

Long story short, a supporter of ours miraculously made it possible for Lauren to learn how to fly.  So, last week she was excited to fly solo over our Blue Monarch campus.  It was such a thrill for me!

I ran out the door and anxiously waited for the small blue and white plane.  We could hear it off in the distance, and then bam!  There she was!  Sam, our protective Blue Monarch dog, chased her around the property barking, and the residents cheered and waved their arms from the front yard.  I, on the other hand, could live off this moment the rest of my life.  Seeing Lauren fly right over my head, imagining how broken she once was, but looking at the bright future she has ahead of her…well, it was overwhelming.  Yep, it was intense and completely took my breath away.

Finally, this special moment.  Jessica is another one of our current graduates who came to us a couple of years ago having lost custody of her three children.  I remember one of my first encounters with her.  She came up to me and said, “Miss Susan, I’m going to get my kids back.  I'm gonna do it, I promise!”  I looked at her, and in her current state, it was a hard thing to imagine but I encouraged her anyway.  

Sure enough, after much hard work and dedication, tremendous healing, and a lot of growing up, Jessica eventually regained custody of her two boys.  But there was still one child she did not have back.  I was with her the dreadful day an officer showed up to serve Jessica papers with shocking news.  Her daughter was apparently in Florida and there was someone trying to terminate her parental rights to adopt her child.  As one can imagine, Jessica was devastated.  At this point the long, drawn out, complicated, gut wrenching battle began.  I couldn't help but wonder how in the world Jessica would navigate such a complicated custody issue if she was not at Blue Monarch.  Could she even get to Florida to show up for court?

This battle became highly emotional, very intense, and included many court appearances – even two trips to court in Florida.  The painful separation from their sister caused emotional trauma for the boys, and the uncertainty of how this might turn out was stressful and agonizing for all of them.  It was an enormous weight for Jessica to carry as she continued to work on her recovery and learn to trust others for help, especially when things didn't happen as quickly as she would like.  Naturally, lots of regret was included in this complicated cocktail, and this only made it even more difficult.  Honestly, if not for her growing faith in God, I don't know how she would have survived this experience.

But here we are, after a very long battle, and Jessica finally has all her kids back together again.  I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Jessica’s reunion with her daughter after two years’ separation – and it was beautiful.  They picked up right where they left off like they had never been apart.  They laughed and sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” together all the way home.  (This is one thing that always amazes me.  I have never seen a child who did not remember his or her mother, no matter how long the separation.)  

A few hours later, Jessica’s boys got off the school bus and saw their sister again for the first time.  The oldest son immediately lifted up his sister and held her in a tight bear hug. She latched onto him right away and wrapped her arms and legs around him.  He just cried and cried and barely got the words out, “We’ve been waiting.” Then when she saw her other brother for the first time in what must have felt like an eternity, she ran over with excitement and yelled, “It’s still me!  You know me still?!”  (Is that the greatest line ever?  "It's still me!") 

Last week when this precious little girl came running into my office to say hello, she jumped into my lap and started telling me about all the exciting things she had done that day.  Every time she does this, it takes my breath away for a minute because this was such a difficult journey for Jessica, her boys, and even our entire staff.  There were many tears, endless days, and lots of prayers for this ordinary moment to even be possible.

Well, I said I had three blessings from last week, but I actually have one more thing I’d like to share.     

Last week I found a hummingbird caught in a spider web. I had always wondered if they instinctively knew to stay away, but this bird was tangled in the web and hanging upside down.  It was fighting to get loose but seemed to get in worse shape the more it struggled.  I ran outside, knocked the web loose from the house and lowered the tiny hummingbird into my hand, just hoping I could somehow get the spider webs off without hurting it.  

Much to my surprise, the hummingbird calmly settled into the palm of my hand and gently opened its wings.  It laid so still I wasn’t sure if it might have died.
I began carefully pulling away the spider webs from both wings, then the tail, and then the long, pointy beak.  The spider webs were very stretchy and I had to extend my arm way out to get them to break loose.  Once I had removed as much as I could, the tiny bird jumped from my hand, hopped across the floor of the deck, and took off flying.  It was alive and it was free!  I couldn’t help but laugh at how some poor spider must have thought he had hit the mother load, and now he had to start all over.  "I swear I caught the big one but it got away!"

As I watched the hummingbird fly to the treetops, I realized I was seeing the same thing I get to see at Blue Monarch all the time.  The amazing and courageous women we serve must do the same thing this little hummingbird did.  Just like Angela, Lauren, and Jessica, they must reach a point where they are willing to stop struggling, sit very still, and trust someone to pull the spider webs off one by one.  When those chains are finally gone, they will be able to fly.  I know this because I've seen it over and over.  And every time it literally takes my breath away.  

This morning started out like all the others.  “What kind of day do you think you’re going to have today?”

“I don’t know, but I’m going in!  And if I’m lucky, I’ll get to pull off some spider webs today.”

Thank you, Lord, for providing a place where women can slow down, rest, and trust you to remove the spider webs that have caused so much torment. We ask for strength to fight the battles alongside the women and children we serve, but above all, we pray that before going in, we always remember to seek your will first.  Amen

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Family We Can't Afford to Lose

A group of students from a prestigious business school visited us recently.  Naturally, they were particularly interested in our granola business and how it works with the overall mission of our non-profit. 
Before they left, one of the students asked me, “So, do you think there will come a day when the granola business totally funds Blue Monarch?” 

My gut reaction to that question was immediate.  “Well, I certainly hope not!”  What?

This answer surprised everyone, including me.  My word, our granola business is something I have poured blood, sweat, and tears into for many years - doing store demos, delivering granola from the trunk of my car to loading docks behind large grocery stores, and rolling boxes into coffee shops on a hand dolly.  I have always wanted the business to do well because that means more jobs for more women.  So why would I say such a thing?

Then I realized, if the granola business totally funded Blue Monarch, this would mean we were no longer dependent on our donors – and they are our family.  I know it sounds crazy, but in that split second when he asked me that question, I began picturing specific faces of individuals who give money to us. I suppose the thought of losing them was actually painful to me in a way I wasn’t expecting.  

For instance, we have a really sweet man who began writing to us regularly after his wife died a couple of years ago.  He typically encloses a $20 bill with a handwritten letter, which is usually several pages long.  

Each time a different Blue Monarch resident writes him back, so he essentially has almost a dozen pen pals by now.  He encourages them, lifts them up, and tells them they are special.  The love and admiration he frequently expresses for his wife is good for our residents to hear.  See, not all men are bad.

Or, let’s take this woman for example.  We had a particularly rough week at Blue Monarch recently and all of us were excited for the weekend to get here.  But on a Friday afternoon we got an unusual call from a woman who said she wanted our address so she could bring us some money.  She did not want to mail it.  Reluctant to give out our physical address to a stranger on the phone, and not really sure of her true motives, we were hesitant to do so.  However, after deciding she was genuine, we gave her directions and waited on her arrival, anxious to meet the mysterious woman. 

When she arrived with her sister, right away we fell in love with her. She was just precious.  With tears in her eyes, this young woman began sharing how she observed her mother in an abusive relationship for many years and wished her mother could have had a place like Blue Monarch.  Her mother had recently died, and she wanted to honor her by giving Blue Monarch a tithe of what she had inherited.  Amazing.  She went on to describe how she would love to volunteer at Blue Monarch, but she worked at a factory, typically six to seven days a week, and didn’t have the time.  She learned about Blue Monarch after reading an article in the local paper about Lauren, our recent graduate who was working toward getting her pilot's license.    

We had a wonderful visit and before she and her sister left, she reached into her pocket and pulled out an enormous wad of cash, which was wrapped in rubber bands.  I had never received a gift like this and although I couldn’t wait to see how much it was, I respectfully waited until she walked out the door before ripping off the rubber bands to count it. 

As I built stacks of bills on the coffee table in my office, I began to get choked up.  That big wad of cash added up to $7,600!  It was an enormously generous gift – and represented a tremendous sacrifice on her part. Clearly this kind of money could have a significant impact on someone working seven days a week at a factory.  Speechless and moved beyond words, our staff members just sat around my coffee table shaking our heads at what an unbelievable gift this was.  Such an unexpected blessing!   

It wasn’t too long after that when we had another surprising gift. We received a $300 check from a new donor and just look what we found in the memo line…”donations from coins on floor at Wal-Mart”.

Turns out, this man works in maintenance at a Wal-Mart store.  For a whole year, he collected the lost change on the floor until he saved up $300 to give to us.  Can you believe that?

So, yes, I would love to sell a boat load of granola!  I wish our granola was in every store across the country.  But if it meant losing our Blue Monarch donors who support us so faithfully, I would have to say, “No, thank you.”  They mean too much. Plus, I know they are often blessed by blessing us.

Yesterday, as I was leaving to go home, I found one of our residents on the front porch crying.  Her mother had been released from prison recently and she was hurt that she had not heard from her.  “My mother knows my address and she hasn’t even written."  Barely able to get the words out, she cried, "I just want her to say, ‘Hey, I’m proud of you.’”

In that moment I realized there was nothing we could do that would substitute for what she needed from her mother.  But I was grateful she had a Blue Monarch family that would support her, lift her up, and tell her she’s special.  In fact, I suspect there might even be a dear old man sitting down right now, about to tell her that very thing.  “I am proud of you.  Keep up the good work.” 

That reminds me.  We should send that man a bag of granola.  After all, he’s family!

Lord, thank you for each and every donor who helps us to become the family our women and children need, and perhaps the family they never even had.  Amen  

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Sign language is all I can hear right now...

“What’s happened to you since I saw you last?  You’ve been clinching your teeth!”  The dental hygienist went on to say the damage I had done to my teeth would ordinarily take ten to twenty years to happen on its own.  

Great.  Just one more reason to be mad at “It”.  

“It” was something that had turned our world upside down.  Like a thick, dark, evil liquid, “It” had permeated every single aspect of what we do at Blue Monarch.  Not one thing had gone untouched.
“It” reared its ugly head on March 13th.  As I was leaving a board meeting that evening, I called Jeannie before I drove out of the parking lot.  I had a strange feeling that something with her wasn’t quite right.  “Did everything go okay today while I was at the board meeting?”  Jeannie Driver is our amazing Program Director.  I have known her since she came to our program in 2003 as one of our very first residents.  She arrived with her three little girls and years later became a key figure in our Blue Monarch leadership.  Jeannie is woven through the very fabric of what we do.

“Yeah, everything was good.” I was still confused by the feeling I had, so I asked about her girls and she caught me up on how each daughter was doing. I hung up, still carrying a  dark feeling in my heart that I couldn't explain.

Just a few hours later, shortly before 10:00 p.m., my phone rang and it’s a moment I will never forget. Jeannie screamed hysterically, “Carmen’s been shot!  Please pray!”   Carmen had just turned eighteen a few weeks before.  Right away, an image of Carmen as a rowdy toddler flashed through my mind.

I immediately threw on some clothes and grabbed my purse on the way out the door.  “Please Lord, no!  Please don’t let this happen!  Please!” Right away it felt like an evil attack.

Shortly before I walked into the hospital, I learned Carmen had not survived.  I think in that moment my heart went hard.  I was angry.  Angry with the person who did this.  Angry with the people who do things like this all the time.  And most of all – angry with God for letting this happen to the sweetest person I know.  

When I found Jeannie, she was a puddle of grief, suffering from every parent’s greatest fear.  We cried like babies and I think it was in that moment that I became spiritually deaf.  I had no interest in anything God had to say from that point on because I was so angry with him.  Why didn’t he stop that bullet before it struck Carmen’s beautiful face?  After all, we know he could have!

It was shocking, really. Jeannie had brought many people to know Christ.  She had touched so many lives in powerful ways – not only through her job at Blue Monarch, but through her volunteer work in prison ministry, too.  She had served God well, so why didn’t he protect her? I found myself trying to come up with some divine reason for what had happened – but the truth was, it just sucked.  I decided right then and there that "Why did this happen to Carmen?" would be the first thing I asked when I entered the gates of heaven - right before "Where did you come from?", which was, until now, my first question.

As I sat in the church at Carmen’s funeral a few days later, I listened to all the crying and suffering from across the sanctuary.  It struck me how one person’s actions could cause so much pain for so many people.  It was a ripple effect that seemed endless.

This tragic event had a profound effect on our program.  The residents we serve could make no sense  of what had happened.  If this could happen to Jeannie, then none of us was safe! They were also angry with God and it manifested itself in ugly ways.  They resented those of us trying to fill the gap in Jeannie’s absence.  They no longer trusted us – how could they? After all, they no longer trusted God, either. As a group they became belligerent, bitter, uncooperative, and even disrespectful.  The world felt completely out of sync.  

Nevertheless, our staff members carried heavy hearts into everything they did to keep the ball rolling until Jeannie could come back.  We struggled to have patience with our residents while we dealt with our own grief at the same time.   We tried to do our jobs and raise money with enthusiasm – but it’s hard to do with a broken heart.  Yep, “It” had touched every single aspect of our organization.  The ripple effect was endless.

For weeks I kept my ears shut and refused to hear anything God had to say.  It was like that annoying, outdated phrase, “Talk to the hand.”  Don't talk to me.  My anger only got more intense as I walked alongside Jeannie over the following weeks - meeting with the detectives, reading the dreadful 911 report, seeing the photo of Carmen’s face after she had been shot, attending the bond hearing for the one charged with Carmen’s death, all while watching Jeannie’s heartbreak day after day.  

It was as if the only place that brought comfort was to go back to the moment before “It” happened.  Many times I wanted to take Jeannie’s pain for a day so she could just get some relief.  Too bad we couldn’t sign up for shifts – the way people sign up to bring food. “I’ll take Tuesday if you can take Wednesday.”

So here we are two months later and what I have seen is nothing less than a miracle.

Jeannie’s relationship with Jesus has only gotten stronger through this terrible tragedy, even though she still has lots of questions of her own.  Her personal story has become even more powerful as she describes "leaning in on Jesus and pulling from the heavenly bank we have as God's children."  I don’t know how she has done it, but Jeannie has shared her testimony with four large crowds recently, and no doubt, many lives were forever changed.  She has met with our residents one-on-one and has tenderly listened as they have shared their doubts and fears with her.  She has wept with them as they have shared her pain.  I have watched her come to work determined to serve, even on her heaviest days.  Jeannie has proven to our residents that one can experience even the worst pain without turning to drugs as a way to cope.  She has taught them to cling to Jesus instead.  They will forever remember her example of faith and strength, long after they leave Blue Monarch. They may even share her story with their children one day.  In other words, I have seen Jeannie bring her brightest light to Blue Monarch – even in her darkest hour.  

As we have gradually gotten back on our feet, I have come to realize, the ripple effect of “It” is not endless after all.  Once it touched the people it was going to hurt, it was finished.  There will be no more.  So, its power is very limited.

But the impact of Jeannie’s story and Carmen’s life will truly be endless.  Just look - in two months’ time, Jeannie has touched more people in beautiful ways, than “It” did in harmful ways.  In the same way that one sunflower can produce up to 2,000 seeds, I believe with every life Jeannie touches, she will be planting many more seeds along the way, which really IS endless. 

Something just hit me.  Even while I was stomping around clinching my teeth and refusing to listen for God, I see now that he was speaking to me the whole time. You see, he was saying some pretty powerful things to me through my friend, Jeannie. Guess God knew that sign language was the only thing I could hear for a while, so I'm glad my eyes were open, even if my ears were not.  Who knew that his voice would be such a beautiful thing to see? 

"Dear Lord, I guess we've got some catching up to do.  Let's start with these teeth..."       


After she had been incarcerated, Jeannie and her girls were reunited at Blue Monarch in 2003.  Since that time, through our program and the tremendous grace of God, over 260 children have been able to reestablish relationships with their mothers who had lost custody.  We are proud to name this rich aspect of our program, the Carmen Simmons Reunification Program, which will honor a part of our ministry that is dear to Jeannie’s heart.  And in this way, Jeannie and Carmen can partner together in helping others for many years to come.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Why is it so flippin' hard?

When my family and I first moved to the Cumberland Plateau, we didn’t realize we would be learning an entirely new culture and language, such as, “Don’t plant your garden until the oak leaf is the size of a squirrel’s ear.”  Good to know.

We loved exploring the nearby areas, traveling down long, curvy roads through the mountains, discovering all kinds of exciting things along the way.  But it took a while to learn the customs of the new world we had chosen.

For instance, on two different occasions we stopped at intriguing yard sales to rummage through the fascinating things on display until we were approached by the homeowners, only to discover nothing was for sale.  They were personal treasures that just happened to live in the front yard.  “So, so sorry…we just thought…”

Then there was the morning Clay and I found a new route down the mountain and we spotted a road sign for a nearby cafĂ©.  Awesome! We loved discovering new places to eat. We traveled down a narrow country road until we found it.  Friendly looking place - big, wide porch with rockers and a newspaper stand by the front door.

We parked our car in the gravel lot and entered the cafe.  It was quiet and a little dark inside, but hey, it was early.  We seated ourselves at one of the tables and waited for someone to appear.  A couple of minutes later a woman walked in wearing a house robe and slippers and said, “Who are you?  What are you doing in here?!”

“We’re just waiting to see a menu.”  

“Well, this isn’t a restaurant anymore.”  What? How about the tables and chairs, and the newspaper stand, and the sign on the road?

“Hasn’t been a restaurant in a long time.  We live here now.”  So, we apologized, quickly exited the building and were grateful we could leave peacefully.  

How could we be so confused? Honestly, there were days when it seemed we were looking at the world through a distorted mirror at the county fair. 

Sometimes I feel like our world at Blue Monarch must seem that way to the women and children we serve. There are many things they may have experienced with their families and friends at home, that are not the way we do things here.  We have rules about cooking, for instance, like do not pour grease down the drain – or in our neighbor’s cow pasture, either.  We do not allow spanking but encourage time out instead.  The list goes on, and on, and on.  

It’s pretty remarkable, really, that the families we serve are expected to change almost every single thing they are accustomed to – the way they spend their time, how they spend their money, how they parent their children, how they solve problems, how they treat others, how they handle relationships – even what they feed their children.  I often think I would not be able to adapt to so many changes if I were asked to do the same.

But sadly, there is one single thing that stands out more than any other, the one thing that is the hardest to change.  They believe they can trust no one.  This applies to the women and the children.  The children are just more obvious about it.  Sometimes it takes weeks for the children to even make eye contact with our staff.

This suspicion is so deeply engrained in them, it takes months and months to prove we can actually be trusted, and even then, they very cautiously grab onto this concept.  They reach out one hand at a time, always keeping one eye open just in case.  Consistency is so important in gaining that trust.  Just one slipup can be a deal breaker – and then the process starts all over again.  

For crying out loud, it’s no wonder.  Many times, it is the ones they should have been able to trust the most, who hurt and violated them the most.  I cannot even count the number of stories I have heard of mothers who prostituted their daughters for drug money - or biological fathers who sexually abused their daughters, or the countless other combinations of offenders who were allowed into the home by someone they trusted.  How would one ever trust again?  They may not have trusted anyone since that first awful incident as a child.

I had a young mother sit in my office recently.  With tears in her eyes she confessed that in her seven months with us, she had decided to trust only two people, and even that seemed scary to her.  I was honored to be one of the two, but it hurt my heart to think of all the wonderful people she had encountered over the past seven months, that she was still keeping at arms’ length.  She just can’t let go of that defense mechanism.  The pain this causes her was evident in her face - even in the twisted way she was hugging herself in my chair and wrapping her legs into a knot.

After this woman left my office, I found myself sitting there thinking about all she was missing out on because she could not trust others.  It made me angry toward all the ones who had hurt her because they robbed her peace and totally changed the lens through which she viewed the world.  I considered all the struggles that could have been simpler if she had not been so distrustful.  The joys she could have experienced if she had just let go of her fears.  She was making it so hard!  Harder than it had to be!

And suddenly this started to sound familiar…

There was a time in our early years when I had a big, screaming fit with God.  Blue Monarch was a young non-profit and money was scarce. I barely had the money to pay the electric bill, and I definitely didn’t have enough for payroll the next week.  In tears, I bent over my kitchen table, white-knuckled the edge and yelled, “Why did you ask me to do this if you weren’t going to give me the resources to make it happen?!  What were you think-ing?!”

The immediate answer came loud and clear.  “You’re the one who makes it so hard because you don’t trust me.”  This stopped me in my tracks, and I began wondering, have I not? No, I realized I was trying to do Blue Monarch in my own power – not in His.  No wonder it was so flippin’ hard!  

Since that time, when I get completely overwhelmed and feel like I can’t even take a deep breath, I have to remind myself, “Hey, this is God’s plan, not yours.  Trust Him to take care of it, because it’s too big for you.”  And you know what?  That always brings such relief.  

So, Lord, that’s the change I so desperately want for this woman. I want her to learn to trust you and the ones you put in her path.  I want her to love life – not just survive it.  I want her to make up for lost time that was taken by the ones who hurt her.  I want her to open up those twisted arms and reach for you.  Please speak to her and teach her just like you taught me – that it doesn’t have to be so flippin’ hard.  Well, maybe those weren’t your exact words, but hey, you know what I mean.  Amen   

Footnote:  Turns out my neighbor was right.  I should have waited until the oak leaf was the size of a squirrel’s ear and my lettuce would not have frozen.  

Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Midnight Surprise

It was around midnight and I was sound asleep when all of a sudden my husband said, “Susan!  Someone’s coming down the driveway!” What?!

Clay and I live on a bluff - in the woods - with virtually no neighbors.  Unless the moon is bright, it is darker than dark with no lights in sight. Our gravel driveway is over half a mile long and during the twenty-plus years we have lived there, I think I have only seen two wandering cars venture all the way to the house before turning around. 

The vehicle slowed way down, then the headlights turned off while the car was still creeping toward the house. Once it stopped rolling, even in the darkness, we could see a shadowy figure get out - and then another.  As they began approaching the front porch, Clay grabbed a shotgun and I ran for the phone.  It had to be a home invasion.  There had been lots of stories like this on the news lately, but they were always in the city – not way out where we lived.  And they all ended poorly.  My heart was beating out of my chest as I prepared to punch in the numbers for 911. 

Clay and I waited in the darkness at the door as the two figures stepped onto the porch. When they finally reached the door, Clay suddenly flipped on the porch light, and I was shocked at what I saw.  Our intruders were two former Blue Monarch graduates, for crying out loud.  When they saw Clay’s shotgun, they both began screaming, “Stop!  Don’t shoot!  It’s us!” 

My word.  My first thought was, “Why in the world can’t you take care of anything during normal business hours?”  Turned out, Amy had violated her probation, there was a warrant for her arrest, and she had been on the run for about ten months.  The other graduate was along for moral support but needed some calming down of her own.  She was a nervous wreck.  Amy wanted me to take her to jail so she could turn herself in.  Again, why did this have to happen in the middle of the night, and why did she need me to do it?

Amy eventually confessed that she had come to me because she wanted someone to pray for her before she went back to jail.  Alright, I could do that.  We prayed together and then Clay and I took Amy to jail to get booked.  By the time we got home it was time to get up.

I spent the next few days struggling to see what we had really accomplished with Amy.  Seeing her go back to jail felt like such a failure. 

Several days after this overnight ordeal, I checked the mail and was happy to see I had a note from Amy. Turned out it was a thank you note, written in pencil – thanking me for taking her to jail, and thanking Clay for not shooting her.  I told myself, “Well, at least that girl learned how to write a thank you note.  At least there's that.”

Thank you notes are important to us at Blue Monarch.  If you have given us a gift, you have probably received one from our residents. I hear more about these thank you notes than anything else we do.  People love them!  I remember visiting a monthly donor at his office one day and much to my surprise, he had mounted every single thank you note he had ever received on a bulletin board in his office.  He cherished each and every one.

It's funny how our thank you notes are blessings in both directions. Our donors are blessed by what the notes say, and our residents are really touched that so many people out there, people they don't even know, want to give their resources to help them. Some women even get tearful when they grasp this idea for the first time.    

This thank you note process takes some learning, though.  Not only is it the very first time most of our residents have ever written a thank you note - but for some, an attitude of gratitude is also a new concept.  I remember one first-time thank you note in particular that needed some work.  It went something like this:

“Dear (So and So), I think you have such a great name!  I love weird, unusual names.  Do you like your name?  I have always wished my name was GI-Jane.  Don’t you like that name?  Love, GI-Jane.”

And then there was the woman who enjoyed using words she did not know, and often misused the ones she did know.  Sometimes she would even make up a word, use it with great confidence, and just hope no one noticed.  She wrote a donor one time thanking him for “giving her an opportunity to expose herself.”  Not exactly what she really meant – and definitely not something we would promote.  

Sometimes I think our residents’ thank you notes are a great indicator of how far they have grown emotionally and even spiritually.  Just look at this recent note from “GI-Jane”.  She is hardly the same person she was when she walked in the door almost a year ago.  And now she's proud to use her real name.

I need to level with you.  I wasn't sure I would even be able to write a blog post today because I have been a bundle of mixed emotions. We had to discharge a woman this morning and it was heartbreaking, disappointing, frustrating, and even a little infuriating. I'll be honest. I've done a little pouting today. This woman is so much better than some of the choices she makes.  One of her children was born while she lived here, so it was especially hurtful to see him leave. Blue Monarch is all that child knows. And we adore her older child, too, so we will miss them both a lot.  I found myself wondering what we had really accomplished with this woman, much like I had questioned myself about Amy. This was simply not the way I wanted things to turn out. However, God has been speaking to me in a gentle way and He has given me a good reminder that I needed in this moment. 

While digging through some old files to find the thank you note from Amy – you know, the one thanking me for taking her to jail, and thanking my husband for not shooting her, I also found this huge stack of letters Amy wrote to me while she was there.  As I pored through the pile of letters, I began to realize, each one mentioned something valuable Amy or her two boys got from Blue Monarch during their time with us.  Apparently there were many seeds planted along the way - even though I may never know how they grow and bloom one day.

It suddenly dawned on me, what was I thinking?  Amy learned much more than just how to write a thank you note.  She and her children gained a lot while they were here.  A whole lot.  

And then it hit me. I know this is also true for the woman who left this morning.  There were many seeds planted for her, and also for each of her two precious little children.  

So, instead of feeling sorry for myself that we don’t get to watch those seeds bloom for this family, I should be thanking God for the privilege and honor of planting them.  

As I sit here and ponder this thought, I can hear God gently speaking to my heart, "You see, a seed can’t grow if it isn’t first planted...and sometimes that's all I need you to do.  Trust me.  I will take it from here."  

Dear Lord, thank you for allowing us to plant the seeds that you continue to grow, and for the blessings that bloom even when we aren't watching. Thank you for this beautiful and amazing gift. Amen