I thought nothing would keep me from Africa. Growing up there as the daughter of missionaries I’ve always felt at home on foreign soil. As a 12 year old I spent every waking moment at an orphanage in Zimbabwe where I helped to care for baby Aaron who died of AIDS in my mother’s arms. He was one of the first orphans I knew and I made a vow to the children that I would never forget them; that I would return one day.
After high-school and college in America I returned to Zimbabwe for 2 years with a Fulbright grant to look at the use of art therapy with children who had been orphaned by AIDS. Through art, the children poured out stories of grief and pain. They drew their parents’ funerals and situations of extreme poverty. It was through these incredible orphans that I first discovered the power of art therapy. The experience changed my life.In 2007 I completed a master’s degree in art therapy counseling with the goal of traveling the world to bring art therapy and healing to children who needed it most. I have worked with child tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka, Ethiopian street kids, genocide survivors in Rwanda and children of war in Palestine. I thought I was headed right back to Africa long-term, but God had other plans in mind. Soon after graduation I was offered a job as an art therapist at the West Side Catholic Center. It was then that I discovered a group of women and children unlike any I had ever known. They were vibrant, colorful, sorrowful, alive, hungry for affection, jubilant, broken. My life with them covered the full range of human emotion. I watched as they waited for housing to come through, fed their children, worried, worked, bonded with each other. I saw tears stream down their faces. I wrapped my arms around them. We saw each other cry. We laughed together.I often wondered why some of the mothers seemed so disconnected from their children; children who were crying out desperately for love and attention. It frustrated me and at times I felt helpless. The answer to this came in my women’s group. One night in art therapy, I asked the women to pick a piece of paper out of a jar and create an image about the word written there. One woman, Christine, who always looked depressed and exhausted, picked the word “childhood.” She slowly painted a large, simple house, and a tree with flowers. She shared her story: “Before I was even born, when my mom was pregnant with me, my father beat her badly. I was actually born with broken bones. When I was a little girl everyone thought I looked like my father. They blamed me for it and beat me all the time. This is what I remember from my childhood.”Then there was Maria, a woman who barely opened up in art therapy until her last day at the shelter. She asked if she could meet with me, one on one, to have a final session, to say goodbye. As we drew together she told me the story of her mother’s death. She had been talking with her mother on the phone and her mom wasn’t feeling well. All of a sudden Maria heard a terrible crash. She screamed “Mom! Mom! Mom!” Her mother, her one supporter, her most faithful advocate was gone. She died of a heart attack before they could rush her to the hospital and Maria never saw her again. Her mother’s death was the beginning of her descent into homelessness. It was then through stories like these that I realized God was asking me to care for a unique group of people so close to His heart: America’s orphans. So many of the women I worked with had lost their mothers, and this grief seemed to precipitate their homelessness. Most of them had also been through traumatic events in their child-hood, painful life experiences that they had never been able to process. And the children of these women were orphaned in a different way- hungry for human affection and stability. Unlike the poverty of Africa, they suffered from a relational poverty, as they grew up with mothers who had experienced so much pain. The call from God was simple: LOVE THEM. This call grew stronger and stronger as I loved them every day. I realized that they were my heroes. I watched as they came in to the shelter broken, and left a family. We ate meals together, prayed together, walked through life together. I realized that the women had a fierce loyalty towards me; were always looking out for me. One day, after going through something difficult in my own life, I broke down crying at work. One of the women came to me, threw her arms around me and hugged me. Later, at dinner, I will never forget what she said: “When I saw you crying today, I knew you were human. I knew you were one of us.” Jesus does not ask us to help people by towering over them. I’m not a clinician high up in a chair with all the solutions. As children of God we are all equal and I want the women and children I work with to know that. I have often wondered why I was born into a loving family, with a mom, dad and four sisters who are devoted to me. As I make my way through life, I realize I may never know this answer. Why are some children born into poverty and pain? But one thing I do know: I must use the gift!I must use the love I have received to love others. If not, I am wasting my life. One of my favorite verses is: “God sets the lonely in families” For the women and children at WSCC, who have often experienced the loss and fragmentation of family, this place is a safe, loving home for them. It is a family I am also privileged to call my own. Christine, Maria and their children are all living in their own housing now. The kids have come to visit from time to time. Lanky teenagers, they are far from the clumsy kids I once knew. When they visit I can’t help but feel I’m at a family reunion. We snap photos and look at report cards. We laugh and share stories of our times together. God sets the lonely in families. Yours and mine. A promise from God. “I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you”. And as each new family comes I feel this promise stronger and stronger. There is room for all in the family of God.“Pure and undefiled religion is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world” James 1:27-Rebekah ChilcoteATR, PC, Youth Services Supervisor
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