Thursday, August 28, 2008

3rd Anniversary of Katrina - #5

Three years ago Huricane Katrina made landfall. Today we watch as Hurricane Gustav appears to be headed in the same direction. Mr. Thornton has received phone calls from his sister and nieces asking if they can come stay with him for a few days. This time there is an evacuation plan for those who have no way to leave on their own.

Mr. Thornton is glad to be living in San Antonio, away from the threat of another storm. He has struggled to rebuild his life as best he can. He doesn't ask for much, only a home to live in and a safe place to raise his kids. His greatest desire is to give them love, security and the opportunity to have a good future. Having a home, a bed to sleep in, wholesome food to eat, and the love and attention of their father is allowing the kids to blossom.

Statistics show that education is the key to overcoming poverty. We have the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty for 4 children and their future children. It is also proven that the most effective way to help people out of poverty is done through a one-on-one basis by people in the community - not some government program. It is the friend and neighbor who reaches out to show love, mentoring and a helping hand. This is when a hand-out becomes a hand-up.

A while back one of the news stations featured an Everyday Hero. This lady was a nurse. She decided to adopt a Kindergarten class in the poor part of town. She followed them all the way through high school, calling them every day, making sure they got the help they needed, and letting them know that college was the expected next step. Every child had graduated from high school and all of them were in college except two, one of which was in a trade school and one doing an on-the-job training program. One person can make a difference. It does not have to be a whole class, it can be one child at a time.

"Our kids" are far more perceptive than "normal" kids, they have had to be as a matter of survival. They deserve to be kids without the worry of where they will live or what they will find to eat. They deserve a new pair of shoes on the first day of school and a backpack with paper and pencils, so that they can walk into school with their head held high, ready to learn. They deserve help with learning to live with the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the trauma and the abuse, neglect and abandonment by their mom.

If we don't learn how to help Charlie, he could end up in serious trouble one day. It would break our hearts. And yet every day we look across town and down our noses at the kids who do get into trouble and wonder why they do these things.

Sometimes we wonder if those who help Mr. Thornton keep his family together really understand the impact of what they are doing. I don't think we can get Social Security to amend the SSI rules so that he can have a job, so we have to rely on the generosity of others to help him keep his family together.

If you want to know how you can be a part of this success story - click here.

Thank you to all who have helped these kids achieve phenominal things in 3 short years!

We look forward to giving you lots of wonderful updates in the future.

Stephanie and Randy

3rd Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - #4

Alonzo (AKA Chip) was 4 weeks old when Katrina hit New Orleans. After weathering the storm, the family left their home when the water started rising in the street. By the time Mr. Thornton threw a few things together that they could carry, he placed Alonzo in a cooler with a can of formula and 2 bottles of water. How he survived the next 4 days of heat and chaos with 2 bottles of water is a miracle in itself. Arriving in San Antonio, the large shelter had a team of doctors and nurses ready to take care of Chip.

Luckily for Chip he was to young to remember the sights and sounds, but that does not mean they did not affect him. This was on top of alcohol withdrawal, and over the following months the high level of stress within the family. Then his mom took him back to New Orleans where he was completely neglected. When we rescued him 2 weeks later he was malnourished and had sores on the back of his neck where formula had been allowed to run and collect as he lay unattended day after day.

Even though Chip was so little, we see some of the same symptoms of trauma that we see in the older kids. We sometimes wonder how much comes from within and how much is learned behaviours from his older siblings.

Chip is now a healthy, happy and very smart little 3 year old. He loves music and claims the keyboard as his. A few weeks ago I was flipping through TV channels and ran across the opera version of Romeo and Juliet on PBS. Chip was walking through the room and stopped dead in his tracks. He stood in front of the TV with his mouth open, taking in the singing and acting. A couple of times he started to turn and walk away, but he would stop and continue to stare at the TV. In church Chip loves to watch TJ play the piano and direct the choir.

They like to say their prayers when they go to bed. Marquel, then Annie, then Charlie who likes to say the Lords Prayer. One night Charlie finished his prayer and in the bed next to him, Chip started praying. It was the first time he had done this, and I couldn't understand most of what he said, but I did hear mention of the movie The Lion King. I guess he was asking God to take care of the lions. The next night I sat on his bed and he prayed again, this time I caught, "don't yell, don't run, don't hit . . ."

Chip has always been very observant. As a tiny baby he would watch intently everything that the older kids did. Now that he is old enough to talk, he amazes us with his understanding of what goes on around him. We think Chip will be an amazing person one day.

When we met the family following Katrina, Charlie was 3 1/2 years old. Chip is just a few months shy of that age now. We wonder what would have happened to Chip if he was still in New Orleans. Would he even be alive?

Marquel let us know early on that she knew there was a better life out there for her, and she wants it. When she would meet our friends or church members would stop and talk to her she would say, "I wish I could spend the night at their house." At first I thought that in her mind that must be the ultimate acceptance, but over time I realized she just wanted to see how other people live. We use this to encourage her, to keep working and studying so that one day she can own her own house and have pretty things. Marquel has good taste and she knows what she likes. I can't wait to see her house some day!

Marquel is growing tall and beautiful and is smiling and happy most of the time. She now holds herself a little taller, more confident of herself and her abilities. She asks lots of questions, and she is learning that beauty comes from the inside.

Last year Marquel would roll her eyes about Victoria, who was the smartest kid in her class. During the summer, Communities in Schools had a summer program that we signed the girls up for. It was limited to 20 kids, and guess who was in the program. Victoria.

By the end of the 4 week program, Marquel and Victoria had become friends. After we had our meetings with the counselors at school, Marquel could not wait for school to start. She counted down the days. She could not wait to see Victoria again.

Now Marquel knows that she is just as smart as Victoria, and with a little time to catch up and lots of hard work, she can be on the honor roll too. We are going to work very hard to help her make that happen!

After our meeting at the school, I wanted to scream to the world, "This is huge!" This is so much more than just passing a test. This is a new beginning for this girl who now knows she can do whatever she wants to do.

What an accomplishment for a little girl who did not go to school until she came to San Antonio. Where would she be if she was with her mom in New Orleans? She would be on her way to another generation of illiteracy, drugs and welfare dependence.

Randy and I feel like we have a very unique position. We are not the parents or grandparents, therefore we do not have the same biological attachment to the kids. This allows us to be a little more objective and at the same time thoroughly enjoy the achievements of the kids.

We are to thankful for all those who help and support us. And we are so happy to be able to share these achievements with all of you.

To be continued . . .
Correction: Yesterday's reference to the story about pigs was on the National Geographic Channel

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

3rd Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - #3

Annie (short for Anthonyione) was such a cute little 6 year old girl when we met her at the shelter. She had the biggest smile and most contagious laugh. She and Charlie competed for attention, fighting for space on our lap.

Over the last 3 years we have come to know Annie as a very smart little girl, with the ability to think through and reason out problems. She gets 100's on her report card and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She can be a real charmer and keep us laughing with her dramatic flair. At the same time, she exhibits more symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress than the others.

Recently the Discovery Channel featured the results of a study on young pigs who suffered PTS caused by weening too early. These stressed pigs were more aggressive, fighting until they dropped. When they were placed on an elevated platform their anxiety level would rise and they would stay in a safe zone where Plexiglas surrounded the platform. There was a decrease in memory which prevented them from learning and remembering how to do an easy task.

The visual impact of the healthy pigs vs the stressed pigs was eye opening. Trauma is an unseen but very debilitating injury and a silent stalker of it's victim, knocking them down when they least expect it.

For "our kids" the trauma began long before Hurricane Katrina, when they were "weened too early" by lack of attention and affection from their mom. Following Katrina, when the kids would pile on our laps with a book their mom would accuse me of "spoiling them".

The Mayo Clinic has a list of common symptoms resulting from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. "Our kids" are very fortunate that they do not have the deformaties or mental retardation. The last symptom on the list, however, is very familiar:

"Abnormal behavior such as a short attention span, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, extreme nervousness and anxiety."

We are fortunate to have a wonderful group of therapists for the kids to help them work through these problems. Progress seems slow at times, but then we think of how far they have come.

Annie will need some help to give her big smile a beautiful new look. Tomorrow she will get some baby teeth pulled that will not come out on their own. Losing her double set of front teeth will help her eat easier. Then she will get her first set of braces on September 4th. She has worked hard to speak more clearly, and getting her teeth straightened should help that as well. The self confidence that will come in the end is worth as much as the million dollar smile she will have. Our huge thanks to a very generous orthodontist!

Annie is learning how to coordinate her clothes (not that she really cares that much!) This photo was taken October, 2005, the day that they moved into their house. It reminds us how much she has grown, and it always makes us smile.

The other day Annie told me she wanted to be the kind of doctor who takes care of kids. She would be a wonderful Pediatrician. With her charm, intelligence and spirit, she will be able to do whatever she wants to do with her life.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

3rd Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - continued #2

We have been so blessed by all who have helped "our kids". Sometimes I wonder if those who have been so generous with their time, talents and money truly comprehend what a huge difference they are making in the lives of 4 little kids. This tribute is to them as well "our kids"!

To understand Charlie, we have to go back to the beginning. Here is a recap:

August, 2005, Charlie was 3 1/2 years old. He had been the baby until 4 weeks prior when little brother Alonzo (now AKA "Chip") came along. This would have been traumatic enough, but then Hurricane Katrina came along, followed by the water, nearly drowning when the water pushed him under a dumpster, no food or water to drink while they waited long hot days to be rescued, and then the commotion and confusion of shelters in San Antonio. His mom would disappear all day to drink with her friends.

Then a man named Mr. Jim took Charlie and his family to a shelter in the "hill country". Here at least he had lots of room to run. And run he did. He ran and ran and ran, as if he could run off all the trauma.

After 6 weeks at this shelter, they moved into a house in San Antonio.

May, 2006, his mom took him, his brother and 2 sisters back to New Orleans on a bus. He did not want to go, so he hid in his closet. His mom found him and beat him.

Two weeks later we and his Dad (Mr. Thornton) came to get him and his little brother. He was in filthy clothes, no shoes, and had lost so much weight his pants would not stay up.

We have learned far more than we ever thought we would about Post Traumatic Stress. We have had people say, "Well just get over it, kid!"

No one "gets over" PTS, they can only attempt to learn how to live with it and deal with it. How I wish Charlie could "get over it". He tells us that the only time he does not think of the water is when he is at school, because he is busy there.

In addition to the PTS there is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Medication calms him down so that he can learn to stop and think before he reacts.

No medication will make up for the beer his mom drank while she was pregnant and the resulting Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When we first met Charlie, his nickname was "Bud" in honor of all the Budweiser beer that his mom drank. And medication cannot make up for the abuse, neglect and abandonment by his mom.

While Charlie is behind in his emotional development, he is way ahead in the smarts department. No one is a stranger to Charlie, with his charm and good looks he can strike up a conversation with any one. He hears and sees everything, and he can explain or describe things in great detail.

While sitting in Time Out he would stare up at a picture that my nephew took of a waterfall. One day when Charlie was excused from time out, he proceeded to tell me in great detail how he could build that waterfall. He would need big rocks and little rocks. The big trees needed to be there already, but he could plant the small ones. He ended with, "I sure would like to see that waterfall." I promised him that some day we would find a waterfall in Texas that we could go see.

Do you think he would have the opportunity to see a waterfall if he still lived in the Projects of New Orleans?

Charlie still has a special bond with Mr. Jim, the man who rescued them from the chaos of the big shelter in San Antonio. He loves to go swimming in Mr. Jim's pool. Yes, Charlie loves to swim.

Last week we met with the Special Ed diagnostician who had tested Marquel. Half way through the meeting he looked over at Charlie who was sitting surprisingly quiet against the wall and said, "And that boy is going to be President one day!"

What an awesome future Charlie has ahead of him.

To be continued . . .

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Monday, August 25, 2008

3rd Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

August 29th, 2008 will be the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Over the next week there could be seemingly paradoxical reports; those lamenting the lack of progress and others with accolades on the progress made.

But this milestone may be overshadowed by the Democratic convention and the first African-American nominee for President. Whatever your political persuasion, we have to appreciate the determination and this great country where anything is possible.

The other day a friend told me about her sister-in-law whose church is sponsoring 2 families from New Orleans. Her sister-in-law had told her, "These kids are so lucky that Katrina came along". At first my friend thought it was a rather arrogant thing to say, but then she thought of us and "our kids".

As she talked, an image flashed through my mind, a mental picture of where "our kids" might be if they still lived in New Orleans. I pictured the Projects where their mom hung out, the red brick 3 story buildings that stretched for several blocks separated by blacktop, with foul-smelling dumpsters that overflowed onto the ground. I could see people hanging out on the steps and gathered in boisterous groups. The adults pay no attention to the kids nearby, running and chasing each other, laughing and chattering, their imaginary games making up for the lack of toys.

The atmosphere is static as the adults, beer in hand, keep a watchful eye on anyone who might be ready to cause trouble for them. The kids seem to be in their own little world, but their eyes dart around as they recite their made up poems, their hands slapping and clapping with the rhythm of the words.

As darkness comes, the gathering of adults grows by numbers and in volume. Empty beer cans are thrown in the direction of the dumpsters. Leaning up against the dumpsters are those who have passed out from an overdose of beer and/or drugs. The children eventually find their way into an apartment, whether it is theirs or that of a friend, to fall asleep on a couch if they are lucky, but most likely on the floor with the "cockyroaches" and "squeeky mices". Pajamas are unknown to them. They have never had a bed of their own. Their stomachs empty, but they are used to the dull aching.

They sleep until they wake up, there is no meaning for time of day. It may be the stirring of others that wakes them, or when the hunger pains become more intense. If they are lucky they can find something in the tiny kitchen to eat; a cinnamon roll wrapped in cellophane or a package of chips.

As the adults came to life, they ask about their mom. Did anyone know where she had spent the night? They had heard about a "raper man" and finding mom would give them a sense of security.

This day would be no different than the previous one or the one to follow. Making up new variations on their games, seeking out something to eat, keeping an eye on who was around and an ear to everything that was going on; these were the activities that filled each day. Survival depended on it. School would have been a welcome diversion to the monotony of the Projects, but since mom did not see the value of education, they seldom went.

"At least here they have someone who cares about them." My friends voice brought an abrupt end to the video that had been playing in my mind.

As I thought about what to write about as the anniversary of Katrina approaches, I decided that this week we will celebrate the success and achievements of "our kids".

To be continued . . .

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Katrina's Children - a Documentary" by Laura Belsey

Several weeks ago I ordered a DVD documentary "Katrina's Children". As I watched I would rewind and watch again, trying to catch all the words and feelings of the precious children featured in this documentary. I probably watched the entire DVD 3 or 4 times, each time hearing more of what the children said.

Some say "children are resilient". Others say "just get over it". These children demonstrate how both of these are myths that we adults propegate in order that we do not have to feel the pain that others feel. We want to push it out of our minds saying that "those people" are somehow lower than we are, less intelligent, less capeable, lazy and poor - all by their own fault. If we don't learn about them, then we can condem them and complain about the bleeding heart liberals who want to give them more of our hard earned dollars.

In the meantime, the children are left behind.

As I watched Katrina's Children I saw "our kids" reflected back at me. "Our kids" do not talk much about Katrina, and at the advice of experts, we do not push them to. We listen for the little comments and the actions that speak far louder than words.

In Katrina's Children I heard familiar comments such as "I wish I was white". I watched the girl who kicked and pulled at the padlocked gate to the fence that surrounded her school. She was so frustrated that her school was not open. And yet she could not read a sign warning about the consequences of bringing firearms onto school property. It reminded me of "our" Aleisha. Poor Aleisha, so left behind, and as she screamed out through words and actions for help, she was ignored even more. No one had taken the time to hear her story, the incredible pain this little girl suffered because of abuse and neglect. As she told us her story with tears flowing down her cheeks, I wondered if anyone had ever seen this vulnerable side of her. All they saw was the anger that came from a heart with hurt so deep that none of us adults could begin to comprehend it.

In this documentary each child draws a picture to represent their feelings. I watched to see if any of them would draw a picture like our Charlie daws, with a house on stilts and his bed in the attic.

I was struck by the little girl who did not cry in front of her mom because she could not put into words why she was so sad. It made me wonder how much "our kids" wanted to say but felt they couldn't. Children do not have the wisdom that comes with years to deal with or describe their loss and grief. And yet they are so very wise.

This documentary features kids from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and yet it could be children from any city across our country. They beg to be heard. They desperately want to go to a good school, to learn to read and understand what they are reading, to be treated the same no matter the color of their skin.

We can make a difference. But we have to be willing to put aside our pride and our arrogance. We have to be willing to be quiet and listen to their words both spoken and unspoken. We have to be willing to give them friendship and not be judgemental. It must come from a sincere desire to make a difference, and these kids can spot a fake in a minute.

Please take a minute to visit and purchase a copy of this DVD. You will be helping a good cause.

If you want to read a great review of "Katrina's Children - a Documentatry" - click here

If you want to share the story of "our kids" with a friend, click here.

Until next time . . .


Friday, August 15, 2008

Prayer Works!

Yesterday we met with the Special Education counselor at the kids school. He had called asking us to come in to talk about Marquel and the results of her testing. He was so excited to give us his news.

The middle of last year, Marquel was really struggling in her school work, particularly in math, which she was failing. After talking to her teacher and the principal we decided to sign her up for special ed testing in the hopes that if there was a learning disability she would be able to get the right kind of help. She had worked very hard and I did not want her to get discouraged and give up trying to learn.

We continued studying with her every weekend in the hopes that she would be able to pass the achievement tests. You may recall, or you can go back and read the older blog posts as we worked and prayed that Marquel would be able to remember what we studied.

Yesterday the counselor explained that from the time we began the paperwork for the special ed testing until the time the testing was actually done the first part of June (it takes a long time to get that ball rolling!!), Marquel had not only passed her achievement tests, she was able to pass the special ed testing with flying colors. The test results showed average to higher than average intelligence and abilities.

While we thought Marquel would always have to struggle, he explained that starting now, she will need to be always challenged or she would become bored and get into trouble. He said that if she pursues her current desire to be a teacher, it would probably prove to be a difficult job for her, that she might instead think about being a lawyer! She has the potential, a desire to learn, and we have seen a new twinkle in her eyes. He even went to far as to say that she had traits that they look for in Gifted and Talented students, with the potential to be anything she wants to be. He gave us some good suggestions to help Marquel keep focused in the right direction.

There are a few things we need to work on, seemingly simple things like telling time and counting money. The counselor confirmed what we already knew, that in the Projects there is not much need to know how to count money, and the passing of time has little meaning.

Her math scores were the lowest on the testing, so last night I told Marquel I would print off the study guide for 5th grade achievement (TAKS) tests and work really hard so she could get a good grade in Math this year. "Oh, can we do it right now?" she wanted to know.

After a long day of school meeting, counselors, and running errands with them, I said "Let's start tomorrow!"

I have always felt that Marquel has an innate desire to live a better life than her mom. Now she has shown us how hard she is willing to work to achieve it. Thank you for all your thoughts, prayers and words of encouragement. Once again, I think God is reminding us that he has great plans for Marquel.

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Bulverde Texas Couple Questioned in Houston Kidnapping Case

Thursday, August 7th, 2008. I received an email from a friend that said:

"ABC Good Morning America had a segment this morning about a woman in Houston who has been caring, with the help of her church, for 5 children for the last three years since they evacuated New Orleans. The children's 22 year old mother showed up with her boyfriend wanting her children back. The Houston lady took the children on "vacation" around the state of Texas but has agreed to relinquish the children to Child Protective Services."

I answered her back that Randy and I might have been tempted to do the same thing before Mr. Thornton got custody of "our kids".

The kids have been at our house this week and they have been very good and patient while we did our work. Each morning I take advantage of the coolness to work on painting our house until the heat makes the paint glob. The afternoons are spent either in the coolness of the house or we fill the small swimming pool with water so the kids can cool off and wear off some of their vast amount of energy.

Yesterday afternoon we decided to take the kids to Guadalupe State Park, a few miles down the road, where the shallow river is perfect for the kids to play. Driving into the park the speed limit is 20 over numerous speed bumps. The kids laugh and scream if we go a little faster and they are bounced in their seats. Weekday afternoons there are only a few people, and we can relax and enjoy the peace and quiet.

Arriving home, the kids headed for the shower while I made them a quick dinner. Randy made a grocery list and headed out the door to the grocery store. He was a little bit surprised to see a Bulverde police car and a Sheriff pulling into the driveway.

The officers asked who had been driving the silver Sante Fe at Guadalupe State Park.

"I was" Randy said, thinking to himself "I was only going 30 mph in a 20 mph zone!"

"Who was with you?"

"My wife and 4 kids".

"Were the kids black?"

Now it dawned on Randy why they were at our house. There was a bit of panic in Randy's voice as he came in the door and asked me where the custody papers were. My first thought was "how does their mom think she can come for these kids now?"

Not knowing what was going on, I rushed the kids into our bedroom and told them to wait until we came for them. The officers had not heard the news story, and had to call for the names and ages of the missing kids in order to compare their list with the names on the copy of the divorce/custody papers that we showed them.

While we waited for the officers to finish their work, I went to check on the kids. They were sitting silently in a row at the head of the bed, big sister Marquel in the middle, the others huddled tightly by her side. They looked at me with big eyes and their faces showed their relief when I said it was OK for them to come out, that the police were looking for some other kids.

Following me back outside, Charlie made a beeline for the police car, peering in the window. "There is lots of cool stuff in there, lights flashing and all" he said as we herded the kids back into the house.

We sat down with the kids to talk about why the officers had come to our house. Randy explained that was why we had gone to the judge to have her sign papers that said no one could take them away from their Father and that they were always safe with us. "Whew!" Annie sighed, rolling her head and her eyes in her drama queen way.

With the kids off to watch their night time movie, Randy and I called our friend Teresa who had sent us the story and thanked her for the "heads up". We had not given being seen in public with the kids a second thought. Randy and I had not noticed anyone watching us at the river, but obviously someone had been on the lookout.

Today the kids in Houston are back with their mother under the supervision of CPS. As we go run errands we will take our copy of the custody orders with us just in case!