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Children's Voice Article, November/December 2002

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

The story of John S. is a familiar one. His parents divorced when he was 6. When he was 8, his mother appeared unable to care for him and his brother, so John was plucked from his home and shuttled from foster home to group home throughout his youth--15 placements in 11 years, to be exact. As you might expect, this young boy quickly built up a wall to keep out anyone who might try to connect with him--foster parents, child care professionals, even other children.

But if his childhood began like many others, it ended as relatively few end. As a teenager, John was sent to a boys' home in Albion, Michigan, where he encountered a few individuals who simply wouldn't give up on him, despite his many attempts to keep them at bay physically and verbally.

In recounting stories from his youth in an article for CASA's magazine, The Connection, John singled out one particular man, Mr. Wilson, who believed in him and encouraged him to cultivate his talent in athletics and academics. They forged a bond on the basketball court, but it extended beyond the gym, and thanks to that connection John S. is more widely known as John Seita, an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, a former program director with the Kellogg Foundation, and the author of several books on childhood development and program evaluation. (His latest book is Kids Who Outwit Adults, with Larry Brendtro, [Sopris West, 2002].)

Make no mistake, the time between meeting his mentor and earning his doctorate was not easy by any means--it included stru gles with academics, alcoholism, and romantic relationships--but a single connection gave him the strength to triumph over those obstacles.

Stories like Seita's explain in brilliant detail my response to a foundation representative who recently asked me to name the most important component to successful outcomes for youth: connectedness. In retelling the story of his childhood, Seita points out how he felt connections, whether praying or looking through the newspaper box scores for the exploits of his favorite baseball team, the Cleveland Indians. Clearly, we all feel the need to be connected to one another. Whether it's a romantic partner, a teacher, a mentor, an athletic team, or a community group, we feel most alive when we feel connected to someone or something outside ourselves.

But if these connections are the vital link between a child and success, many of the children we encounter in our field see every connection as a double-edged sword. Many have forged relationships with those close to them, only to be hurt when those connections were severed through no fault of their own. Many children blame themselves even then. That's why we must make that extra effort to connect, no matter how many times we're rebuffed, whether a child is quiet and shy or obstinate and even violent. As Seita said in recounting his story, "In spite of being outwardly resistant to relationships, inwardly I craved them... [In fact,] the nature and strength of those relationships transcended any particular model program or treatment modality that I experienced."

That means no matter what program you're working in; no matter the size of your agency, government or nonprofit; no matter your role as mentor, child care worker, foster parent, adoptive parent, or biological parent; and no matter your level of experience in our field, you can be the key to a child's future.

Some of the most important connections I made when I was younger were with teachers, like my third grade teacher, Mrs. Scranage, who taught me that taking care of others was of such great importance--she gave us her diet Metrecal and traded us for our Hostess cupcakes, cleverly giving us a more nutritious offering without our becoming any the wiser (and enriching herself as well, some might say). My 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Tobin, taught me the power of the written and spoken word with challenging assignments in a course on Utopia. And my college professor, Jack Faricy, convinced me that I could achieve just about anything to which I put my mind and spirit--providing me constant feedback and reassurance through my demanding studies as a business major.

Years after the classes have come to an end, I may not be able to diagram a sentence or explain complex Keynesian economic theories, but the more important lessons remain with me. In the same way, although we can't underestimate the ways in which developmental psychology, programmatic research, and legislative initiatives contribute to our work, it's important to remember that, once in a while, a single connection can make all the difference. In fact, sometimes it's the only thing that can.

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