By Shay Bilchik,
President and CEO, CWLA
My holiday season began the same way every year growing up in Cleveland. At the sound of the first holiday song on the radio or the mere mention of shopping for gifts, I diligently set to work on a wish list. If I came across these scraps from childhood now, I would no doubt find detailed requests for train sets, footballs, and toy soldiers--a hodgepodge of material things.
Today, I look forward to the holidays for a lot of different reasons, including rest and relaxation and spending time with family, not to mention the incredible food. As an adult, however, my wish list has become very simple. Nothing can be bought at a shopping mall, over the Internet, or through a catalog. It contains just three gifts that I ask to receive, that I plan to give to my own children, and that I hope other adults will share with the children in their lives.
First on the list is love. There is an abundance of this gift in my family. But for the nearly one million children who are abused and neglected every year, love can be much more elusive. Their life circumstances make it much harder for them to find someone to love who will love them back in a healthy way--someone whom they can count on to be there for them each and every day.
For too many children, the holidays are a sad time, either because they've spent too many holidays in the absence of a family's love, or from having had love and trust stripped away due to violence. This is what happened to a 7-year-old named Darline--the horrifying experience she lived through is described in "Survivors, Not Victims: Children of Murdered Parents" in this issue of Children's Voice. On Christmas Eve, Darline witnessed her mother murder her abusive father, plunging Darline and her siblings into further chaos.
Darline managed to survive her tumultuous childhood. Today she knows more than any of us about the power of love and is working to spread it through her job at a nonprofit agency, as a coach for young female boxers, and as a mother. We can all learn from Darline's example.
Second on my wish list for children is the opportunity for a full, productive life. For most people, a large portion of that involves finding fulfilling, meaningful work when they become adults. If the children in our agencies don't receive the treatment and stability they need to be healthy, both emotionally and physically, they cannot maximize their natural skills and properly prepare for careers that are important to them.
The value of such a gift has become more evident as we learn about the bumpy road so many youth from the foster care and juvenile justice systems face as they transition to the real world. The article "From Custody to Career" describes how meaningful work is difficult for young people to find without ongoing support and guidance, well beyond age 18. Making career paths smoother for young people is a gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
The road to adulthood and opportunity is also cumbersome for so many children in the child welfare system diagnosed with learning disabilities. We address the topic this month, and will continue to do so in future issues, in a new column "Exceptional Children: Navigating Learning Disabilities and Special Education." Written by experts in the field, the column will help demystify the process of getting these children help for disabilities that too often serve as roadblocks to their success.
If we bestow love and opportunities for productive lives to children and youth, then the third gift--hope--will materialize naturally. Instilling hope in future generations most at risk is the very essence of what we do in child welfare. We want all our kids to have hope that something better will come into their lives, whether it's the next day, or the day after that.
With this wish list in hand, I urge you to spend time this holiday season thinking about how you can give the most special gift of all--your love and attention--to your own children, and then, as a family, reach out to other children and share the gifts you have to give to those who need them. Simply reassuring and encouraging a child may be something she or he will hold special for a very long time.
Taking the even more dramatic and life-altering step of adopting a child can fulfill all of the wishes on my list--a new family providing hope, love, and opportunity in their future. We were reminded of this during National Adoption Awareness Month in November, but we need not limit ourselves to considering adoption only one month out of the year. Adoption may be the most special gift of all for one of the 125,000 children waiting for a permanent, loving home.
With that, I wish all of you, our readers, a happy holiday season, and I encourage you to take my wish list, make it your own, and distribute it far and wide.
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