Why I Chose To Be a Youth Director

I wasn’t looking for a job.  I was nearing the end of my second semester at MSU-Mankato and completing my generals.  I also worked part-time at a local daycare center in the Toddler Room.  Life was full of studying (kind of), writing papers, trying to pay rent and changing at least 32 diapers during a shift.  My roommate, Kayla, was contemplating a job change and I offered to help her search.  While being a student, I had the ability to login to our school job search where I began to look for something she would enjoy.  And there it was.

I printed off the job description and called my mom (aka my go-to gal for anything needing discussion).  “Go for it!  The worse they can say is ‘No.’  It’s definitely worth a shot.”  I thought about it for quite some time.  I certainly didn’t want to quit my job at the daycare and they’d have to be willing to work around my school schedule.  I was just about to head into my core Special Education classes and my classes weren’t flexible.  But… it sounded amazing.

Once I hit 7th grade, my mom was my Youth Director at my home congregation in St. Joseph.  Between you and me, it was pretty terrible.  I had to be early for everything, I had to stay late for everything and I had no joy in spending time with my mother.  I was expected to attend every event, which honestly, I loved being involved regardless.  I LOVED Bible Camp, I LOVED mission trips, I LOVED spending time with my friends before and after confirmation.  I loved Ash Wednesday Soup Suppers.  I loved the community, I loved everything about my church.

I felt so lost when I came to college- I wanted to embrace my newly found freedom, but I longed for a church family again.  Devin, who was my boyfriend at the time, visited several area churches while we were in school.  Christ the King was our first stop (because it was the closest to my apartment).  I was…. unimpressed.  It was big.  There wasn’t communion every Sunday.  There was no band.  We left and talked about other options to explore the following weeks.

So, when I came across the job opening for Good News Bearers Coordinator at Christ the King Lutheran Church I was apprehensive, but I hoped this could be my way back into a church family I’d so ached to be apart of again.  I emailed my application and cover letter to Pastor Patrick, after having my sister look it over three million times.  “It has to be perfect,” I said.  I called several times and left Patrick two voicemails.  When he called me for an interview, I was ecstatic.  I remember thinking to myself that I couldn’t wear a lot of makeup because ‘Youth Directors aren’t into their appearance’.

I was 20.  I’d never had a formal interview in my life.  Pastor Steve, Pastor Patrick and the current Sr High Youth Director sat around an enormous oval table where I sat at the head of.  They asked me tough questions, they asked me some easy questions.  I left the interview completely red with embarrassment.  I sounded so stupid.  ‘They are probably in there right now laughing about what I said.  And that guy, Pastor Patrick, was such a… dork!’

He called me back the following day to schedule a 2nd interview.  I was absolutely floored to get a call back.  Something I said must have been somewhat impressive….  I was late to the 2nd interview because my print-off MAPQUEST  (yes, this was 2007) directions brought me to the wrong side of the street.  Even after being late, having a really rough 1st and 2nd interview, Pastor Patrick offered me the job.  I proudly became Christ the King’s new Good News Bearers Coordinator in December of 2007.

Fast forward 7 years later… I’m still here, though my job has changed quite a bit over the years.  I became the Jr High Youth Director after we, from scratch, created a wonderful new Wednesday night program for our families.  Primarily, I’m in charge of anything and anyone 7-9th grade.  Sounds crazy to you? I imagine it does.  Jr Highers are smelly and annoying and dramatic.  Yes, you’re right.  But in the middle of it all, they’re all so wonderful.

They’re honest.  They’re full of life.  They’re passionate.  They’re inspiring and rejuvenating.  They’re goofy and silly and love to be with their friends.  I love that about them.  I love their emotions.  I love their love for others.

I just… love them so much.

We play together, we learn together, we pray together, we worship together.  We laugh, cry, give, share, imagine, create and inspire.  We invite, forgive, sing and praise.  They are the church family I’ve always wanted.  It’s my job to not only help them know the Good News, but I GET to make memories with them.  Memories filled with fun and laughter and ultimately, Jesus.

I’ve sat and cried with a kid after his parent had passed away.  I’ve gotten texts from a girl at midnight after her boyfriend broke up with her.  I’ve watched girls struggle with eating disorders and had hard discussions with their parents.  I’ve brought ice cream to the girl struggling with medical complications.  I’ve met for froyo to talk about boys and teachers.  I’ve talked with kids about their addictions and struggles.  I’ve cheered on the dancers and skaters and actors and basketball players.  I’ve shared my life with them, I’ve shared my stories of failings and successes.

In May of 2013, I let my first jr highers go as they traveled off all over the country for college.  My eyes watered as I hugged many of them goodbye at the end of the summer, wishing them well and telling them to “Make good choices,” (my catch phrase).  More and more kids come and go through my program, but I never forget those who’ve left.  My heart is full of joy when they come home for breaks and I get to see how they are doing.

It’s not always wonderful.  I struggle every day to get enough help from parents to chaperone or lead a small group or be a driver, but the kids make it worth it.  Every time.  All the time.  It’s not wonderful when I fail and say something I’m not supposed to say.  Or when I send a postcard with the wrong day (this happens more than you would expect).  It’s not wonderful when I have to tell parents that we can’t offer an activity because nobody wants to volunteer to help.  It’s not wonderful to get paid like, really really little.

But I do it because they are amazing kids.  They deserve ALL what we give and so much more.  They deserve to be loved and for adults to make amazing memories with them.  They deserve for church to be inspiring and loving and FUN!  I do it because I love it.  I do it because I love them.

1st Timothy 4:12

xoxo

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What Our Autism Looks Like

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Lucy is four.  She is beautiful, charming, demanding, hilarious, sensitive, aware, smart, and so so so much more.

Lucy loves pancakes and sausages for supper.  She eats carrots and cucumbers like candy.  Lucy’s favorite movie is Toy Story, but enjoys watching other movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Despicable Me and Tangled.

She loves to play at the park, bike and go to the movie theater.  She looks forward to seeing her grandparents and aunts.  Lucy loves to read books, paint and play with play-doh.

Lucy has autism.

I recently began taking Lucy to visit with a clinical Psychologist in town.  I’ve learned more about autism in two sessions than I have in my entire life.  I’ve come home from these appointments so excited to share new information with Devin and to put some of her advice to use.  I feel invigorated and inspired.  After months of “what ifs” and questioning how Lucy would be able to assert herself and live in a world that’s so different than her own, I finally began to let go.  Taking each day, minute by minute, has certainly encouraged me stop dwelling on the things I cannot change.  I can’t change how people will look at her.  I can’t change how unfairly people treat those with disabilities.  I can’t change her brain to function like a typical child.  I stopped dwelling on small things like, ‘What if she has no friends in jr high?’ And turned it into, ‘Less drama with those 8th grade girls!’ Or things like, ‘What if she never gets married?’ Into ‘As long as she’s happy with herself and content with her life, she doesn’t need to.’  Frankly, those are the hardest things I’ve had to overcome and by golly, I am SO proud of myself for letting a lot of that go.

But.

Dr. Cameron has taken my dreams for Lucy and amplified them times a million.  Lucy will be able to have friends, Lucy will be able to be married if she chooses, Lucy will be able to read emotions and feel emotions, I just have to help her learn how to do it.  She’s taught me that though Lucy doesn’t have the natural skills most 2-year-olds have, she’s perfectly capable of obtaining those, but just needs to be taught or shown.

Lucy hates to put her coat on.  Mostly because she knows it’s the step before leaving and transitioning to another place which is unimaginably difficult for her.  As I grabbed her coat and asked her to put it on, she refused, threw her arms back and sat on the floor.  “Lucy, watch my hand.”  I grabbed the left sleeve and invited her into her coat.  She watched my movements without hesitating, lifted her arm and slipped it inside.

Holy shit.

No tantrum?  No screaming?  I feel like everything we’ve done in the past has been wrong.  I’ve suddenly realized that all my parental powers mean nothing in the world of clinical psychology.  “Lucy, look at me,” I softly say.  She quickly glances in my direction, but away from my eyes. “Thank you.”  “You’re welcome, Mom.”

I can hear Dr. Cameron saying, “Everything with Lucy needs to be visual.  Talking with her does very little.  She’s trying so hard to understand what you’re saying that it gets jumbled in her brain.”

Speaking with psychologist has made me pay very close attention to my own social behaviors.  I noticed, I do not, in fact, look people directly in the eye when speaking to them for long periods of time.  Actually, the next time you do it, count how many times you look away and continue speaking.  I’ve found that in the times I’ve purposefully continued to look into someone’s eyes for a long period of time, the conversation gets really creepy.  “So what if she’s not looking directly in someone’s eyes?  Teach her to at least face the person, give them space and speak with friendly intonations,” Dr. Cameron said, “It’s hard for her to look into someone’s eyes.  It’s uncomfortable if she’s forced.  If you teach Lucy to become more flexible, she’ll continue to get comfortable in new situations and environments.  When Lucy feels comfortable, it becomes natural to make eye contact- even if it’s quick- she’s showing warm feelings.”

She’s so right.  At home, Lucy has no trouble making eye contact with us.  She laughs, jokes, asks you to play with her and will usually look us directly into our eyes.  So often during her early intervention screening, I was adamant that Lucy had zero odd social behaviors.  As she began to get older, her autism began “showing” much more loudly.  I brushed a lot of it off with the fact that she was so young, but now they stare me right in the face.  There could have been so many people that said, “I told you so!” but thank God that not a single professional, friend, or even my sister has ever let me feel stupid for pushing an autism diagnosis to the curb.  They were right, but I couldn’t see it.

Eleanor continues to be different than Lucy in drastic ways.  I have to laugh when people say, “Boy, they sure are different!”  You don’t know the half of it.  Little things, for example, sometimes hit me like “YOU DIDN’T NOTICE THAT AS A PROBLEM” bricks to the gut.  “Which one, Nora.  Cookie or crackers?” I ask Nora before snack time, “Dooties!” Beautiful.  Small.  Subtle.  She can make choices.  Making choices for Lucy took us MONTHS of work.  Lucy never pointed to her sippy cup when she wanted some.  If Lucy had been our second child, would these red flags been much more apparent?  Would I have let the ‘a’ word sink in a little faster?

There is still so many people shocked by her diagnosis.  “I would have never guessed!  She seems perfectly normal to me!”  Contrary to what you may think, those words actually do not make me feel better about it.  These are usually people who’ve known her since birth.  She’s cute.  She’s charming.  You didn’t want to see it, just like I didn’t.  These are the people that haven’t seen me with tears welling in my eyes when I’m trying to talk Lucy through the steps that’s needed to walk out the door to the parking lot.

I’ll be honest with you, it has in the past made me feel like a really crappy mom.  I’ve been so frustrated, hurt, annoyed.  I remember absolutely losing it one time while we were in a super hurry to get out the door.  “WHY DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND!? WHY CAN’T YOU LISTEN TO ME?”  Of course, I made it worse.  When she was smaller I was just able to pick her up and throw her in the car, whether she was having a tantrum or not.  But that day, carrying an infant, diaper bag and purse… all I wanted her to do was to listen to me and walk herself out the door.  After getting into the car, I bawled like a baby, apologizing to Lucy for screaming at her for something she couldn’t control.  In fact, it’s hard for me to think about that particular day without feeling completely unworthy of being her mother.  I lost my temper.  I know it’s normal, but that doesn’t make it okay.  Luckily, since being medicated for PPD (a long story I’m not ready to completely share yet), I’ve noticed a huge change in my ability to calmly talk her through things.

The psychologist makes things look so easy.  She can get Lucy to do things that I’ve never seen her do with just a motion she makes with her hands.  I’m so thankful that my gut told me that this was a good choice for us- a way for us to move forward beyond her incredible strides she’s made in school.  I finally feel like can DO IT!  We’ll struggle.  I know it won’t be perfect.  But, holy crap, I can do this. And thank God I have someone to show me how.  Since I’ve already seen such a HUGE improvement (by the way I am SO FREAKING proud of her), this doesn’t scare me.  The world she lives in might be so different than mine, but I feel so blessed to be able to be a part of it.

There’s so much more I could say.  And I’m sure I will.  I call it “Our Autism” because we all have a part in it.  This is our day to day life with a child with Autism.  Gosh, there’s so much good I can say about it too.  It’s hilarious to watch a four-year-old have a 10 minute conversation that is verbatim lines from a movie.  It was incredible to watch an 18-month-old say the alphabet.  Her life will not be easy, but I will do every damn thing I can to make her ride less bumpy.  I pray that the world is sweet to her.

xoxo