Spending a weekend with a dozen inner city high school boys in a rustic camp setting may not sound like nirvana to you, but I came away incredibly inspired. This was a rite of passage weekend challenge as the culmination of a two-year mentoring program. 12 tough kids from rough home environments came together and created a magical, life-changing experience for each other. I want you to hear their stories and their words.
Jose constantly worries about his sickly mother, and through tears shared his biggest fear: “If my mom dies, who will take care of me?”
Jamaal hears gunshots most nights in his neighborhood, and sobbed as he spoke of his mom: “I don’t want her to have to experience all of this violence; I think about it every night before I go to sleep.”
Manuel has been the man of the house since his dad left the family when he was five years old. “Every day I pray my little sister makes it home safe from school, I think about it day and night.”
Rodrigo’s dad has been in and out of his life for years. “My dad has been in jail for six months because of another DUI, and my mom has had to work twice as hard because of it. I hate seeing how worn out she is when she gets home from her second job.”
Joaquin cried long and hard about dealing with an abusive, alcoholic father. “I hate when I’m outside with my friends and they see my dad passed out in his car. It pisses me off.”
Carlos’s mom committed suicide when he was 8 years old, leaving him and his three siblings devastated. “You passed your pain onto us, and it’s not fair. We didn’t do anything to deserve that, and you should have been stronger for us.” When asked to give his pain a sound, Carlos replied, “It feels like shattered glass.”
Pablo’s dad comes home drunk most nights and beats him and his mother. “I feel so helpless about him, because I can’t do a damn thing about it. I think he must hate me. When I get angry, I see a lot of my dad in me, and I hate that because I never want to be a man like him.”
There were some common themes in their stories: dads who were absent or abusive, moms who were depressed, overworked, and worn out. They wondered how their lives would have been different if they’d had a loving father who was present in their lives. Fernando described it well: “He would smile at me and I’d know he was there for me. I want to know what love looks like.”
These young men have a hard time trusting people and letting anyone in, even if they are being offered help. They have internalized that they are not enough, not loveable, not important, that they are nothing and just there. They bottle up their emotions, become overwhelmed, and the feelings then show themselves as anger, indifference, depression, hopelessness, and despair.
Their school counselors who ran the retreat told me that these boy’s stories are typical of this population. Every day these kids are dealing with dangerous neighborhoods, neglect, abuse, domestic violence, alcoholic and drug addicted parents, distractions, empty stomachs, and fears. It’s amazing they have the strength to get out of bed each morning to face another day, deal with school stress, taking care of siblings and mothers, while trying to create a future they can look forward to.
Every one of these tough, macho guys broke into uncontrollable tears when describing their lives, and in those moments you could see the hurt little boys beneath their hardened mask of masculinity. I worried that with all the crap heaped on them they don’t have a chance for a successful life. And yet after spending a weekend with them, I came away so impressed with their resolve for a better life. They are trying so hard to survive their circumstances and to make a better life for themselves and their families.
The next time you hear a story about how inner city kids are failing in school or being violent, I want you to look at them with more understanding and less judgment. What they need are less labels and more mentors, love, and hope.
12 tough, scared, and angry boys entered the weekend, and after three days of tears, laughter, and brotherhood, 12 young men emerged, feeling heard, understood, more alive, loved, and hopeful.