healthy relationships

A Holiday Memory

Written by: Tammy Hopper, Chief Strategic Initiatives Officer, National Safe Place Network

It would be difficult for me to think about or discuss the holidays without remembering my paternal grandparents and the influence they had on my life. As my mother’s parents had passed before I was born, my only experiences with grandparents were from a couple who were courageous, hard working, simple and very different from each other.

My grandma can best be described as a gentle soul who wanted to take care of everyone. She spent much of her life in a rocking chair, staring out a window and waiting for one of her children or grandchildren to come through the field to the back door of the kitchen. Regardless of the time of day, there would be something cooking. Chocolate pies (using a recipe that allowed her to stack them 3 high) would be in the pie safe and she would already be taking home grown vegetables from the stove before you could stomp the red clay of Mississippi from your feet and crack the screen door. Her desire was to care for each of her children by meeting very basic needs: food, love and knowledge of the Bible.

My grandpa was at work when he wasn’t waiting for grandma to serve a meal. Although he insisted that I was too young to help in the picking of beans in a field near the farmhouse, my memories were of watching him, my grandma and the other members of my family clearing row after row of vegetables in efforts to complete the task before the sun rose above the magnolia trees at the house. Grandpa was a no nonsense man who collected treasures from the castoffs of others and stories of his neighbors with an equal sense of purpose and passion. Quick to temper, he was also quick to defend and to encourage each of his children to stand up and be accountable for their actions.

My love of my grandparents deepened as I grew older and while we lived many miles apart, there was a strong emotional tie. However, this was not always the case. Love was shadowed by uncertainty and insecurity.

To be clear, as a young child, I felt isolated and different from not only my grandparents but from almost all of my relatives on my father’s side of the family. I don’t recall how I became aware of the differences between us. I just remember incidences of not ‘fitting in” and feeling as if I was living a life filled with broken rules.

I had two first cousins – one 11 months older and one 10 months younger – and we would come together on Sunday afternoons. While the adults conversed about whatever matter was most important that week, grandma would prepare dinner and the children would play outside. I remember attempts to play house that were never quite successful because we could not agree on the contents of our desired home. At the age of 6, it seemed quite important to me that we have a television, a record player and other items that were in my home. My cousins’ views of a proper home were of a stove and table with dishes set for the entire family. While this difference seems trivial now, at the time, I became lost in why there was a difference at all and what the difference meant.

I became increasingly aware that the conversations I attempted to have were challenging and that few commonalities exited between my experience and theirs. Once my older sisters and brothers were able to explain the difference, I understood but was still unsure of myself and how my grandparents could accept me.

My grandparents and the rest of my father’s family were members of a fundamentalist Pentecostal church. In the way they practiced their spiritual beliefs, they could not watch television, they could not listen to popular music, women could not cut their hair, wear pants or make-up, etc.  Because my parents both came from previous marriages, neither were allowed to practice in the Pentecostal church in my home community, and therefore, my siblings and I were raised in a different church with different beliefs. I grew up knowing that the people I loved best in the world did not believe as I did and in my childish imaginings I wondered who was right and if I was “less than” because of these beliefs. I started looking for, and so easily saw, slight differences in the way that our branch of the family was treated. I became sure that these differences were proof of an insurmountable divide. This awareness brought hurt to my inexperienced heart. Was the look that I received from my grandma one of love or tolerance? Was she proud of me for what I knew and for the dreams that I had? Was it o.k. that I knew about Elvis and could do the twist? Would she be disappointed if she knew I wore shorts and played softball every weekend? Was it o.k. to be me?

Christmas was the time when we could all come together and exchange gifts and appreciate that another year had kept us well. My grandma’s care-taking and love of the holiday meant that the stove was always hot and oranges, apples and walnuts could be found on every sideboard. My grandpa’s stubbornness and final authority meant the Christmas “tree” was a small branch cut from a larger tree and decorated with a single string of lights and a star. To him, it was important that the tree be high enough on a table so that he could walk without running into it. So we would gather around the table and open presents. While every child has wishes, I knew that my wishes were different from what my grandparents would see as appropriate gifts. So, I would receive a purse or a scarf or mittens and I was always happy because it was the one time of year when my cousins and I were alike because we would all receive the exact same gift. It was at those times when it felt as though perhaps it was grandma’s way of saying that we were all the same in her eyes.

The year that I turned 10, the gifts yielded an unexpected surprise. We came into the room and as I walked around the large wood stove that covered a substantial part of the floor, I saw three large boxes. I knew immediately they were for my cousins and me and unless there was a pair of mittens for every day of the year, there was something unusual inside. Not knowing what my grandma would select that was so big, it seemed as if I were going to explode as we finished dinner and took turns opening packages. When it came our turn – my cousins and I, with no regard to waste of beautiful bows or paper, ripped into the packages. The room was quiet as I studied the pink on the package and examined the pictures on the outside. I remember feeling across the top of the package for sealing tape because for a split second, a thought crossed my mind that the box may have been one found by my grandpa and put to use by my grandma for the present. However, the box was sealed and as I looked at my cousins, I was pleased at their smiling faces as we realized that we had all received Barbie Dream Campers. Well, even if no one else understood, I knew we had received a mighty gift. Barbie and her large residential road warrior were very much a part of my dream world.

How did Grandma know? Did my parents say something? If so, why would she go along with it? I didn’t state the questions out loud. I just laughed and felt an immediate and lasting joy.

Looking back, the message that I took from the gift was simple. I was o.k. Even if I knew about different things and had different hopes and dreams for my life, I was just as important in my grandma’s eyes as the other members of my family.  What I wanted and hoped for and dreamed about was just as acceptable as what they longed for in their lives. Years later, my grandmother shared with me that she had gotten the gifts because she had been in a store and had heard a woman talking about how the camper would allow little girls to make believe and imagine traveling and seeing what was beyond their own door.

As we celebrate a season that is filled with different beliefs, hopes and expectations for the world, I am reminded it is these differences in points of view and experience that make our world brighter. My life is fulfilling not because I am the same as everyone else but because I am different and because I embrace the differences in others. The truth in giving lies with the acceptance and love that is shared with a greeting or a kind gesture that says my world is better because you are part of it.

My grandma passed away in 1997 and a few weeks later, her husband of more than 60 years followed. I still return to that place and travel through that field, toward her home place and imagine her rocking in her chair, looking out the window and waiting for us to return. Now, I know she was not only waiting for us but she was also imaging those places that existed outside her door, over the hill and just beyond her reach.

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Social work: labor of love

Written by: Shauna Brooks, MSSW; Principal Investigator, National Safe Place Network

This was supposed to be a 4-day weekend for me – Labor Day holiday Monday, and a vacation day Friday to bring home a newly adopted pet and allow some time for her to adjust to her new environment.  This is the first time in almost 18 years my partner and I have added someone to our little family.  We have talked about it and delayed and negotiated our preferences for so long.  Kim wanted someone small, and I really like big dog personalities.  Kim wanted a fur family member to provide me with emotional support.  I also wanted a dog to help me be more active.  After months, even years, we just couldn’t push it back any longer.

The timing was, well… not ideal.  Kim is grieving the loss of her mom and dealing with difficult family in the midst of probate and estate issues which is weighing heavily on her.  She’s also unappreciated and disrespected at work despite a tremendous work ethic and high performance expectations for herself.  I love my work (which we’ll discuss more in just a moment), and three deadlines for major projects are converging this week, so there is some stress on my end as well.

We had impressions of the shelter dog formerly named Trixie, whom we now call PJ.  True, we each only met her for about half an hour (separately because of incongruous work schedules).  But the people who rescued her shared their observations, and her character and temperament were evident in pictures and in person.  She was thoughtful, almost pensive in photos.  She ambled around on a slip leash without pulling.  Taken outside, after wandering and sniffing about an 8’ by 8’ patch of grass, she lay down next to me in repose, offering her belly for a good rub without any hesitation – a mild-mannered young adult.

After a very sedate first night, spending the bulk of her time sleeping in a crate she instantly recognized as her own, her authentic personality began to emerge.  The great news is she seems to be comfortable enough to come out of her shell.  The more complicated discovery is that she is, in truth, a giant puppy.  She is brilliant and obstinate and could clearly jump our fence without even trying very hard.  Instead of running, she leaps like a deer.  We are working hard at consistency, patience, establishing communication, and teaching her boundaries, expectations and the big fun that rewards positive behavior.  Just consider for a moment the persistent and intensive attention this requires – literally every minute when she is not sleeping.  Thus, my grand plans of putting in some extra hours over the long weekend to help get ready for a very busy week were entirely shot.

But this is the reality of family.  Life is work.  Life is messy, and balancing priorities seems impossible sometimes.  I know these circumstances could look very different in someone else’s life.  Perhaps another person would have absolutely clear priorities that illuminate a path of certainty.  Perhaps someone who hasn’t benefited from the privilege that comes with being white or from having access to educational and employment opportunities I’ve had might face an unmanageable burden.  A person who isn’t as lucky as I am to share their life in unconditional love with a committed partner might find the experience lonely and overwhelming.  These are the dynamics of my environment.  My family, friends and co-workers provide a network of support.

Because partnering, parenting, working, negotiating, homemaking, studying, advocating, teaching, learning, trying, failing, surviving, striving, and everything else in life is hard work, it is humbling that people share their experiences with us.  It is a challenge to be worthy of that trust, to listen, to set aside judgment, to acknowledge personal bias, and to demonstrate respect to show people an example of how they deserve to be treated regardless of their circumstances.  Our work is both harder and more critical than ever in the culture of hate that is pervading our nation right now.

Social work is labor AND love.  It is doing AND being.  Social work is having empathy AND boundaries. We facilitate individual well-being, healthy communication, supportive relationships, and thriving communities.  We advocate for people served by public systems.  We fight for social justice and support policy solutions.  We work in schools and churches and community agencies.  We serve youth, families, teachers, students, veterans, and people experiencing homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and hospice care.  I have the privilege of serving people who serve runaway and homeless youth.  And for me, it is absolutely a labor of love.

SW-Labor-of-Love

Healthy Relationships – What do They Really Take?

Written by: Kim Frierson, Training Specialist, RHYTTAC / NSPN

Healthy relationships – the goal for the relationships we want for ourselves and the young people we work with. However, a healthy relationship is hard to create and maintain. How do we teach healthy relationships to youth? Do we model them? Is there a book to read?

What gets in the way of our young people forming and preserving appropriate relationships?

  • Trauma and its impact – Many youth have experienced traumatic events that make forming genuine relationships difficult, frightening, and unsafe. Past relationships may have been volatile and inconsistent, and it can be a daunting to initiate a relationship where one is vulnerable.
  • Lack of role models – Young folks do not model what they do not see, and some young people have not seen healthy relationships modeled. Their models may have been problematic, dysfunctional, or downright abusive. Offering examples of healthy friendships, romantic relationships, co-worker relationships, etc., gives young people a different perspective on how to operate in their personal and professional interactions
  • Lack of exposure to relationship skills – Communication skills, empathy, conflict resolution, listening. These skills and many others are not innate; they must be learned. Psycho-educational groups and information sharing with youth is another means to improve their relationship IQ.
  • Opportunities for practice – Practice makes perfect. For young people to master any skill, they must be opportunities to succeed and/or fail. As practitioners, creating safe environments for youth to “try on” new skills is invaluable.

As we move through Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, keep in mind that young people (and adults – hello!) need the skills and opportunities to forge and maintain healthy relationships. These social and emotional competencies will give young people a foundation to be a successful adult; a self-sufficient citizen that thrives in today’s world.

Here are some healthy relationship resources to brighten your day!

Love is respect – http://www.loveisrespect.org/

The Dibble Institute – https://www.dibbleinstitute.org/

Office of Adolescent Health – https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/healthy-relationships/index.html

Futures Without Violence – https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/