Relighting the Fire

Hank Mattimore
April 25, 2009
Reproduced with Permission

"In everyone's life, at some time our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being." --Albert Schweitzer

I had the honor recently to be one of the judges for a writing contest for kids 13-18 sponsored locally by the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission. The kids eligible for the contest were not high achievers. They sent in their essays of 500 words or less from places like Juvenile Hall, the Probation Camp, Sierra Youth Center, Hanna Boys Center, and several group homes. These were troubled kids, "wards of the court," sent to institutions because their parents were unwilling or unable to take care of them.

Sadly, kids who have experienced rejection from the people who were supposed to give them love and support, sometimes give up on life. They have found their existence so harsh, so disappointing that they feel they have no future. In Schweitzer's words, their inner fire has gone out.

But in reading the essays from many of these victims of child abuse, I found not despair but hope. Hope for a 17-year-old boy came in the form of a teacher who "never gave up on me and encouraged me when I no longer trusted my own abilities."

The person who rekindled the flame for an 18-year-old girl was her mother. "She taught me always to be true to myself and to love others not for what they have but what they are. She spent time with me even when she didn't have time for herself. Most of all she taught me that while I reach for the most distant stars, I have to take joy in the stars I can see."

A 15-year-old boy was energized by his grandpa. The boy's life seemed to be unraveling fast when he received a card from his grandpa telling him "I love you," and expressing his confidence that his grandson could do anything. The teenager writes in his essay "We may think we're alone at times but that's in our heads. In reality the person we are looking for is right in front of us. And we just don't realize it."

"I got into really heavy drugs," wrote a 17 year old girl, "and when my best friend called me on it, I got really angry. Who did she think she was? When I calmed down, I realized that my friend was right. I'm so grateful that she was there for me, even when I was trying to push her away."

Reading the essays helped me to understand anew that one alternative to spending billions of dollars on a dysfunctional prison system, is for ordinary people to make it their job to be the difference maker in a kid's life. We don't need to be therapists or mental health workers. We can be the mom who spent time with her daughter even though she didn't have the time to spare, the teacher who refused to give up on the 17-year-old boy who had lost confidence in his own abilities.

The mom, the teacher, the grandpa and the friend written about in those essays have made a statement by their actions. These re-kindlers of the fire stood tall, changing the lives of kids in danger of losing heart and losing hope. Heroes? You betcha.