We Did It Together

Brennan Manning says that dwelling on failures too long is a form of pride that keeps us from accepting grace. And I’m a pretty prideful person. I waste a lot of time thinking about what I could have done different and better this year. And I also spend a lot of time wishing that things out of my control these past few months would have gone the way I saw most fit. As easy as it is for me to dwell on what should have/could have been, it would be a total disgrace to stop there.

Because the goal of my being on staff at SVYC was to improve academics for these [amazing] kids who live in Denver’s government housing. The goal was to get every child on an individualized academic track that will help them get to grade level or better. And by the grace of God that happened. Through your funding my salary so I could dedicate my time to it, and all our prayers, the time and efforts of many, the support of grants from another nonprofit— it took a village.

So many people and resources came together and then something beautiful burst forth.

And it all seemed entirely impossible 9 months ago. It was this crazy, entirely out of reach vision.

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In my last two months at SVYC it’s finally come together. Every kiddo has their own laptop to use solely for academics. And no, it’s not perfect. But it is such awesome progress. 4 days a week we set a timer and they each hop online and complete lessons in components that iReady has shown us they need the most help in. They each take regular tests, and these tests are showing that every single one of them is making progress in the right direction.

It is good. And I am humbled– seeing God work simultaneously through both brokenness and beauty.

Friends–  THANK YOU. Thank you for believing in the importance of education for these kids. Thank you for encouraging me, and willing me not to give up. Thank you for praying that the programming would be effective. Thank you for praying for the kids. Thank you for donating toward my salary so I could spend my time getting this program up and running. Thank you for donating so I could also spend my time praying for these kids, laughing with them, crying with them, mucking through homework with them etc.

We did it together.

I Asked For Wonder

“By and large, our world has lost its sense of wonder. We have grown up. We no longer catch our breath at the sight of a rainbow or the scent of a rose as we once did. We have grown bigger and everything else smaller, less impressive. We get blasé and worldly-wise and sophisticated. We no longer run our fingers through water, no longer shout at the stars or make faces at the moon. Water is H20, the stars have been classified, and the moon is not made of green cheese. There was a time in the not too distant past when a thunderstorm caused grown men to shudder and feel small.

“Several years before his death, a remarkable rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, suffered a near fatal heart attack. His closest friend was at his bedside. Heschel was so weak he was only able to whisper. “Sam” he said, “I feel only gratitude for my life, for every moment I have lived. I am ready to go.” The old rabbi was exhausted by his effort to speak. After a long pause, he said, “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and He gave it to me.'”

– Brennan Manning in The Ragamuffin Gospel

So maybe it’s all supposed to come down to praying for wonder, and then accepting it as grace…

On Preparing to Leave Another Home

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It was Friday.

Friday’s are our “fun day” at SVYC. No academics– just easing ourselves into the weekend.

After we picked the kids up from school it began to rain. So we split the kids up into two groups underneath the tree on the corner that I’m always telling them to stop climbing because if they fell it would be right into traffic. (I am a surrogate worry wart mom– I have tried and failed to fix this.)

Our new assistant director took one group to cooking class. They were hesitant about going at first, but then they learned there would be ice cream (and ice cream changes everything).

I took the other group back into the Center, and as they bounced off the walls I microwaved frozen packets of macaroni and cheese. One by one I dumped the cooked packets onto paper plates. And I prayed over each serving of impostor cheddar and noodles silently “Bless this to their hearts and bodies”.

One of our 6th graders stood in the kitchen with me, telling me about her day. She looked particularly distraught, and I could tell she was dancing around whatever the real issue was. I asked her what was really going on. She looked at the floor and after a moment confessed “I don’t fit in, Miss.” So I told her the truth: “You are wonderful. And I’m so sorry.” Because she is. And I am.

I let the kids play on iPads for a little while. They are obsessed with Minecraft— a phenomenon I have yet to understand. To me it just sounds like pure insanity: “WHY ARE YOU IN MY WORLD!?” I’m gonna murder your dogs!” I’m pretty impatient with these disputes because I just don’t get it.

I tried to diffuse a few arguments over Minecraft worlds and stolen clementines.

I made a bracelet with one of our kindergartners who has the world’s best lisp. I ask him way too many questions a day just so I can hear that sweet voice. He wanted it to say “BFF”. We strung those letters on carefully. I walked away for a moment to handle another argument and when I came back he had added more letters. It now read “BFFASDFLJDIIJ”. #awesome

I opened the door to find that it had stopped raining and announced that we were going outside. This led to half groans and half cheers.

Three of the littlest went to the garden. She is trying to teach them about how to water things well. And she’s quickly frustrated with their haphazard dumping of water.

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A 6th grader climbed the fence to the adjacent parking lot to retrieve a ball that had bounced over. She could have walked through the gate, but why walk through the gate when you can climb the fence? She yelled my name a few minutes later and I turned to see her propped on the fence- one leg sticking over the top, and the rest of her hanging over the side. “I KNOW YOU GONNA LAUGH BUT I’M REAL STUCK OKKK!?” I stifled my laughter and she chuckled. And while hoisting her over the fence I did a horrible job trying to hide a smile. Unharmed physically, she said “Ugh, just go ahead and laugh, Miss. You find all the stuff’s funny.” So I let it out. I let the laughter roll like it should.

Then I ran back to the garden where a disagreement over gardening care had broken out. “These flowers are special, and you are not respecting them!”

Then I got hit in the shoulder with a basketball. I looked to the sky and laughed as the 8 year old “offender” apologized profusely. I don’t know why it was so funny to me.

It was when I was looking up at the parting storm clouds that I realized it: This place has become a home to me. I feel at home, for better or worse, in our sweet, heartbreaking, funny little mess. They’re a mess. I’m a mess. We’re all just drudging through together– crying and laughing.

And I wanted this place to be a forever home for me. It took me so long to not just know, but actually believe that it’s not up to me. 

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And so when I think about leaving just one short month from now it’s the bitterest of sweets. I was called here… and so much happened. And now I need to be obedient and leave. But leaving home is never easy. Because you always leave part of your heart there.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. But it’s safe to say I’ll be leaving the most of myself here. I’ve given so much of myself to this place– in some good ways and some not so good.

One of my friends looked at my tired face last weekend and asked if I regret this year. I answered her immediately that I don’t. I would have handled some things differently, but I wouldn’t change having been here. I wouldn’t.

Because maybe life is largely about creating homes. Sometimes it’s temporary and sometimes it’s forever. Sometimes you’ll do it right and sometimes you’ll do it wrong. But I don’t think I regret the homes I’ve gotten to be a part of.

And I suppose when it hurts to leave, you’ve made yourself a family, and you’ve shared some love that matters. 

Made New In The Garden

The sun is staying out longer. About a week ago we shed our coats. We needed Spring and it didn’t come a day too soon.

During chore time every night now (the last item on our daily agenda) the kids start asking begging: “Can we go outside now!?” “CAN WE GO OUTSIDE NOWWW!?”

Once chores are completed we tell them yes. We fling the door open and they are unleashed: they run and jump and leap and bound.

It’s our exhale into the evening and we are all grateful for it.

She always walks directly to the garden. She’s the only one who does.

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I watch her turn the water on, gingerly hold the hose to fill the watering can, and then saunter over to the plants. She gives water to every single one. (Sometimes with her backpack on because #AlwaysBePrepared.) She is earnest and thorough and at home.

No one ever asks her to do this, or tells her she should. There’s just something inside her that compels her to be the caretaker for this tiny corner of the world.

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She innately knows that she belongs among the wildflowers– where she is delighted and at peace.

I’m sure this can be said of many young children. But she’s a survivor. She has seen too much. She endures things that no little girl should have to endure. This exhibits itself on a regular basis in fit after fit because this is the only way she can cope. In many ways her life does not speak of hope.

So when she is tending the garden with a smile on her face it sings of restoration. And I lack the words to accurately express how beautiful it is… How important it is.

When she is laughing among the flowers it is a glimpse of heaven. 

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And when she finds a ladybug, counts its spots and runs up to me yelling “Look! Isn’t it beautiful!?” Sun beams are practically dancing right out of her face and God reminds me that all things will be made new. All. Things.

When I am in the garden with her I see it: Heaven. All the wrongs will be made right. All mourning will turn to dancing. All sorrow will become joy. All death and darkness will be made into life and light. Nothing will remain broken. All beauty. All grace. All peace.

It’s a daily reminder that though it hurts so much that this earth isn’t heaven, all our circumstances are impermanent.

It’s a daily glimpse at the place that’s waiting for her at The Table.

Life in the Depths

image Is it ok if I delve into things more here today than I normally do? I won’t tell you everything, of course… But is it ok if I tell you more than usual? Even if I ramble and meander a bit and it isn’t neat and concise? Thanks in advance for your grace.

This morning I pulled out an outfit for the day: black pants, black shoes, and a black shirt with little white pokadots on it. That’s when I noticed I have been regularly giving into a gravitational pull toward the darker clothing in my closet. I took a big step back- actually physically did- and thought: Before August my favorite color to wear was neon– I’ve never met a neon I didn’t like.

These realizations have been slowly creeping in more steadily lately. That as both life has taken place and my pride has nearly done me in I have slipped into something, or perhaps someone, different. And I suppose it’s not bad, but it is always strange to become something new– especially when you feel like you’re metaphorically limping a bit.

God is showing me that everything- everything is deeper now. Through all of this: losing someone I loved, my job at a youth center working with some of the poorest children in Denver, my own brokenness– everything is deeper now. The sorrow comes and it is overwhelming– it enters without invitation and floods my chest, and sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe. But then joy and laughter always show up, and when they do they surprise me, and they are richer and sweeter than ever before. People always say that joy and sorrow go hand in hand, but they don’t tell you it’s really the depths of both that will change you– And it will eventually change how you see absolutely everything.

It all plays like a cliche movie– the memories of recent months- in both my work and the other areas of life: laughter and pain’s strange relationship entanglement with each other. There have been times over these months where I have been able to feel in the moment. Other times I have operated in survival mode to get through it and I didn’t feel much of anything as it was happening– there’s a price for that and I’m paying it now by having to process it all. I wish I had the capacity to write down everything this year. Because when I contemplate it I see God working in every. single. thing. I swear, I really can. These moments– some of them go like this:

I held him as he cried for his Dad. He’s 8. Big tears rolled down his cheeks and he rocked back and forth. “Why did he have to die?” Words don’t come to me, and I am keenly aware that it’s good they don’t. He’s crying so hard now that he chokes on the sobs. This boy has already been through an insurmountable amount of pain in his short life and now there’s this. And it feels so very, very wrong that he has to endure this as well. All I feel sitting with us in this moment is sorrow.

She’s 13 and she’s obsessed with that Ed Sheeran song about dancing until you’re old and grey. She’s a hopeless romantic and she longs for a love that will complete her. She plugs her headphones into the iPad, closes her eyes and starts singing. Always out of tune. Yes she is always out of tune, and I don’t know why I find it so entirely endearing. I start interpretive dancing in front of her and in all my gracefulness accidentally bump into the door frame with a thud. She opens her eyes and smiles. We both laugh a side heaving laugh.

I am dancing with Amaya, my cousin Heidi’s daughter, in Ikea. [Ikea is a perfectly normal place to dance!] And suddenly the image appears from several years ago: we were in the boat on Clear Lake. My cousin Will held Amaya on his lap. Amaya was more a baby than a little girl at that point. Her life jacket was tight. She made a stank face just like her Mom does. We all laughed. Will beamed. He always beamed when he held her. And I look at Amaya now right in front of me as she twirls side to side haphazardly and suddenly I’m tearing up right there in Ikea next to the towels and bath mats– feeling both the sorrow of loss and the joy that she is.

They are kindergartners and they are completing their online assessments. Sun is pouring through the window in the computer lab, and it feels like Spring is being thrown into the room. One little starts singing the words to “I’m so fancy”. I repeat after her. She laughs. Another little starts singing with us. And suddenly we’re all singing so loud that it’s echoing off the walls “I’m so fancaaaaay, you already know!” And we are laughing- no we are giggling actually, like happy girls do. 

He’s 7 and he’s been in and out of the hospital for months. They say they can’t figure out what’s wrong. The medical attention afforded to him is America’s thrown bone, not America’s shining glory. He is not ok. When he’s unmedicated he lashes out and runs away. He says everyone hates him. They put him on a new medication and now he’s not there when I speak to him. His eyes are empty. He is a ghost of himself. The sorrow hits my chest as I wonder what will become of him.

She’s 6. She found mud in a corner of the playground. She yells for me to come over. When I reach her she says “Welcome to the castle!” All I see is mud and twigs. But she sees a castle. And she is delighted. She gets to just be 6 in this moment and not worry about what will happen at home tonight. And it is joy to feel her joy. 

He’s 9. He keeps talking. Incessantly. And I am lost in my thoughts. I think about how many mistakes I’ve made this year- and how lethal my pride is. Depravity can crush and I feel that very much. I think about how many things have fallen a part– how nothing, so close to nothing went like I wanted. And yes that is life, and yes I am human, and yes it hurts– and the problem is that I made it all about me. I think about how I’ve been wronged this year– the dysfunction I’ve been a part of. I think about the price I’ve paid for all of this, and all the things that don’t make sense anymore. I am on my high horse. He’s still talking a mile a minute, but I am not listening to anything he says. I look down at him and ask him to either be quiet or leave the room. He silently sits back and opens his book. I know that I have deemed my precious thoughts more important than him today. The anger, shame and sorrow rush in like the dam was just broken.  

I am driving my friend Anne back to her house. It’s late and my eyes are heavy. She doesn’t do Taylor Swift music. I do all of Taylor Swift music. She tells me to turn on a Taylor Swift song. I crank up Out of the Woods at a volume that would make my Grandma shriek. And she is gritting her teeth but there’s a smile on her face and she’s dancing. I am full fledge spirit fingers and flailing. And now I’m laughing so hard that the happy tears start to form in my eyes. 

She is 12. And I am (literally) chasing her around Winter Park ski resort as she screams at me: “No one cares about me!” I tell her I do. I care a lot, actually. I look to the left and notice that people are staring at us. And that’s when she turns around and says to me, bleary eyed: “You might. But you know no one in my house does.” I have no words for her because I can’t tell her she’s wrong about that. I hate that for her. I hate it so much. The sorrow is there– this time it feels like a fog that I can’t see through. 

Much of life now is this: feeling the extent of it. I realize how simplistic and juvenille that must sound. It is.

And I don’t know if it’s right or wrong but I know I have to let it happen. I feel the sorrow when it comes. I get swept up in the joy when it arrives. When anger sinks in I breathe deep and let it shake through. The depths– that’s what is different now.

And maybe the scariest thing is knowing I still haven’t been to the very darkest sorrow… That what I’ve gone through is a walk in the park compared to what some others experience.

I do feel truest grace because it’s never been more necessary. I do believe all things will be made new.

This is life now. It is strange and I am trying. I am walking some odd line between trying and feeling and praying for help and praying up gratitude.

And honestly, I wish I could say I have the kind of faith that keeps me from questioning and wishing- but I don’t. I wish some things had gone differently, and I have been questioning what God is doing. But what I wouldn’t change is feeling it. Because in all of this I am so messily and crazily alive. And I do believe Jesus is in that very much.

Yes- I do believe Jesus is in all of it. I am never left without Him. It is a comfort. Sometimes a maddening one. Sometimes a beautiful one.

He is in all of the depths. And I want to dwell with Him there. So I vow to venture down to the very bottom of the sorrow I feel and to savor every glorious scrap of joy that comes my way. For He is with me. 

Spring, Computers, Skis, & Laughter

Dear Friends,

Spring has sprung in Denver and I’ve entered into my last two months working at the Sun Valley Youth Center.

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She is very dutiful about watering the lone three flowers in our garden. 

How about an update on some things?

IREADY: We received this (super awesome) online academic support mid-year through another nonprofit. iReady puts each student on an individualized academic instructional and assessment track. It functions as an intervention to bring them up to grade level. And the program helps meet student needs that are difficult for us to manage with limited time and staff.

One of the issues we ran into was keeping our old donated computers up and running. We started out with 14 computers and quickly dwindled down to only 4 that functioned well. I’m thankful to report that we recently received more money to purchase new Chrome Books (that are highly compatible with iReady). In the next few weeks we will have the program in a more efficient full swing with more computers! Such an incredible gift to our kids. Processed with VSCOcam with b1 preset IMG_9847 iReady has been one of my biggest undertakings this year. I’m in the process of training our new staff member on the ins and outs of the program so it keeps going strong after I leave at the end of May. God has provided so much and in perfect timing, I do believe that. He is GOOD.

SPRING BREAK: Spring Break at Sun Valley means the kiddos were out of school and with us full time. One of our spring break adventures was a ski trip. And it was a whirlwind of a crazy 12 hour day. Per usual, the kids were hilarious. Laughter is the absolute best and I’m so grateful for all the funny moments we’ve had this year. Here are some of the best snapshots from that day: Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Here we have the best group shot I got all day. Look at the bookends. The struggle was real.

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He sat down outside the rental place and said “I think when I get up there I’ll just sit down in the snow and wait until it’s over.” 

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One of the girls said “Miss Amanda take a selfie! Show them we’re on top of a mountain!” Then the guy whose head you can only partially see (oops) in the lower right hand corner said “It’s ok! I have toilet paper in my bag!” [I have no idea.]

And just in case you were worried, you’ll be happy to know that all made it back down from the mountain in one piece.

Have I mentioned yet that I love these kids? I love these kids. Thank you for loving them too. 

This year has been both tremendously challenging and incredibly beautiful.

Thank you for your prayers, financial support, encouragement, patience, computer donations, hugs, and shared laughter. This work required a village and a village you’ve been. These kids know more love because of your partnership. Thank you.

One of the things I’m praying out loud at least once a day right now is: “GRACE AND PEACE AND GRATITUDE ALL AROUND, PLEASE LORD.” (Yes, I say it in all caps.) I pray it for our kids, for my own heart, and also for you. We all need it, don’t we?

Carry on.

XO,

Amanda