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December 2020Vol. 21, No. 9Kindness

Written by Jerry Milner

This article was originally published the November 17, 2020, edition of Rethinking Foster Care.

I used to say that I grew up in Nowhere, Alabama

Nowhere was an unincorporated expanse of farmland and cotton fields that stretched as far as I could see, punctuated by the county school that I attended for 11 years of my life. 

Nowhere was full of climbing trees, swinging vines, and wading streams rife with salamanders and minnows.

Nowhere was much poorer than not and had few, if any, formal social institutions beyond church and school.

Nowhere is Reeltown, Alabama. I haven't been back there in too many years to count, but an old friend recently sent me a blog post about Reeltown, written by Sean-of-the-South Dietrich, that flooded my senses and challenged me to acknowledge the tremendous influence that my community had on my development and on my life.

The blog told the story of Sean encountering an elderly man in Reeltown who, based on the laws of probability, is most likely related to me somehow. He and his wife were selling tomatoes from a stand on the side of the road. The man and his wife told Sean about their lives of volunteer service to a poor community in a place that was a long way from Reeltown. He said all he wanted was for his "whole life to belong to people who just need to know someone loves 'em." He told Sean about receiving an email from a now middle-aged man with a healthy life thanking him for showing him kindness and support in a time of need when he was a boy. The old man said, "That one email made our little lives seem worth it. Reckon life really is about showing people you care about 'em."

Sean's blog force-fed my mind with memories of the kind people I had known growing up in Reeltown.

My third-grade teacher who comforted me when my father died.

My school bus driver who always came searching for me when I repeatedly ran away from school.

The old man up the road who taught me how to reroof my leaky house when I was a teenager.

My mother's friends who cleaned my house and cooked for me after my mother died.

Others . . . 

Absent many of those kindnesses and those kind people, my life could've been very different.

Our families and children in the child welfare system have not always known such kindness and support.

They do know frustration, loss, anger, and hopelessness, without feeling that "someone loves 'em."

They often know clinical interventions designed to fix their troubling life circumstances, which an old man up the road, a neighbor across the street, or a man selling tomatoes at a road-side stand might have helped them to avert.

They often do not know the power of a caring community and the healing that comes from feeling valued and worthy of kindness.

I no longer say that I grew up in Nowhere because I understand that my community was always a place where lives were nurtured and people were kind.

As people who care about other people, we must move with all haste and urgency to create a family well-being system, not a child welfare system as we know it, that is set up to prevent trauma, to build the resilience of parents and children, and to enable them to thrive even in the face of inevitable adversity.

We have the power to do that—to change programs and policies and funding, to change lives.

Prevention has many faces.

It works best when it shows up in the faces of the people who know and care about us.

It works best when it is present in the communities where we live.

It works best when it is delivered with kindness.