When I was sixteen years old, I met Patrick on his first day of kindergarten. He introduced himself smiling from ear to ear with big brown eyes, a dirty graphic tee, and messy hair. The more time I spent volunteering with Patrick’s after school program, the more I learned about how frustrating his life was. The beam of light that I knew as Patrick lived in a home that was raided by local law enforcement monthly, he shared a bedroom with four of his cousins, and his shoes were always two sizes too small. In the years that followed, Patrick and I spent hours and hours together. We shared stories and developed a connection that Patrick had never had before. In our years together Patrick helped me understand that what children need more than anything is someone who is truly present and will value and appreciate their voice and their story.

It was the years I spent with children just like Patrick who worked against all odds that inspired me to think differently about the ways I work with children and seek out organizations that are challenging the status quo of childhood by recognizing the full lives of children. 

My journey started with my Children’s Studies degree where I dove deep into the psychological, sociological, and educational pieces of the childhood puzzle. I began to zoom out beyond my hyper-focus on educating Patrick and started to understand the sociology of his family, his relationship with his low income community, his coping strategies, his defense mechanisms, his over-extended fight/flight response, and the adult imposed hurdles that were stacked between him and a truly thriving future. 

I chose the University of Pennsylvania as the next stop on my adventure because I knew that there were Patricks in every community around the world. I wanted to learn how they were different. I became extremely interested in the ways that environments influence children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development and the ways that a child’s development influences their environments. How would Patrick’s life be different if he grew up in a different house in the same town or maybe the same house in a different country? 

I also worked with educators, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists at Penn to better understand the ways that communities around the world come together through collaboration and partnership to build webs of resources to help children learn formally, non-formally, and informally. The learning communities of countries around the world truly inspire me to work together and collaborate often. This academic experience built the first pillar in my approach to working with kids: work holistically and across disciplines.

 

I had an even stronger passion to fight alongside Patrick to develop strategies to climb the barriers in front of him and work towards a future filled with happiness and self-described success. What I needed next was a toolbelt full of tools to help us build the ladders and ramps we needed to get over the barriers. At CampFire Inland Northwest, I added the “youth program quality” tool to my belt by working with an all-ages leadership team to improve the quality of programming at two summer camps using the Weikhart Center Youth Program Quality (YPQ) model. We also designed and implemented an iterative afterschool program that evolved week to week based on the needs and passions of the students at four different middle schools. At Odyssey Youth Movement, I added the “lead by listening” tool when I worked with a team of LGBTQ youth to improve school climate for LGBTQ students at middle schools and high schools across Spokane, Washington. These experiences built the second pillar in my approach to working with kids: stay inspired by the motivations of children to propel their growth. 

Today my professional adventure continues at The Asia Foundation, where I have added the “multicultural program development” tool by leading international teams to build a more child friendly local language literacy program while expanding the program’s reach, message, and funding sources. This professional experience has built the third pillar in my approach to working with kids: lasting change comes when we collaborate with the village around the child. 

 

Every moment I have spent with children like Patrick has helped me learn and grow and has shaped who I am as a person today and has constructed the fourth pillar in my approach to working with kids: children are powerful. Children have helped me stay curious, passionate, caring, and present. I now wake up every day inspired to challenge the motivations of the world as we know it. A self-proclaimed maker and designer, I am fueled to find nontraditional solutions to unsolvable challenges.

© 2016 by Morgan Belveal. 

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