Little Details

Cloudy, with a chance of sneakers

Oct. 7, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

There’s a small, low-lying bit of roof outside my office window. I occasionally find a sneaker resting precariously among the shingles. Working at a school serving at-risk kids, I view upwardly tossed footwear as benign expressions of youthful energy.

On this cloudy Monday morning, a bespectacled boy of about 13 sat perched outside my window. Tommy (name changed to protect confidentiality) scampered up quickly and quietly, before a staff member noticed.

“If you want me to come down,” Tommy teased, “you have to come get me.”

Two staff members stood on the ground, calmly talking Tommy down from his lofty location.

“Excuse me,” Tommy asked through my screened window, “could I have a pen and a piece of paper? I’d like to draw something.”

I invited him to climb into my office for paper and pen. He declined. Staff persisted. Tommy descended on his own, returning to class. Teaching kids to talk through their defiance is far better than overpowering them with brute force.

Hours later, my work was interrupted by another child, perhaps 15, who screamed, “Leave me the #$%& alone … I hate this place … I hate you!” A thin veneer of anger did little to mask anguish and deep sadness within his voice.

A colleague stood by this boy, patiently working with him to restore calm. Staff members who work directly with kids — teachers and behavioral interventionists — are trained in safe restraint practices, in case a child presents a danger to him or herself or others. For all the anguished tantrums I’ve witnessed, I’ve yet to see a staff member resort to physical restraint. Talk therapy seems far more effective.

Children experiencing stress find it harder to focus — on learning, on building positive relationships. Neglect, abandonment and abuse may interrupt a child’s cognitive and emotional development. Helping children heal from trauma is the first step in our work.

Years spent providing direct service to survivors of family violence informs the work I do as a grant writer for a school serving Vermont kids experiencing difficult circumstances. Creating budgets is always the hardest part for me. Meeting kids, listening to their stories and retelling them with candor and respect shares the narrative of their lives, including struggles and strides. Effective programs empower kids to alter the direction of their life story, to work toward a happy ending.

We are all dealt a “hand of cards” in life. Some are born with the equivalent of a “full house” or a “royal flush.” Others receive mediocre or pathetically bad hands. Children, their innocence stolen by predatory adults or their bodies broken and burned by abuse can reclaim their lives. Most often, they need help to do so.

I’ve recently begun reaching out to alumni, folks who graduated from our school shortly after it opened in the early 1970s. “Successful” graduates, folks with stable jobs, housing and family lives, are easiest to find. Herculean efforts are required to break intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect.

Among those interviewed, I’ve encountered a social worker, a master electrician, a building contractor and a facilities technician — each of whom was deemed a “troubled teen.” They spoke of growing up in trailers with alcoholic parents, time spent in the now-closed St. Joseph Orphanage on Burlington’s North Avenue and a middle-class existence tainted by domestic violence.

Alumni offer the following reflections:

• “This staff was my family.”

• “This place was my last chance. If I messed up, I’d be sent to a lock-up.”

• “After years of emotional abuse by my parents, for the first time in my life, I felt worthy.”

• “We put the staff through #$%&. We’d grown so untrusting of adults. We wanted to see if the staff would actually stick by us.”

• “The staff never gave up on me.”

• “This school saved my life.”

• “I’d probably be dead if it weren’t for this place.”

Admittedly, some graduates have not fared well. One is on death row in a faraway state. With others, I follow a path of disconnected phone numbers and transient addresses before the trail goes cold. For some, it simply takes longer to heal from trauma. For others, it may take forever.

Each time I hear a student lash out at a staff member, “Leave me the #$%& alone!” a real time translation echoes in my head: “Don’t leave me. Don’t give up on me like so many other people have.”

We don’t expect to give up any time soon.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or