A few weeks ago, I attended a fundraiser for an amazing non-profit called Alexander Youth Network because a friend of mine at Wells Fargo, Bryant Owens, is also a board member of the organization. He gave a speech at the fundraiser, and I was honored to join his table and contribute to this important organization.
The Alexander Youth Network provides quality professional treatment to over 8,000 children (annually) with serious emotional and behavioral problems. The children are not developmentally disabled, but their mental diagnosis prevents them from functioning in normal social, educational and family settings.
The children, ages 5 to 18, are referred to Alexander from hospitals, physicians, parents, schools, and from state and county organizations such as departments of social services , the juvenile justice system, and Area Mental Health programs. They are an extension of the community, adding expertise in an area of children’s health that often times goes untreated.
The stories shared by family members who turned to AYN as a last resort, triggered my thoughts back to a poverty stricken mountainous region of Honduras, Central America, and a girl in a yellow blouse.
It was 1991, and I was stationed at Soto Cano Airbase, Honduras, as part of the 4th Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. The unit of Army helicopters operated in most of the Central American countries such as Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize, and had numerous missions in support of our nation’s foreign policy. We were involved in drug interdiction, special forces support, logistics, and the broad umbrella of missions called “nation building”.
Nation Building was very rewarding, in that it usually allowed us to use our impressive military capabilities to help the poverty stricken people of Honduras. The people were very appreciative, and greeted us with warmth and hospitality. It felt good to be part of such a powerful organization using it’s power to improve the lives of the truly less fortunate.
One rewarding mission was the use of Blackhawk helicopters to reach remote villages, thousands of feet above sea level in rugged terrain, to deliver doctors and medical teams to administer immunizations, vaccinations, dental work and education on the devastation afflicted by diseases such as cholera and malaria.
The missions were grueling in that they often involved long hours in the greenhouse-like cockpit, flying from one difficult landing zone to the next, in the scorching hot sun of Honduras.
As the aircraft approached the designated landing zone, we would look for the white flag placed by a community member to mark the best possible place to land the large bird. I usually experienced goose bumps on approach, as I spotted the long lines of people, who had probably walked for miles (in mountainous terrain), waiting to get a bit of rare healthcare. It felt wonderful to be an American with the unique skills to deliver help.
As soon as the engines whined down and the rotor blades stopped turning, the village kids darted towards the aircraft, surrounding us with admiration and enthusiasm before we could even open up the doors and climb down, but it felt remarkable.
As soon as possible, we often stripped down to work-out gear to experience relief and relax as the doctors did their fantastic work with the people.
We usually spent some time socializing with the kids, handing out goodies (they preferred writing/coloring tools more than candy), and then we (the pilots) left the crew chiefs to mind the aircraft while we strolled around the area and engaged in foreign diplomacy. The kids always followed us and talked, and it was an amazing experience!
In one village, a young girl wearing a yellow blouse and gray skirt, about 12 years old, seemed to engage us with an exceptional level of enthusiasm and relentlessness. She was very friendly, but it became clear that she was deaf and mute. Everywhere I walked, she followed me around with a positive attitude and a smile. I took this photo of her, and I think it made her day, and mine!
The other community members were clearly aware of her limitations to communicate with me, but seemed to embrace her uniqueness with understanding and assistance as the adults and kids alike tried (in broken English and Spanish) to communicate for her.
Although they must have known there were minimal resources available for her long term support, the community expressed no resentment towards the girl in the yellow blouse. Instead, they expressed affection and camaraderie towards her.
I wonder how life worked out for her?
If the “girl in the yellow blouse” was born In the Unites States, she would have unique opportunities to lift herself out of poverty. We have developed special schools for children with similar challenges to this girl in the yellow blouse.
My niece, Nina Bush, had the disability of being deaf and mute, but she went on to attend the model school Gallaudet University in Washington DC, and then managed to create a positive and self-sufficient life for herself including family and work.
That girl in the yellow blouse, however, now close to 40 years old, probably spent the last 26 years relying on her community to survive, due to the difficulty associated with being deaf, mute and poor in a country with very little opportunity, and tremendous challenges of mobility.
Hopefully, the protective net that I witnessed back in 1991, identified and encouraged the development of her unique gifts (wonderful disposition, positive attitude, concern for others) to alow her to contribute to the community.
That sense of community and acceptance of the little girl in the yellow blouse, in such a remote and poverty stricken area of the world, was representative of the spirit that I sensed in the good people of The Alexander Youth Network.
In the banquet room last month, there were hundreds of people who are contributing to a wonderful organization that helps children to deal with problems that may seem insurmountable to the family. However, through community support, the challenges become manageable with the remarkable work of the men and women of The Alexander Youth Network.
Regardless of the nature of the challenge, be it behavioral, developmental or sensory impairment challenges, I hope we can all agree on one thing:
Children with special challenges need extraordinary support, and our community should mobilize to meet the need, as the good people of Alexander Youth Network have demonstrated.