Maria is an outreach worker in the Community Support Services department. She started at Covenant House in 1989. She is a Dialectical Behavioral Therapist with a keen interest in strengthening the resilience of street involved youth.
Life can be the greatest gift we receive and yet appear to be the greatest burden to bear. I began my journey with Covenant House in 1989 and in that time, I have walked beside some of the bravest people you can imagine. Young souls who have endured more than anyone should ever have to and experienced rejection in a way that would bring most of us to our knees. Yet, they walk.
My first day at Covenant House, I sat with a group of young people at a table, my coffee in hand, ready to take on whatever came my way. It was a tough crowd of four, clearly more experienced with the downfalls of life than I could even understand at that time, but surely I had something to offer, right? I introduced myself to the youth and was immediately met with a wave of questions about my background, qualifications, and intentions. Make no mistake—it wasn’t friendly. They were letting me know in no uncertain terms that I was one in a long line of well-intentioned “newbies” thinking we know what they were going through.
I’ll never forget one of the young women at the table, Elaine. She was absolutely beautiful, with short blond hair, shaved off on one side and clear grey eyes piercing through thick black liner. She turned to me and said, “Another staff who thinks they know us. So what do you think you can do for me?” It’s a question that would guide my work for the next 20 plus years.
What can I do for the kid who has experienced a breach of trust so deep that it defines how they exist? What can any of us do? How do you instill hope in a kid that has been told repeatedly that they are not good enough? That wasn’t valued enough to have been kept safe? What type of “book learning” do I apply to that situation? How am I going to make any impact on this young person’s life? The questions are endless and the answers never clear and uniform. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of approach and it isn’t a one-person show.
Walking beside a young person who has experienced trauma in their lives is a tremendous responsibility. The bravery that it takes for that youth to walk through our doors and trust, yet again, is something I continue to be in awe of. From our very first interaction with them at our reception desk to the day they leave us, we must understand and work with the knowledge that we have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity to redefine what a healthy relationship can be. To have them experience what being honoured can feel like. Or to experience being heard and validated. To have someone bear witness to their journey without judgment. To breathe deeply for the first time in a long time because they feel safe. To be welcomed with a smile that is genuine. These are actions that I witness daily from my co-workers. It is no one act or person that will ease the pain or reshape the way our young people experience life. It’s a community of people who consistently show up and walk this journey with them. I have witnessed so many beautiful moments from the staff and youth of Covenant House that it has made this vocation a blessing. I have watched co-workers help to dress a young man for the funeral of his girlfriend after she overdosed. I watched them teach him how to put on a tie and assure him that he can bear yet another loss, and this time, not on his own. They formed a circle of love and support around him that no one would dare challenge.
I have watched workers celebrate the victories of our youth as if they were their own. That first passing grade, the first job, the first smile they give you. The first time they allow us entry into their darkness and we stand strong until they are ready to move. Sitting with them in the middle of the night as they fight through their night terrors and anguished memories.
It’s a million, sometimes small and quiet, but meaningful gestures. It’s building a safe community for youth so that they can begin experiencing their value. And it’s the hope that they can stand strong, believe in their value, and live a full and meaningful life. That they understand how beautiful and brave they are and how blessed we are to have been a part of their lives.
Had I known all of this years ago when Elaine asked me, “What do you think you can do for me?” I may have said something like, “I don’t know, but I can guarantee I’ll stick with you and we’ll find out together.”