I have worked in a residential treatment facility for a few years now and have been in a variety of different roles. Residential work in the mental health field is not for the faint of heart. Here are some of the things I have learned, and things that I loved that will stick with me forever.
1. Child Abuse Is Real.
It's one thing to read about it in your psychology classes but its another thing to listen to a child present their trauma narrative as part of their therapy. The things that these kids have been through are unimaginable and listening to the horror stories from them can seriously make you question the goodness in the world.
2. Children Are Resilient
Imagine the worst thing you have ever experienced in your life, times that by 10, throw in the fact that your family didn't want you, or couldn't take care of you, so you are a ward of the state, and top it off with having to go to a group home and live with other kids in similar situations. These kids lives are literally ripped apart, and they go to a new "home" every six months or so and learn brand new rules, meet new staff and peers, and are being told how to do things. And still, after all that, some of these kids make it out successfully and move on to be successful, functioning human beings of society. I still don't get it sometimes, but it happens.
3. Kids Need To Be Kids
Often times, these children are in care for a majority of their childhood. Or, they have been trying to survive their entire childhood. They have not had the chance to just be a kid. It can be amazing to watch these children open up simply by playing a game of foursquare, or teaching them how to jump rope, or hula hoop, or playing a game of go fish with them. They need that chance to play and be a kid, because they have been forced to grow up way before they should.
4. These Kids Can Teach You A Lot
These kids have obviously been through a lot in their lives. These kids have been forced to grow up way faster than I had to and they have a lot of knowledge that is sometimes hard to believe. While I was working in residential, I learned so many random facts, but I also learned a lot about myself. The random facts were probably my favorite, and it amazed me that even though they were experiencing this trauma, they were still able to learn these things.
5. They Are So Funny
I have laughed so hard at work that I have almost peed my pants because of the kids. They say the funniest things and they appreciate that you laugh with them because it reinforces them being kids. One kid asked a coworker of mine my the mountains had cornrows as he was looking at the Christmas trees growing in rows. One kid ordered a Fuji Apple Chicken Salad from Panera and practically threw the apple at me because it was "old and wrinkly". I definitely have a list of funny things that I have heard them say that I will never forget.
6. You Get To Experience Them Learning Life Lessons
And I'm not talking about the hard ones. I'm talking about the ones that touch your heart because you know you are making a difference in their lives. Knowing that everything has been taken from them, but they still have the ability to give back to the world is heart warming. They want to make puffy paint socks to donate to children's hospitals; write thank you cards to people who helped make their Christmas manageable in a group home; learn the importance of being in a group and supporting each other; the list goes on and on. Seeing them want to give back to the community makes your heart happy.
7. They Get To Learn About Healthy Relationships
This is one of my favorites. Unhealthy relationships are all these kids know. And when they come to a group home, they try to continue that pattern. Learning what a healthy relationship is can be tough on them, since they have done everything they have to survive. But seeing them have that "aha" moment and watching it click for them is amazing! They learn that healthy relationships are possible, and they learn how to build them.
8. You Get To See Them Move On
The best part of this work, in my opinion, is getting to see the kids move on. You get to see them close the door to their trauma. You get to see them feel proud of themselves. You get to see them be excited for the next chapter in their lives. And you get to hear from them how you have made a difference in their lives. This is probably more true if you work with girls than if you work with boys. I have kept every letter and note that the kids have given me when they are moving on from this group home. They tell me how I have impacted them and why they will never forget me. They tell me they will miss this place, and the people they have met. They come to realize that their trauma does not define who they are, or who they are going to be. They have closure; and its beautiful to see.
They say that if you can work in residential, you can work anywhere. I believe this is true, but not for the negative connotation that it usually comes with. I believe this is true because residential work changes you. It helps you realize things about yourself that you hadn't realized before. You learn how to help and take care of people, while also learning how to help and take care of yourself. Residential work is a one of a kind experience, and if you can experience it in a positive way, you will benefit greatly.