I walked into the drop-in center with my friends by my side. To the left of me, there was a canteen filled with several flavours of slurpees, and tons of different candies to choose from; skittles, maynards, gumballs and so much more. A couple feet over, there was an opening where you could enter a gymnasium to play sports. My body began tensing up. In my thoughts I had already judged these kids by the common stereotypes that described them. The type where they’re involved in drugs, alcohol and violence. I wasn’t super stoked knowing that I would have to spend my entire evening with a whole bunch kids who do nothing but use bad language. As I continued watching the clock, minutes seemed to start moving quicker and I realized the kids were about to arrive.
At 6:30, the doors opened and kids of all ages came storming through the door. My heart started racing. I wasn’t sure what the manager was expecting of me. I glanced at some of the kids and huge majority of them were all dressed in dark heavy colours such as black, brown and grey. There were stains on a lot of their pants, and most of them wore zip-up hoodies. At that point, I couldn’t help but think this was going to be an evening full of challenges. An evening filled with isolated kids with cold hearts.
After around five minutes of sitting there not knowing what to do, two girls came to sit at a small rectangular table beside me. I knew if I wanted to impact these girls I would need to be full of enthusiasm, so I introduced myself with an upbeat tone. The oldest girl shrugged and brushed me off. Her little sister was more open and had a contagious smile on her face. She told me her name and age which was 7 years old. Then, as the 7-year-old and I continued talking, her older sister slowly began joining the conversation. Both of them shared how neglected they felt at home and stories from how there mom abused them. Hearing this made my heart begin to change its view of these people. This young 7-year-old girl managed to keep a bright smile on her face despite what happened at her house.
Once my conversation with the girls was finished, two boys came running into our area. They started tackling and punching each other in the stomach. The bigger boy out of the two clenched his fist and was about to knock the smaller boy out, so I quickly went over to split them up. Afterwards, I found out they were just play fighting, and that they were the brothers of the two girls I had met earlier. Seeing how these boys resulted to fighting as “fun” broke my heart. It made me question how they had been raised, and what their parents taught them. When I was their age, fun for me was playing with a barbies and an old worn out rag doll.
As soon as the boys were separated, two new girls walked up to me. These girls were much younger than the others. One was around five, and the other was about six. Both of them were in two french braids with dirty white sneakers on. They grabbed my arm firmly. One girl pulled one arm and the other pulled my other arm. They started yanking on me, fighting, as if I was a rope kids played tug-of-war with in elementary years. They took turns back and forth yelling “mine” like I was a piece of property. I spoke with a gentle tone and asked them to let go before someone would get hurt. I agreed to come play tag outside with them if they would release my arm, so they were quick to loosen their grip and nudged me out the main door.
Outside, a few other kids noticed us playing tag and asked to join. I asked them if they wanted to play with us, but the girl I was with had a different opinion. The older of the two quickly grabbed my arm once again and started screaming and shouting. She then began jumping a kicking me until I finally told her to stop. After, I kneeled down to her height and whispered in her ear.
“Hey look at these kids, they look super sad and lonely. It looks like they need a awesome friend like you to cheer them up.”
“But I don’t want to be their friend, I have you,” the girl replied.
“These people live in the same neighborhood as you, so if you became their friends, you could potentially hang out with them other days than just Thursday,” I responded.
“My mom doesn’t like when I leave the house because she always wants me to stay home and take care of my baby brother while she goes out,” she exclaimed.
“Well how about we invite them to play with us, so that when I’m not here next week, you can come into the evening knowing you have a good friend.”
She nodded in agreement. I gave her a huge bear hug and encouraged her to go ask the others to come join us. Moments later a huge game of freeze tag was played all over the drop-in center, both inside and outside. During the game I thought back to our earlier conversation. My heart melted. It felt like it was turned into chocolate mousse. The chocolate mousse that was whipped perfectly with just the right amount of sweetness. I realized all these girls wanted was attention and someone who can deeply care for them because they don’t receive that at home.
After a good 45 minutes of chasing around kids, the two girls and I were exhausted, so we decided to take a break and grab some water from inside. Once we each drank a full glass, both of them walked into the basement and went to talk to some other kids their age. I decided to go play basketball with some of the older guys in the gym. We played bump as well as a half court game for a good hour. Each boy displayed a different skill they had. Some were good a layups, some were good at dribbling and others were good at defence. I loved seeing the energy and enthusiasm these boys maintained the whole time. Most of them surprisingly used encouraging language, but a few just brought others down. In the middle of the half court game, I pulled the ignorant kids to the side to tell them their language was rude and inappropriate. They nodded and were quick to apologize. You could tell they were unaware as to how negative comments affected other kids. After our chat, the boys began to have smiles creep up on their faces. We then all continued our game until circle time arrived.
Circle time was where the kids could make a decision to go home or to stay for a short bible study. About half of them wanted to leave and the other half stayed. It was our responsibility, as volunteers, to walk the kids who wanted to leave, home because it was such a rough part of the city. My youth leader and I walked home two young boys. Along with us were two other leaders that regularly worked at the drop-in center and my friend. I wasn’t pumped to walk the kids home knowing that it was troubled neighborhood. I could feel some nerves coming, and automatically thought of the worst case scenarios of what could potentially happen. My youth leader walked beside me for a few minutes and he made me feel much more safe. Once I began to feel more comfortable with the situation, I walked few steps ahead to talk with my friend. As her and I were chatting, we could briefly hear the conversation behind us. It was between the regular volunteer and my youth leader. Some of the things mentioned in their conversation made me feel queasy, and all I could think about was getting back to the drop-in center as soon as possible. We started moving our feet quicker so that we could be back as soon as possible.
Once the walk homes were finished and the kids had returned home safely, we had a meeting as volunteers. We took time to share how the evening went and any concerns we had. During this time I was exhausted to the point where I wanted to cry. I could barely stand. My legs felt like boiled spaghetti from all the running around I had done. The kids drained me emotionally and physically. But seeing the joy they had in their hearts when they were noticed by someone who cares for them, made the whole evening worth it. Each kid I spent time getting to know, had a unique story to tell. Seeing how broken these households were, really made me think about how much I had growing up.