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  • Writer's pictureRenata Joseph

Playing the Hand You're Dealt

Since we arrived in Belize in early December, it's been pretty easy for me to leave my old "work life" behind. It's only been recently that I've thought of the youth that I used to work with, week in and week out. Those youth were mostly middle and high schoolers, mostly low-income, mostly people of color. Each of them struggled to attend school regularly. The reasons for their truancy were as different as each child's situation and personality. It was my job to attempt to reengage them in their education by means of mental health support, tutoring, community outreach, school staff, the legal system; basically any means necessary.

I loved my job and I was good at it. I met with kids and parents in their homes, coffee shops, schools, libraries, jails, courtrooms, homeless shelters, you name it. I learned the unique challenges each family was facing and did my best to connect them to the resources that might make a difference for them. My truancy work was an attempt to redirect this vulnerable population off a path toward criminal involvement. As in all social work, the wins were small and rare; the stories were unbelievably frustrating and sad. The work was exhausting and rewarding. It was hard to rationalize leaving that work to come to Belize when new systems of support were just getting put into place in my district.

So last week, during the down-time that Covid 19 has afforded me, I began to think of the families that I invested the most in. I thought of the homeless families, the kids struggling with depression and anxiety. I remembered with sad fondness the girl who was human trafficked, the drug abusers, teen parents and gang members. A few days later, one of those students was gunned-down the day before he turned 20. This young man (D.H.), who I've known for 4 years, had special needs. He was a first generation American from a low-income family. He struggled to fit-in at school, struggled academically and was painfully shy. His life goal was to become a welder, but couldn't pass the exams to get into a vocational course. This, and a slew of other factors, drew him away from school, searching for his path in life.

As news of his passing hit me, so did worries for his younger brother, who will undoubtedly look for ways to even the score. What chance did these boys have, when their mother left them at an early age? When their special needs made it harder to keep up with their peers? When English was their second language and their father couldn't help with the homework? When their dad worked long hours to try to provide the American dream for his boys? When financial pressure and the need to fit in drew them toward unsavory alliances? With those odds stacked against them, they barely had a chance. Now, out of the two of them, only one is left.

One thing I know to be true is that I was blessed to be born into a privileged situation. In terms of birth, I won the lottery. I was born to an educated white Christian couple in the United States. I didn't do anything to earn my upbringing and it wasn't any superior character or work ethic that landed me where I am. I was sheltered and protected from so much while growing up. That was the hand I was dealt and I'm so thankful and humbled.

Luke 12:48b says, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

It's not enough for me to appreciate my lot in life. How will I play the cards I've been dealt? How will I invest the talents I've been given, into those who have been given much less? In the past it's been my work with foster children and teens. I don't know where I'll play my hand here in Belize, but I am as committed as ever to be the difference in the lives of young people, like D.H.. And, with actual lives on the line, I have to be all-in.

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