You can hear it in their voices, sometimes off-key, sometimes wobbling with a tremolo of fear, sometimes styled after some singer they have long admired. You can hear it through the giggling bravado of children struggling to show a veil of courage on stage in front of their peers. You can hear it in the words that they would never dare say in any other place or time, words that express feelings lurking in the deepest recesses of their not-quite-adult souls.
It’s the sound of young hearts crying for help.
As we sit in our homes reading our endlessly-circulating email jokes, or political rants, or Facebook updates about our friends’ gardens and grandkids, or even my column, there are more than 100,000 children living in “residential placement” facilities across the United States. These are places where staff, therapists and teachers struggle every day through a chronic lack of funding and other resources, trying to help the kids find a way to cope with their troubled lives.
Through my work with a group called Lost Voices I have spent a fair portion of the past seven years in these facilities, helping at-risk children translate some of their most closely-held thoughts and ideas into music. The majority of the kids in our programs are incarcerated, convicted of things ranging from drug offenses to the kind of violent crimes I don’t even want to imagine. Some of them have come to the end of the line in the juvenile justice system – the next stop for these kids is prison.
For all this, they are children, some as young as twelve. And, other than the often unthinkable circumstances that have pushed them into the legal system, they are startlingly like your children and mine. These kids are well aware of their circumstances. In a song one of my groups wrote a couple of years ago, they summed it up perfectly:
They’re building more prisons, and tearing down schools
They’re throwing young people away
We’re nobody’s angels, but we’re nobody’s fools
We’re just not who you saw yesterday
Everywhere we have gone, our Lost Voices teams have been able to help the on-site professionals break down the kids’ barriers of fear and suspicion and heal their wounds. We have been able to provide new insights into their struggles that the therapists can explore. Most importantly, we have been able to help the kids find ways to deal with those struggles on their own.
We don’t know how the lives of all these kids will turn out, since there is no way we can track them once they leave the juvenile system. We can assume that some of them will go on to achieve lives that the rest of the world might consider “successful,” while some of them will not.
But I have personally experienced the joy of looking into their eyes, and bathing in their smiles, and helping them express the music of their hearts. I can tell you for certain that my teams and I were able to plant a seed of self-worth in every one of these young people, a seed that will grow to make each of their lives at least a little bit better than it might otherwise have been.
And I can also tell you that this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.