The forgotten: Reaching out during the holiday season — and throughout the year — gives life meaning

Published: Monday, Dec. 17 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

SANDY — John Lee is 6-foot-3, with gray-blue eyes and balding hair. The day after Thanksgiving, he got out his Christmas decorations, including the toy reindeer antlers he'll wear for much of the month. He loves the holidays, especially the chance to sit on Santa's lap and ask for gifts.

When it comes to Christmas, not all children are young. Lee, in his 60s, is developmentally disabled. He used to have family, but his parents are dead and a guardian looks out for him. His caregivers will try to see that he has a nice Christmas, said Jim Jensen, who runs the group home where Lee lives.

Not everyone's so lucky. The holiday "season of joy" shines differently on people depending on their circumstances. It is the perfect time, say experts, to look around and really see and reach out to those nearby, to find them and then remember them not just at holidays, but year-round.

The frail. The grieving. The homebound. The addicted and the recovering. The suddenly single and lonely. The forgotten.

Overcoming the past

Lots of her peers will be forgotten this Christmas, Selynah Slusser told the Deseret News. Some have been forgotten for a very long time.

Now 32, Slusser wore her family out with her yo-yo life until recently. What may have been her final and most realistic chance came in a tiny package: Daughter Serenity is 11 months old and is as placid as her name. The thought of losing or just disappointing her keeps Slusser striving to beat the drug addiction she picked up at a very young age.

Now she is a full-time college student studying social work. She attends daylong drug treatment three days a week, too. She and Serenity have an apartment — an accomplishment when you've got a police record, she noted. Only a handful of places would consider renting to her. She would have no hope of rebuilding her life, she said, if others were not willing to reach out to her.

Not all among the 22 million-plus Americans who abuse illicit drugs get the same level of help as they struggle to wrest themselves from the grip of addiction. But help makes all the difference. Slusser bounced between incarceration and rehabilitation for years, straining family ties. "I talked the talk so many times. They're still here for me, but they're leery."

There's a tendency to write off drug addicts and, unlike Slusser, "a lot of our women have very little healthy family support," said Andrea Lunt, day treatment specialist at Valley Mental Health, a private treatment organization in Utah, where moms can keep young children with them while they go through drug abuse treatment. Many of the women have suffered traumas; all are struggling to rebuild. An especially challenging period comes when they're finally clean and sober and help disappears. Some have pasts that place barriers on futures.

Nobody there

As December races past, Echo Garrett gathers gift cards for teenagers in foster care. The president of Orange Duffel Bag, an organization based in Marrietta, Ga., that tries to provide some basics and life coaching for foster teens, said they're often forgotten at Christmas and in general. Many programs won't provide gifts for children older than 12.

That's not news to many teens in foster care, who may live in group homes because there are so few foster parents or end up homeless. "That's sort of the track," said Garrett. "We find that our kids get left out, especially at the holidays."

The federal government said 408,425 children were in foster care Sept. 30, 2010. Many will return home or be adopted, but 11 percent become emancipated teens, on their own in the world. Others remain in group homes or become homeless. Pew Charitable Trusts has said children increasingly leave foster care with no stable home. Do 1 Thing puts the number who live without homes at 1.3 million.

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