The forgotten: Reaching out during the holiday season — and throughout the year — gives life meaning
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.
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.
Many American teenagers expect their families to buy them expensive gifts, but the teens Garrett knows often crave underwear, soap, or a prepaid cell phone that can be a lifeline. "One of our young kids is a great student, working hard, and she needs a calculator for her science class. Who's going to think of that?" she said. "I like gift cards. What I find with our teens is they have specific needs no one has thought of. No one asks them and people mistakenly think if you're in foster care, your needs are taken care of. It's not necessarily true.
"For a lot of them, it has been many years since they felt celebrated," Garrett said.
She's dealing with a girl standing on the cusp of adulthood whose longtime foster mom had money trouble and couldn't keep her. The girl, a straight-A student, was sent to a group home where her meager possessions were plundered. She fled, said Garrett, and is cot surfing, staying here and there with friends. A senior, she loves school but has no one to attend her parent-teacher conference, or pay for an SAT test or fill out applications, to talk her into believing in her future. It's no wonder, said Garrett, only 3 percent of foster kids make it to college. "How many 18-year-olds do you know who are ready to be completely on their own?"
By the river
Edward Snoddy cooks a roast beef dinner that he and other homeless advocates will take Christmas Day to the camps most people have never noticed by the Jordan River running through Salt Lake City. They'll hand out gifts in wrap festooned with elves or angels or trees. They will try, sometimes successfully, to talk those who are ill or disenfranchised into coming to programs designed to help them find their footing.
Two years ago, they talked Denise Vukas into leaving the riverbank she'd long called home.
Vukas used to be a store manager. She was a mom. She was already an adult when she started drinking and she drank until she could no longer find her way out of the bottle. Three Christmases were blurs, without family or friends or her own respect. When Snoddy and the Volunteers of America medical outreach team talked her into getting help, she was almost dead. She detoxed, but relapsed, then was hospitalized again. That time, literally dying, she looked into the eyes of her daughter and her mom, who had never lost hope, and didn't want the wreckage of her life to be their last view of her. She prayed and God answered, she said, helping her clean up her act.
More than a year later, she helps lead the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at Mary Grace Manor, where she lives and works. She offers encouragement and hugs. Her new life began more simply than one might expect: "I just needed someone to believe in me," she said. "The outreach team never judged me. They cared enough to pull me off the river."
She'll spend Christmas with her daughters, now grown, and her granddaughter. She won't be among the forgotten. And she won't forget others in need. There are a lot of them: The National Coalition for the Homeless offers a range, with caveats, of somewhere between 2.3 and 3.5 million homeless nationwide. But it's an undercount, it said, given that many, like Vukas, live at times or always outside of shelters.
Esther and Keith are developmentally disabled but have their own apartment and get along pretty well, with some help from his siblings and an old friend, Mel Brake, who used to live next door in Philadelphia. Keith has had the same simple job for 50 years and tries to care for his wife, who has cancer. He is a little lost in the kitchen and makes uncomplicated meals, like the canned turkey he prepared for Thanksgiving. They are mostly alone, together.
She has been waiting for many years for a dream gift that never seems to come. She wants a Shirley Temple doll. In her 70s, she likes dolls with the ardor of a 7-year-old.
Brake runs their errands and often stops by. He'll visit at Christmas, he said, though they'll probably spend part of the day with one of Keith's siblings. He frets that they are lonely. But they are luckier than some he knows, he said. Lots of disabled adults have less support as they outlive family and friends and grow old.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1 in 6 children have some developmental disability. That includes mild through severe challenges across many different types, from autism to intellectual disability. It's easier to count children because they are provided educational services; adults live with relatives or in group homes, institutions, private placements or, like these two, on their own. For that reason, the estimates are unreliable, but all agree adults with these disabilities live in neighborhoods all across America. Sometimes, they're overlooked.
Years after he and his wife and her brother started their own home health care business in Hackensack, N.J., Lenny Verkhoglaz is still stunned by how many of the Executive Homecare clients have no one of their own to care for them.
Some have children who live far away, while others have no children. Many have outlived their kids, said his wife, Mila Feldman. The aides hired to come in become the family they don't have. And during the holidays, those aides are tasked with making the season more special. So they put up little trees or arrange a gift exchange. They dress their clients in festive clothing and try to make the season special, she said.
Gifts needn't be extravagant, says Amanda Gois of St. Paul's PACE in San Diego. The group helps 270 of the area's elderly stay in their own homes, providing transportation, meals and socialization.
She estimates as many as 45 percent of their clients don't have any family in town to provide a support system or just visit. If there's a birthday, it falls on the program to provide the celebration.
They are in the middle of their seasonal gift drive, asking for sundries, clothing, slippers — something small so everyone gets a gift. Some of the best she's seen have been gifts of time and service. "If you have no family around, you absolutely need the kindness of others," she said. Offering to do a small bit of gardening or a load of laundry doesn't take much, but those are very challenging for seniors, she noted.
It is rare if a neighborhood doesn't include some of the nation's 40.4 million who are older than 65. Those who reach age 65 live an average of 18.8 years beyond it, according to the Administration on Aging. And nearly 30 percent of them live alone.
A patient man
Some of his neighbors in Idaho Falls may not know Kurt Denning lives nearby. Life has made him, at 52, somewhat reclusive. Seventeen years ago, a brain aneurysm put him in a coma. When he woke up three months later, he went to rehab, then to live with his parents as he'd done half a lifetime before. He has outlived both of them.
Most days, life is routine. An aide gets him up and dressed and makes breakfast, then leaves. Denning spends much of his time with audio books — he just finished "War and Peace" — or on his computer. He is nearly blind in one eye and his left hand won't cooperate, so he does everything with his right, which is more time-consuming than he'd like. Patience is a virtue that has been forced upon him. The same aide returns later and helps him prepare for bed. It's easy to forget holidays in the sameness of his routine.
It's hard to say precisely how unique his situation is, because so many different medical conditions and circumstances, including age, can make it hard for someone to get out into the community. Denning's community must, for the most part, come to him. And it does.
His older brother, Bryce, visits often and if Denning needs to go to a doctor, they schedule it for Friday so he can take him. He is also blessed, he said, with a couple of very dedicated friends who stop by often.
It is people, reaching out, who give life meaning.
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