The Colorado Christmas Adventure unfolds around our little band of cottage mates. A family bound together by circumstance, these six kids have been removed from unsafe homes. Candy canes, Christmas lights, gingerbread houses and nativity scenes surround along with smiles, giggles and joyfulness from the kids. They are a family; we are all family here.
Bringing two of my worlds together, my church home and my work at the Tennyson Center for Children, makes my heart full. Mission Hills is not small. I remember walking into the 116,000 square ft. mega-church seven years ago. At the time, Kelly and I were seeking. After ten years of adversity, war, death, separation and loss, our family was cracking at the seams and we needed something. We didn’t know that we needed someone, but we found Him.
I was shocked when I was warmly welcomed at this church, a place that (as a Jew) I had felt I was not welcomed. But I was. There waiting for us was a warm embrace. Loving people, a caring environment and Jesus, waiting right there for us to stop running from. Giving our lives to Christ changed everything. I would shortly thereafter leave my corporate job, take a 60% pay cut and begin the journey of serving where I felt the Lord called me, caring for veterans, service members, military families and abused children.
Every one of those populations, I count myself a member of.
Today at Mission Hills, the environment is overwhelming, but it is warm and welcoming as usual. The sanctuary my family calls home.
I can see the wide eyes of our Tennyson children. They devour plates full of food truck chicken and waffles, weave through glowing gingerbread houses and warm themselves at the fire pit that hundreds of children (including my own) find respite from the cold at every week at Youth. They are kids, after all, just like any other.
We are deliberate to hold the space for our kiddos. I walk slowly through the crowds, speak softly and keep a flat affect. Our clinicians and care team at Tennyson have ingrained this in our organizational culture. Two of our Youth Treatment Counselors coolly handle little outbursts, correct behaviours and ensure that the kids are safe.
The lights sparkle in “Who Ville” as we arrive in line for face painting. Overlooking the sprawl of south metro Denver, a moment unfolds.
And I lean in.
Emma points and is explaining to the others. “Over there, see the Taco Bell?” I strain to identify the store, but cannot locate it. “Look, next to the bank. See the bell?” With perfect vision, there is no way such a restaurant is identifiable from this distance and through the clutter of buildings. Her statement is rooted in knowing. Experience. She has been here before.
“Are you from here?” I manage.
“My dad used to lock me out of the house and tell me to go get food there,” she casually states. “I used to go to school up the street.
Her affect begins to change. Her discomfort is perceptible. She stares at a girl further up in line and holds on to her cottage mate; her community for support.
“I recognize her from school,” she manages, “I hate girls.”
“Are you feeling ok, Emma?” I ask calmly.
“I get anxiety…I just hate girls.”
She holds her place. Her community anchoring her to the ground while emotions undoubtedly swirl within her. “We are all so glad you’re here with us, Emma,” I smile.
Inside my heart shatters. She was right here the whole time. Suffering in our own community and nobody saw her. Not until it was too late and her family was torn apart. Like 4,500 children in Colorado, Emma is now living in an out of home placement. She lives at Tennyson and is learning how to heal and set her sights on a new life, a new future. Emma is courageous at thirteen.
It took her being exported to Denver from an unsafe home in Douglas County to be seen and then welcomed back to her own community in Highlands Ranch.
We stand with her.
She is invited to face painting by one of my fellow Mission Hills congregants. The volunteer listens warmly as Emma hopes to have matching Christmas monkeys painted with her cottage mate. A monkey is not one of the four options that hundreds of kids are able to choose from. Nevertheless, I am proud as one of my church family members leans in to show care for the girl.
What if we all leaned in like this? No questions asked.
What if we saw moms and dads struggling to overcome their own generational trauma and supported them as they learned to heal themselves? Learned to stabilize their homes and learned to reintegrate fully? What if we never let them fall from the beginning and held them up with the support and treatment they needed?
“What if” is happening today. Right in front of me. And in churches all over our community.
We are proud to lead an effort that reaches into the margins of every one of our communities, one child and family at a time. This is the very heart of our new partnership with Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). The very heart of partnerships with churches like Mission Hills and the Disciples of Christ congregations that have stood with us for over a century. With Boys and Girls Clubs, The Boy Scouts, Foster Power Youth and others that anchor supports and welcome kids into community.
At its core, these partnerships will enable us to see what is right amidst all of our communities: hurting kids and crumbling families that need us all to lean in, care and through treatment allow the hurt to give way for the healing.
Back at the face painting station, a monkey image is found online and before we know it, Emma has a Christmas chimp holding a candy cane on her face. Another is drawn on her friend. Emma smiles. She floats out of the church with a gift bag in one hand, her cottage sister in the other.
Taco Bell fades away as this child remembers what it’s like to be a kid again. Ahead of her lies a healing journey that will last lifetime, but she will never walk alone again. Together, with the Tennyson Center for Children, Mission Hills Church, Douglas DHS and a community of supporters, we are committed to seeing her change the world with all the bravery and heart that she walks with.
Brandon Young is the Chief Advancement Officer at the Tennyson Center for Children