The beginning of our life story determines the way we behave toward everything that comes our way for the duration of our time on earth. There are children who are loved and nurtured from the moment they are conceived and who experience joy, a tender touch, and precious moments while fed from the moment they are born. And then there are other children whose beginnings are marked by violence, abuse, instability, and neglect. This second group of children is often the one which comes to HOPE Farm every afternoon. This second group includes Noah*, who came to HOPE Farm when he was 5 but did not speak his first word until after his 3rd birthday due to a violent act that he witnessed in his home. Noah was put into foster care and entered the doors of HOPE Farm with his head down and his face closed. This second group of children also includes Benjamin who was one of four brothers all born a year apart who had been under the care of their uncle before they came to HOPE Farm. This uncle abused these four brothers without their mother knowing it every day for years. This second group of children also includes Jacob who was found abandoned in a closet when he was 3 eating the carpet because he was so hungry. When he came to HOPE Farm, he constantly felt hungry and ate dinner every night with an urgency that was startling. He poured huge amounts of ketchup on all of his food and frantically wanted seconds and thirds every night.
How do we meet this second group of children where they are to help them move forward and become functioning people in society? How can we expect Noah, Benjamin, and Jacob to complete seemingly simple tasks that are required in group settings? When we witness a severe melt-down by one of these children because of something seemingly insignificant, how do we help and how do we respond?
If a child is a product of a stressful pregnancy, risky birth, abuse, neglect, or trauma, this child will become mistrustful and on guard in any situation. These children must relearn how to function in an environment that is safe—we cannot expect them to function normally. It used to be that “fatherlessness” was the main thing that we talked about at HOPE Farm. 20 years ago, we were concerned about helping kids heal the “father wound,” because all of our boys do not have fathers living in the home.
Now we acknowledge that we are working with kids with multiple wounds and layers of negative experience that has already shaped them in tragic ways so much so that their reactions and interactions are not normal ones for their age. Christian author Judith MacNutt writes in her article, “True self” that “Shame and abuse can alter the true identity of a child. A child is usually helpless to know how to cope. To survive, a young person will move into a false identity and by the time they’re an adult the true self is like a distant memory. The false self is birthed in fear and lies. The false self does not have attachments that are healthy and life-giving. This person has a lowered ability to love and be loved and may not be capable of intimate long-term relationships, either friendships or marriage…They may try to control their environment and everyone around them. They feel very insecure yet have limited ability to communicate their own needs”. **
To help our boys on their journey back to finding their “true self,” the program staff went through extensive training called Trust-Based Relational Intervention. This methodology is based on three harmonious principles: Connecting, Empowering, and Correcting. At the very center of this methodology is the belief that “with investment from caregivers, hope and healing is possible for every child.” *** This belief is one that we all hold true at HOPE Farm as we work with these children every day.
The three principles of Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) are practiced daily as we rotate through our programming cycle of academics, organized recreation, Bible study, and dinner. Through verbal communication, eye contact, and play, the staff is able to connect with the boys, which builds trust. We empower these boys as we teach them self-regulation, meet their physical needs, and walk them through sometimes adverse episodes during their day. Now that negativity does not dominate their environment, we are able to reteach, redefine, and rediscover each boy’s true self. By instructing them during calm times in the afternoon, we connect with the boys and teach them how to respond in stressful situations. Boys like Noah, Benjamin, and Jacob, who lost their voice when an environment of distress was the “normal” in their lives, begin to find it when surrounded by adults who understand this trust-based method. As the HOPE Farm staff responds to needs immediately, efficiently, and with action (offering a “redo” on a behavior that is detrimental), the child’s emotional needs are met. We embrace these children who come from hard places and attempt to show them that they are precious, honored, and loved unconditionally.