Waking up at 6:00am to freezing temperatures outside of the warmth of my sleeping bag was not an experience I ever anticipated having in my life when I imagined my future as a kid, especially not on a regular basis. Stepping off of my cot onto gravel while rubbing my eyes as I mentally prepare myself to deal with twelve teenage girls from dawn to well past dusk also wasn’t something I anticipated. But, as a group staff at a wilderness residential program for girls with emotional and behavioral problems, I’ve come to accept that the cold (at least in these upcoming winter months) and the stress of trying to help wayward kids find the strength to be responsible adults are just part of the day to day.
When I first applied to this job, I thought that I was in for a year-round summer camp, where an emphasis was placed on growing and trying to have fun in between classes. Instead, my day centers around balancing day to day tasks and work projects like making meals on time, cutting down trees, building new tents, and splitting firewood for our campsite with mediating bad/misunderstood interactions between girls, confronting girls on their inappropriate behavior, and pushing these kids to grow in ways that they can be incredibly resistant to.
In a nutshell, my work days feel like a tightly wound ball of stress that grows with each new layer and component. Even better, I work for 120 hours straight a week, then 48 hours off, and then it starts all over again.
I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, ignored, scoffed, eye-rolled, put down, and told that I was not liked. I’ve picked up dirty bras and underwear and dealt with never-ending bathroom control issues, hallucinating kids, homesick kids, insensitivity, and trying to wash dishes outdoors when it’s below freezing and your hands are burning painfully from being so cold. I end each day in a state of disbelief over whatever insanity took place that day, whether it was girls getting escalated over who took the last chicken patty, the number of inappropriate comments about bowel movements, or a girl needing to get physically restrained because she lost control of her anger.
I’ve exhaustively and frustratingly gone through the same issue again and again with different girls, from not being able to hear the word “no” to using reading as an inappropriate form of isolation. I’ve sat/stood/leaned against a tree/worked on a stump/sawed wood while listening to a girl pour out her anxieties, fears, and frustrations and I absorb it all.
Some days, I look to the edge of our campsite and wonder what my life would be like if I just walked out of my job right then and there. In the five months I’ve worked there, I’ve seen seven other staff leave because the stress and pressure of the job was too much to handle. So I think I’d be justified.
But then this beautiful moment happens where I actually see the girl I’ve been pushing for three months do what I’ve been asking her to do – a suicidal girl planning for a bright, altruistic future; an angry, trustless pre-teen who had been sexually assaulted able to bring down her walls and let people in; a self-absorbed girl reaching out to care for others; a cocaine user building meaningful relationships and finding healthier ways to cope with her world.
At this most stressful job, I get the amazing reward of building relationships with these girls that have built walls to push the world away to the point where they can trust me with their darkest secrets, their deepest fears, and I can help them accept themselves for who they are. I can be the support they lacked elsewhere; I am the “parent” to these girls that have been too wayward or difficult for their homes, for treatment centers, and for other placement programs.
It’s the little wins, the small glimmers of hope like this that help me see the forest through the trees, that show me that this heart-wrenching, time-consuming, exhausting job as a beautiful, wonderful point to it. These wins, glimpsed through a haze of frustration and strain, lift me up again and push me to love these kids for the honest, flawed, and wonderful human beings they are and can be. I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand what pushes me and what keeps me going (it’s certainly not having to escort a kid to the shower house because they had an “accident”), but I know that this is one crazy, amazing job experience I’m happy I didn’t give up on even when I wanted to and even when others around me have.