Yesterday I had the amazing opportunity to join The Armstrong and Getty Show’s foster care panel. It continues to shock me some of the stories that come from youth ageing out of the foster care system. I believe foster care is an important human service that our state provides, but there are gaps. It is those gaps and many more that we cover in the show. Please take some time and listen. Listen if you are curious about foster care in general, or even if you want to become a foster parent, this will be touching and informative. Also, my book “Dad in a Day: When Mom’s Kids Became My Own’ and the workbook “Discover Life Beyond Crisis: A Guide For Overcomers” are set to release in May and June. You can pre-order “Dad in a Day” by going to dadinaday.com. Thank you for your support.
I really love what I do. It’s interesting and challenging. Although, I often feel like I get too much credit for some of the outcomes in the lives of our students. It makes me just a little uncomfortable sometimes because most of what I do is talk in front of people. Sometimes one on one but mostly in group settings. Although I am passionate about the lesson, it’s not stellar or exceptional speaking. I am typically long winded and talk around in circles. With that said, I hope my words Carry weight in the minds of the students, but I don’t want to be the only voice they hear. It is not enough for only one person to care about these students, it takes many. Life cannot be taught from a singular source, if that were the case we would all have it figured out and we would all be well adjusted people. My lessons in life came from heartache and life’s joys and from people who have loved through the pain.
One of our students posted on her Facebook wall that was heartfelt on new year’s eve. It talked about how this year was the the difficult year in her life. After she lists tragedy after tragedy she also list those who got her through. She listed about a dozen names. My co-workers and I made the list, and I was proud. I was proud that I was able to make a difference but mostly I was relieved because I saw that a student that I had grown to care about and have vested interest in has other people that give a crap. To help people, you don’t have to be THE person you just have to be willing to be ONE of the people who would make a difference in people’s lives. In my life and the lives of the people that I have encountered that have lived through and came out of trauma and crisis, and now are on the other side and are thriving, they are where they are not because of any one person. They have overcome their trauma and crisis by having a mosaic of people who were willing to step in when opportunity intersected with having the ability to do something about it.
I’m glad to be part of the mosaic in people’s lives. I am also proud of that young girl who was able to recognize that this was a series of events that was out of her ability alone to overcome and she reached out. That decision is brave and wise. To reach out is not easy and can be scary. You have to put yourself out on the line and in danger of being rejected. So, if someone asks for help and guidance, don’t take it lightly. Give the request genuine thought and consideration because you could be part of someone’s success mosaic.
Ever since I was a kid I was interested in learning people’s stories. After escaping a situation of extreme domestic violence, me and my family moved into a shelter in South Carolina. It was a very serious and scary situation. The people who ran the shelter seemed nice, but as always it wreaked of the institution smell that was some mix of bleach and fumes from the fluorescents lighting. I’m not sure if there are actual fumes from the lighting, I’m not a scientist. We spent only a short time there because they quickly arranged for us to go back home to California. I should mention for the sake of painting the picture, that we spent just over a year there and I had adopted the southern draw. Yes, I was a little Mexican kid with a southern accent. I imagine that it was odd to hear.
The shelter paid for all of us to go on a greyhound journey back to California. It was long and grueling but it did afford me the time to quench my thirst for stories. I heard stories of family reunions and impulse decisions to shake things up. I met former jailbirds who gave cautionary tales hoping to save me the troubles they ran into. One story that stuck out to me was the story of the Frenchman. I’m sorry but I really do not remember his name, I’m sure it was very French. I met him while sitting in the back of the bus. I liked sitting back there because most people didn’t. I had more leg room and space to sprawl out when I was tired. On a almost two week journey you begin to value some space when you’re on a bus the whole time. Most people steered clear of the back seats because of the proximity to the bathrooms, although a drawback of my chosen real estate on the bus, it was worth the sometimes overwhelming smell. The Frenchman was interesting. He had travelled all the world and paid his way by making artisan jewelry. He had beads that he had collected from all over the world. He told me about friends that he had made and family members that spanned all over Europe and South America. His stories were mesmerizing. I was always the annoying kid that wanted to be involved in whatever the grownups were talking about, but that trip really gave me a love of people’s stories. It also gave me. A lot of ideas of what I wanted for my future.
Fast forward 20 years and many more misadventures, I now have made a career telling my story all around the world and helping people through their own life stories. I have overcome a lot of stuff in my life and I have made it my mission to help others do the same. It is for this purpose I am happy to announce the launch of my book Dad In A Day: When My Mom’s Kids Became My Own. This Project has been a labor of love. (And continues to be, the first draft will be done by December 2016) I have felt the need to share my story for two reasons. The biggest reason why I want to share is for the simple fact that my story is not uncommon. There are many people who grow up ashamed of their past. I was and sometimes I still am. The power of being open takes away the sting. I want to encourage others to do the same. The most compelling reason I wanted to share my story is my Mom. My Mom was not a person that could easily be put in a box. She experienced a lot of pain, and trauma in her life. Some things I will never know the full impact of. In all of that pain and hurt she still had the courage to share with people in her own story, even the ugly parts. She helped a lot of people by sharing her story. I grew up with her engaging complete strangers sharing her story in the hopes that it would help them. I am continuing with the family mission. I can’t wait to share this project with all of you! Stay tuned for early release info and other ‘Dad in A Day’ announcements. For pre-orders go to dadinaday.com, and for any questions enter your contact information below.
I am coming upon the completion of my fourth year working with StudentReach. In December 2012 I had been volunteering with the team only for a few weeks. In the initial meeting, I told the executive director Jeff that I would be willing to help in any way including licking envelopes and scrubbing toilettes. In my mind, they were symbolic envelopes and toilettes. I was good with licking actual envelopes but I secretly hoped that I wouldn’t have to scrub toilettes. The first thing I did was help with their end of year mailer licking envelopes, luckily I still haven’t had to scrub any toilettes. Just a couple of weeks later I was telling my story at an assembly to a group of middle schoolers in Sacramento. I was nervous. Days before the assembly the StudentReach team helped me craft my five-minute segment. By “help” I mean they made me write out my story, practice on my own, then I came back and presented my story. They quickly took away my notes. At the end, they gave some good feedback, at least I think they did. All I could hear was that it was terrible. I went away to practice again and tried not to be overwhelmed by the emotions of reliving some of the most tragic moments in my life. I went back and the group thought it was to an acceptable level. I was very nervous as I told about my family’s struggles and how my mom was trafficked. The room became silent. It was an almost intoxicating feeling to have 200 listening ears. It felt good not just to share what my family had gone through, it felt good to share with a purpose of change in the life of the students we were presenting to. I also was very glad it was over. Today I am going back to where it all began. Just like my first trip with StudentReach as a “kind of” volunteer was an interesting one.
Just a few weeks later we went to the Super Bowl in New Orleans where we would by speaking to thousands of students about the issue of sex trafficking. There was a set group of speakers that were flying from all over the US. The plan was to do over 40 events presenting to over 20,000 students. In addition to all the presentations during the day we were also go to be doing night outreaches leading up to the Super Bowl raising awareness about sex trafficking. What made this crazy plan all that more important is that it was also Mardi Gras. Yes the age old party celebrating booze, extravagant floats and sex. It was a perfect storm for sex trafficking. There was a huge demand created by the increase of tourism. Experts at the FBI and local law enforcement estimated that 15,000 children would be brought in for the demand for the sex trade during the Super Bowl. That was a staggering number, it was a discouraging number. I was not supposed to speak. There was a slew of other speakers that were coming from all over the US, people who were way more experienced at speaking in front of students. Due to weather problems in Montana and Michigan the presenters that were scheduled couldn’t make it. So, I was up.
The school that we were at was called McDonough 35. McDonough 35’s administration at the time, told us that their school was on the list of the most dangerous schools in the United States! Just prior to me going out there the principle told us that most assembly speakers get chewed up and spit out. The video before it was my turn to speak was almost over and the unthinkable happened, the power was overloaded in the auditorium and the sound and video went out. It was my turn to speak and the sound went out, that means no mic. The over 1,000 kids in the auditorium had not been especially receptive to the other speakers and I was so nervous. I felt ill-equipped for the task ahead of me. I walked out and began to speak. As I began telling my story the rumbling crowd began to subside. I spoke about my family’s struggles. I told them how my mom was trafficked and my father was no father but was a john who beat up my mom. The room was silent. We went on to speak many more times that week telling the same story. In that experience I learned why it was important to share. It was important because my story is not rare, just rarely told. There were many students who identified with at least some, and sometimes even all my story. People need to hear that even though they have a terrible background they can still come out ok.
Fast forward to October 2016, now sharing my story hundreds of times in front of thousands of people, I find myself telling my story once again. I will always share my story, not because I want people to feel bad for me but because I want to end this evil by doing my part. The sex trade is growing and we need to do our part to stop it, and this is mine. Check out the Say Something Assembly by going here http://saysomethingassembly.com/about-us/
There have been so many joys and a lot of sorrow. Recently I have established a host home program for homeless youth through several partnerships in the Sacramento area. It has been a goal of mine since the conception of RiseAbove to offer this as a resource to the homeless youth in Sacramento, which is so exciting to be able to offer a program like this in just over a year! Ok, I will stop bragging. I was just so excited to finally offer some type of housing to the kids that I work with. I thought I had found a great candidate to host, and a great host home openers. The family who had decided to host her was great. The mom had experience in helping youth with trauma and she herself had experienced childhood trauma and had gone through counseling and other programs to overcome those trauma. They had two great kids in the house, the dad was not just present and he was pretty cool. The girl who they would be hosting, although quiet, she seemed to be driven and self-motivated. We will call the host family the Martinez’s and the young woman who was being hosted we will call Katy.
In the initial interview, Katy seemed apprehensive to be part of the program. Katy had extreme social anxiety. I assured her that the Martinez’s were great and would be sensitive to hear struggle. She also was overwhelmed by moving to a different area. She had been living downtown. Downtown was where all the services that she knew and used often for her survival over the course of 9 months of being homeless. Sensing her growing anxiety, I offered to drive her around the neighborhood where the Martinez’s lived. As we drove around I pointed out stores and hotels that she could apply for jobs at. I saw her anxiety subside. We were approaching the conclusion of our tour and I saw her smile and she released a big sigh. Then she said “I just feel like this nightmare is finally going to be over.” It was an impactful moment for me. It felt good to do good.
Then next step was to have Katy meet the Martinez’s. That’s what we did. The meeting went well. Ok, if I am being honest, it was a little awkward. Katy hardly talked and the Martinez’s were looking to me to bridge the gap. The problem was my own relationship with Katy was not very strong so I was unable to be that bridge. Despite some internal feelings of apprehension, we moved forward. Before we moved on I knew that I wanted to make sure and communicate my expectations very clearly. To me it was simple, look for a job and look for stable housing and use the next 30 days wisely. We planned weekly check ins where we discussed her progress and the next week’s schedule. Katy wanted to be a writer, which I thought was great. I thought it was healthy to have goals for her future. In my mind, her becoming a writer was a goal to aspire to. To Katy it was a job to pursue now. There was a disconnect. So, when we did our check in she said that she looked for work, but our definitions of looking for work were very different. As the month went on there were bigger issues brewing. The biggest was communication. She did not want to talk to me directly or even to Mrs. Martinez whom she had built a reporte with. She locked herself in the room. Her aversion to social interactions got so bad that she even took meals behind closed doors. The situation became uncomfortable. After a few failed attempts to get her into a more stable environment her time at the host home came to a close. The first hosting in my host home program was a failure. I failed to successfully help this young girl who just weeks before was glad to see light at the end of the tunnel. I failed to successfully vet applicants and prepare and support my host family. There were so many things I wish I had done better. Having been a homeless youth who was afraid and uncertain I knew the feeling of disappointment Katy was feeling and the heartache of watching a vulnerable young girl once again enter homelessness.
Failure is only bad if you give up and you don’t learn anything. I wanted to give up, this feeling felt really, really crappy and I didn’t want to experience this feeling again. And really did not want to think about how I could improve the program because after Katy there was no program. But, I don’t want to lose faith in a model that had a lot to do with me being able to overcome my own homelessness. So, I retraced my steps.
Here is where I went wrong. (Well at least a few ways I went wrong. Otherwise the list would go on and on.)
- I had a plan and I didn’t stick to it!
In my program outline I established a requirement for the host home program that included participation and completion in our coaching program teaching soft skills in social and emotional health. With Katy, I saw her immediate need and I ignored my own rules trusting my gut instead of the carefully thought out plan for the program’s success. Flexibility is important but not at the cost of being ineffective.
- I was too timid in addressing red flags and concerns of the host family.
There were plenty of times where during this hosting where the Martinez’s were telling me in subtle ways that the hosting was not working. Katy was quiet, went to bed early, and woke up early. Aside from Mr. Martinez, the family stayed up late, woke up late and liked to hang out with each other. Katy even stopped talking to them. The only times that she spoke to them was when she needed something. Which being able to communicate your needs is very important, but she often lacked tact and did away with common pleasantries. Those behaviors were not uncommon in the homeless youth population. What made this significant was the frequency to which it was happening and her unwillingness to address the issues or hear them out. I should have heard them better and acted. I not only had an obligation to Katy, but I had equal obligation the Martinez family.
- I mistook potential for motivation as the same thing.
I have a gift and a curse that allows me to see past a person’s current state, look past that and see the potential. It helps me see the best in people, it also makes me blind to what is in front of me at the present. Katy was smart, had a goal was in great need. I saw this and I saw a motivated young woman, but it actually was raw potential. She did have a goal and she was smart, but both of those things needed work. Potential often exists without motivation and it remains just potential. I ignored one of my own rules about helping youth. They have to be willing to make changes and move forward. I was so excited for the potential and the opportunity to fill the need that I didn’t even consider if she was willing. Katy was not ready for the kind of help that I was able to provide.
I want to help youth any way that I can. This was hard for me as it was probably difficult for Katy and the Martinez’s. It hurt me knowing that I was not wise enough to see the possible negative outcomes. It hurt the Martinez’s knowing that someone they had helped would again be on the streets. For Katy, it undoubtedly hurt to experience another let down. At the end of the day, my hope is to do better. Do better at reading people, diffusing crisis, being a help to my community and better at making good choices. The outcome in my first hosting was less than ideal for sure. I learned a lot and am looking forward to the future of this program.
This is part 2 of my thoughts on leading a small group discussion.
3. “Yes, and?”, “Why?” and Letting Things Get Awkward
One semester in school I decided to take drama as an elective. Although I haven’t won an Academy Award, or played in any major or minor motion pictures, it was pretty useful. When we got to the improv section we did this activity where no one could say no, it was a “Yes, and?” activity and that has always stuck with me. In this activity you can’t say no, you have to keep the scene moving by saying yes to what the person before you said then adding to it. Makes for a more interesting show. We know people benefit in a small group discussion setting, and they benefit the most when they are INVOLVED in the small group discussion. I never let people off with a yes or no answer it’s always “yes, and?” or a big fat WHY! One word answers are not an option. I will awkwardly wait and play the game of silent chicken and wait for the real answer. You can’t be afraid of the awkward silence, embrace it and use it. The fear of awkward silence will force them to answer, then I hit them with a “why?”. Do I get joy when I see them squirm as they wait and hope that I break the silence? Yes, but I mostly get joy listening to thoughtful responses after they see the benefits of being involved in in the discussion.
4. Know Your Material and Adapt to your Situation
Nothing is a substitute for knowing the material and knowing when to throw it out. Sometimes the material doesn’t fit the group, most of the time the discussion questions are the culprit. Knowing the questions and and knowing your group is key. The questions are the driving force of the discussion, if you are not using the right fuel then your car won’t go. So your questions have to fit. There is only one bad discussion and that’s a dieing discussion . You can direct the path of discussion with the questions, rule followers will hate this, but there are one thousand ways to the same destination. Sometimes people don’t understand the question in the way that it is being asked, so I constantly am thinking of asking the same question in as many ways as possible. The goal is interaction, if the the questions are so far from where the people are then people will not respond.
5. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing
This one might be the most important, SHUT UP! Stop talking, just stop. Do not ramble on and on. I love Ted talks. I once looked up their advice for great talks. One of their suggestions is take enough time to make the point, no more no less. Don’t kill the point by over explaining it over and over. And the point of small group discussions is that the small group discusses. My goal is to speak as little as possible. Period.
This is not an exhaustive list of stuff that will make your group time yield better discussions. These are thoughts that I keep in mind while leading group discussions. Let me know what you think, how do you keep discussions meaningful in a small group discussion setting?
I was recently asked to give a short talk on how to lead a small group discussion. More specifically, how to keep the attention of the group and encourage engagement. Both of which are not always easy to do when the subject may be dry or the group members are shy and unwilling to talk. I have had A LOT of experience in this area.
For the past four years I have worked at a non-profit that works with at risk youth. As part of our program we teach our life coaching curriculum to youth in small group settings at public middle and high schools. The groups vary in size, and the crowd is typically unsure about myself and my fellow coaches. I would not call it hostile territory, it also isn’t a friendly and receptive environment either. I still remember my first time in front of the first batch of students that we were using as guinea pigs testing our almost done material that I had only just become familiar with. I went in so confident because I had been speaking in front of people for years, sometimes in front of thousands of students. I had this. The fact was I didn’t have it, and the worst part is that I didn’t realize it. And it wasn’t me who would feel the negative impact the most, it was the youth I was trying to help and teach. As I stood up there unprepared for the task I willingly agreed to, I had an almost out of body experience. It was one of those times where I watched myself say words and I wish I would stop. My presentation was choppy, and I was so concerned with getting out the information out that I wasn’t even concerned with interaction. I missed the whole point! That days opportunity was shot. The whole reason we are there is to interact and build relationships so that when it counts our voice matters. Over time I learned better through more awkward class time and learning from my mistakes, some cringe worthy mistakes that other people have made. These are the rules that I follow in a small group discussions.
1. Have a Bottom Up Approach
In the development of our life coaching curriculum at StudentReach we worked off a bare bones version that was the undeveloped brain child of a friend of our organization Scott Braden. When working to bulk up the material by adding some videos and activities we also added components that we knew would be helpful for the youth we were working with. Things like how credit works, proper investment strategies and the fact that college students will change their majors an average of three times before settling on one. But our students were not into it. We started to find reasons to skip those sessions a move on to other sesions because we grew to hate them. Periodically we would we would meet with Scott to touch base and get feedback from him on our progress. At one of our meetings we shared with him our dilemma. He listened attentively, nodding his head to indicate that he was listening. After we were done he explained that we had a “Top Down” mentality and we need to have a “Bottom Up Mentality”. Yeah, I was confused too. But as he explained I understood. A “Top Down Mentality” says I know more than you, your questions don’t matter, I am going to tell you what is really important (said with a pointing finger). A “Bottom Up Mentality” forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience you are serving, in my case teenagers. Yes, knowing how credit works is important as well as handling money in general, but a 15 year old boy is not interested in living by a strict budget. We have to ask ourselves what questions are they asking, what are the things that keep them up at night. This takes us listening and learning about the people that are participating in the group discussions and tailoring the discussion to them.
2. Say Something Shocking!
My goal when talking to people is to be remembered. I do this by saying something shocking or sometimes slightly offensive. It’s a trick I learned years ago. When I was young I once heard a speaker say something shocking that was almost offensive, I questioned if I should even stay. But as I broke it down, I actually thought what he said was true and was something I agreed with, but I was intrigued. He did this several times during his talk. I realized what he was doing, he was keeping my attention! By saying things in a way that seemed slightly offensive, or saying talking about some sensitive issues with out dancing around the issue he held my attention. Although risky, communicating in this way is not without reward. As people work through their slight offense/shocking they will continue to listen the way that I did. You just have to make sure you say something worth listening to. Donald Trump uses this tactic but is lacking in any real substance. I’ve danced on the line a few times, slipped and fell in the way of making some people mad and had todo some smoothing over. Most of the time I make it through relatively unscathed. It’s a good tool for hard crowds. The important thing is not to say anything actually offensive, just saying what you want to communicate in a way that causes a reaction inside of the listener.
Stay tuned for part 2.