Clearer, Truer, Happier

Making a Difference
Sasha Otero
DPCS Internship
Tenderloin Childcare Center, San Francisco
Summer 2007

I decided to apply to be an intern at Compass’s Tenderloin Childcare Center in San Francisco within an hour of seeing a Dartmouth Partners in Community Service banner in Thayer Dining Hall. The combined fear of the warnings I had heard about “wasted off-terms” and the thought of spending a summer in my boring hometown after an exciting year at Dartmouth inspired me to be efficient in ways I never thought I could. The application was due just a week after I decided to apply, but I got my recommendations, application and non-profit organization paperwork done just in time.
The logistics of my trip proved harder to take care of than I’d originally thought. The week before I left was complete and utter chaos. I still hadn’t found an apartment to rent, or even a way of getting from my proposed apartment to my job. Days before my trip, I couldn’t sleep or eat well, I was so stressed. The night before my flight, I had my boyfriend on the phone for hours while I cried about how scared I was and what a big mistake I had made. Who did I think I was, leaving the security of my home and family to fly clear across the country to live in a place I hadn’t found, work with people I had never met, all alone in a city I’d never been to. Even now I wonder if I was being brave or naive.
Fate must have played a role in my summer, because everything lined up beautifully. I ended up renting a room from the first person I interviewed with, a 40-year-old dwarf named Trina that I’d found on craigslist.com. Living with her was not only convenient because of her hospitality, but a real blessing because of her kindness. Included with rent was full access to her workout equipment,  laundry machines, kitchen, wireless internet, and a room with an actual door- all rare commodities in a city like San Francisco where curtained off living rooms are rented out for $900. Over the course of my internship, we became close friends. If not for our talks while cooking together, I’m sure I’d have gone insane.
Apart from the housing situation, however, there is no better place to just end up in than San Francisco. There is always loads to do, and plenty of options for getting there, as long as you have your trusty metrocard. After taking a weekend to get to know the city, I started working. I worked the minimum 8 weeks, closer to 35 hours each than 40. Although I was excited to be there, the lack of real work for me to do drained my motivation.
When it comes to help, there is a question as to whom it is that you are helping. When an optimistic college student sets out on a community service internship, they often have “making a difference” imprinted as an ideal, and rightfully so. What would the point of effort be if it made no difference, no matter how small? In the bulk of my community service experience, I have been a key element in providing the service, whatever it may be. I have had roles that were mine alone, and I performed in those roles to the best of my ability. My coworkers had their individual roles as well. Had I not been there, their own responsibilities would have been too demanding for them to take over mine as well. I, or at least the role I played, was indispensable. Had I not been there to do my part, somebody else would have had to of been hired, but because I was there, that theoretical employee was able to work elsewhere doing something different. Making a difference.
I was disappointed, however, when I saw that instead of being treated as an extra limb meant to increase the dexterity of the program that I had become a sort of crutch. Being the young, energetic summer intern from Dartmouth earned me every category of pointless task from relaying messages from teacher to teacher to setting up and cleaning up so that other teachers wouldn’t have to. I was often asked to come in earlier and leave later than my originally scheduled work hours so that teachers and staff members could come in later or leave sooner. One day a teacher came in hung over, and she had me take care of her primary kids for part of the day. Meanwhile, she fell asleep on the playground with a naptime blanket thrown over her head. Had I not been there, she would’ve sucked it up and done her job; she even told me so. Rather than use me to improve the quality of care for the children, she used me as a cover up for her lack of effort.
During my internship, I did not feel that my role was a real contribution to the program itself. I knew that I was only there on a temporary basis, but I had hoped that my presence would add something that had not been there before. I had hoped that in addition to the usual maximum efforts of the teachers, staff, and more permanent volunteers, I could put my best forth and make the program better, if ever so slightly. I expected to make a difference.
I began to lose interest in my job because of the work environment. The staff’s expectations changed every day. I never had my own responsibilities, rather whatever other staff members didn’t feel like doing. In that respect, the internship was very unfulfilling, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon when most of the kids were gone. Some days it was ok to play tag or hide-and-go-seek with the kids, but other days the staff chastised me for riling them up. Constantly stressed about what I was supposed to do, I began to resent my time there and to watch the clock, calculating morality in minutes. I would remember the exact time that I walked in through the door and add 8 hours to that for my expected departure. The only things that made my time there worth it for me, or anyone, were the relationships I developed with the children.
Daily, I was assigned to work in one of two classrooms, Lucerito or Sunshine, with children aged 3-5. The Lucerito room was mostly rowdy, older kids that had been in the program for a long time and were ready to go to kindergarten. The Sunshine room had younger, for the most part, more timid children in it that had just started the program. The children in each classroom were divided into different groups daily. Each group stayed in the classroom, went to the playground, or went to Vikasa, the gross motor room, in the mornings before lunch. The endless combinations of kids and environments meant that the dynamic in each of the classrooms was unique, and that no day was ever the same.
I spent time in both classrooms, but the children I was closest to were a group of six, the “primary” students of one of the teachers in the Lucerito room: Silky, Zion, Frida, Michelle, Jhosio, and Christian. On my first day at the Tenderloin Childcare Center, I realized that this group was the most challenging. They had the most conflicts, amongst themselves and with other children, and the most trouble transitioning from playtime to lunchtime to naptime and back to playtime. During my internship, I had lunch with them and helped get them to sleep every day.
Silky was intense. At first she just annoyed me because she was so demanding. It was frustrating to want to help her and to put out that effort and then to be turned down. She never went down during naptime without a fight. She’d scream and yell and wake up all the other kids that the teachers and I had just put to sleep. Naptime was always an uphill battle, just so long as she was in the room. She’d hit me, other staff, and other kids, disrupt naptime, it was terrible. A few times, she got to me so much, made me so angry, that when she’d hit me, I’d grab her arm. Probably harder than I should’ve, probably harder than is legal, and I’d push her back. In that angry, immature state of mind, I felt that I was “defending myself.” Afterwards I learned that Silky lives in very terrible circumstances. Although she is just 5 years old, she has been through more suffering than many of us will go through in a lifetime. Physically abused, sexually abused, and moving from one nasty homeless shelter to another; no wonder she’s angry. After I heard that, I took a much more patient approach, something I didn’t think myself capable of. Although I’m proud of the way I interacted with Silky after I found out about her situation, I’m not proud that it took me finding out about her situation to act that way. I feel that I should have had patience, understanding, and an open mind naturally, and I feel that now, because of Silky, I do, or at least more so than before.
Zion was probably the easiest of the group to deal with. He always stayed on his cot during naptime, and he usually fell asleep easily and quickly, despite distractions. I had similar problems interacting with Zion. He was the “crybaby” sort, and the slightest conflict, things that other kids brushed off, would make him cry and cry and cry. This upset me, because I felt that he didn’t have a “reason” to cry or react abnormally. While other families showed sure signs of poverty and abuse, his mother came in every day wearing clothing nicer than anything I’ve ever owned, and his “uncle” (his father for everything except the financial forms that allowed them into the for-the-poor-only program) was incredibly loving and attentive. While with Silky I changed my behavior for the better after taking her situation into account, I changed my behavior for the worse when I learned more about Zion. I was never mean to him, but I definitely didn’t pay as much attention to him as I could have, all because I thought that he didn’t deserve to be there as much as the kids with “problems” did. It didn’t take me long to realize that holding what his parents were up to against him was completely wrong and just as bad as holding Silky completely responsible for her behavior, but I still felt terrible that I had.
Frida was tough to deal with because she was so smart. Napping and coloring just weren’t engaging enough for her, and she knew it. Because her environment wasn’t stimulating enough, she tried to stir stuff up. She’d manipulate other girls, turn them against each other, play controlling games. At lunch time she’d rile up everyone at her table and get them to chant things like “Ewwww! Ewwww! Ewwww!” when another child had to change after having an accident. As with the other children, it was hard for me to be patient. It was hard work to keep all the kids calm and well behaved, especially during transitions, and not only did she find ways to disrupt that, but she did it in a manipulative way and a very mean way where one kid always ended up getting picked on. When told to stop, she would just give a defiant smile, smugly looking around at the bullies she’d bullied into being. Although she was just a little girl, it was difficult for me to treat her like one when she was doing such malicious big girl things. I made the mistake of taking the direct approach with her, telling her to “stop” or to “not do” this or that. After a while I realized that telling her what to do wasn’t the right approach. Stopping would just leave her in the situation she’d been in in the first place: bored. I began to take a new approach, redirecting her. Rather than tell her what not to do, I’d give her a new idea, bring out a new set of crayons, put her in charge of a new game, do stuff to show her that I knew how special she was and how responsible she could be. Interacting with Frida tested not only my patience and thoughtfulness, but my creativity as well.
Michelle was probably my favorite. From the first day, she attached herself to me, and that was a real comfort when I was new and all of the other kids would cry when I’d come around. The thing about Michelle was that she really craved one on one attention, and because I was “extra”, I was able to give it to her. Although I was assigned to spend time in both classrooms, with whatever teacher had the most “difficult” group, I was always biased to go wherever Michelle was going. Not to say that she wasn’t difficult. As young as she was, she understood how things worked pretty well. She’d hit and bite and bully kids, get chastised by a teacher, pull a sad face, apologize, and do it all over again. While she did get bullied occasionally, it was the general consensus among teachers that when Michelle was involved in a conflict, Michelle was usually the one to blame. Because I liked her so much, though, it was hard for me to think that way, and I often gave her the benefit of the doubt. Eventually it dawned on me that letting her get away with things wasn’t really a benefit to her, and because I cared about her, I really wanted to benefit her. I began to pay more attention to her interactions with other kids, to take a more preventative approach. I’d stop her before the conflict started, redirect her, tell her before she’d hit or bite that there were better ways. Using her need for one on one attention, I did my best to be there for her as she wanted me to be, but I used my influence to do as much good as I could. During my time there, I felt that she became more functional. She seemed to have fewer conflicts, and while before she wasn’t really capable of playing with the other kids for more than a few minutes without bullying, her playtime started to go uninterrupted for longer and longer periods of time. After a while she started coming to me less, and while every morning when she came in and every afternoon when she left she still exclaimed my name and gave me a hug, the time in between became progressively more “unMichelle”. While it made me happy to see her improvement, I was a bit sad that she was ignoring me. In the end though, I was only there on a temporary basis, and as she was going to be there after I left, it was a good thing that she grew out of me, and that I did something good for her in the time that I still had her.
Jhosio was another kid that became close to me. While Michelle demanded my one-on-one attention all day, however, Jhosio only craved it at naptime. He and Michelle would argue over who should be read to first, but in the end I could usually get them to work stuff out and take turns. Working with Jhosio was scary because it showed me some of the drastic physical effects that a troubled growing environment can have. While some kids had anger issues and emotional problems, scary in their own way, but at least things that could be dealt with, Jhosio could barely speak, although he’d been in speech therapy for about a year. I’d been told by staff members that he’d improved significantly, but that just made me wonder how he could possibly be any worse. Kids with anger issues or violence issues can at least be redirected, but for Jhosio there was no help except lots and lots of time.
Working with Christian was always a relief. We weren’t very close, but just seeing him interact always gave me hope. He was just as abused and just as poor as any of the other, more “troubled”, kids, but he was developing phenomenally. He never hit or got hit; there were never any conflicts with him involved. By this description, one would think that he was a complete loner, but he wasn’t. He had a circle of friends, and while they sometimes fought amongst themselves, once Christian came in the picture his great problem solving skills, judge of character, and no-nonsense outlook helped him to find a compromise and continue the play peacefully. Watching his social development excited me, because it proved that there is hope for these children, that while some of them are taking longer than others, that eventually healthy growth and development can happen in a hostile environment.
When I applied for my internship, I knew that my work would rely heavily on relationship building. Just being there was motivation enough to reach out to the kids, but certain factors inspired me to get involved with them on a more personal level. The majority of the children that I worked with had recently emigrated from Mexico. Many of their families were not financially stable, and because the cost of living in San Francisco is so high, they could not afford to live anywhere but in dangerous neighborhoods or even homeless shelters. For the most part, these kids had very stressful lives, and their parents, busy working, probably didn’t give them as much attention as they needed. As a result, they were very receptive to any additional attention I offered, and I got to feel their need. Not just reading about it or knowing it exists and then doing something about it, but actually feeling it: this was awareness of social issues on a whole new level that I’d never experienced before. While my developing relationships with the kids were based largely on their need for me, my intentions weren’t completely unselfish. Besides my roommate, and occasionally the other staff members, the kids were my main source of social interaction. Many of them spoke only Spanish, which is my first language and what I speak at home with my family. They were all I had while I was there, and they reminded me of the comfort of home that I was so far away from and missed so much. Day to day, their acceptance was the most important thing to me, and I worked hard for it. A tough rejection was enough to put me down all day. The combination of feeling that the kids needed me and that I needed them allowed me to get closer to them and get more meaning out of my internship than I had anticipated.
Although my DPCS internship was only two months of my life, it was a surreal concentrated experience. People rarely get a chance to “start over,” but in San Francisco nobody knew who I was, where I’d been, or what mistakes I’d made. I realized that I could be whoever I wanted to be, that I could portray myself as whatever I wanted, through the relationships I formed with my room mate, my coworkers, and especially my kids. Without every other decision I’ve ever made looming in the back of my mind, I was able to make decisions based on what I’d learned and what I’d strived to be and accomplish for 19 years and not on what I’d actually done in that time. Being able to do this gave me perspective; I began to compare the choices and behaviors I would have normally carried out to the ones I was carrying out. There was a difference. I was still “Sasha,” but with no pre-established social buffers, I was able to be a clearer, truer, happier, and more fulfilled “Sasha” than I ever had been.
Going into this, I was so focused on the larger scale effects of my internship, that I didn’t see how much more important the smaller scale effects are: the individual deeds, intentions, and relationships. So, maybe over the course of two months I didn’t revolutionize the way they do childcare in the Tenderloin. I did meet some new people, and form some new relationships; I did learn an incredible amount about myself, learning that led to what I think are some major improvements, and I did make life slightly better for a few very, very special kids, and, to the “me” that I am now, that makes all the difference.