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Opinion & Essays - Feb, 1996 Issue #38 

by: Bob Kirkpatrick
Spokane, Washington
November, 1995

(This is the fourth in a series, written by a parent dealing with a run-away child. THE EMPTY PLACE was written in January, 1995 and appeared in the April, 1995 (#33) issue of Woodbury Reports. It's describes what he, as a parent, was going through every time he saw the empty bed of his daughter who had run away. RUNNING INSIDE, written in the late summer of 1995 and printed October 1995 (#36), explains how the trauma of losing a child to the streets can cause some parents to give up and do their own running away, emotionally. A PARENT SPEAKS ON WILDERNESS EXPEDITIONS, written in October, 1995 and printed December 1995 (#37) describes the joy, relief and success he and his daughter shared at the conclusion of her three week emotional growth wilderness expedition program. This latest essay, sadly, describes the aftermath when Bob was unable to follow the expedition staff's recommendations of a long term highly structured environment.) 

It's quiet now. For a few days there was life and noise; the sounds of an active home. Stereos competed in a subdued contest towards the back of the house, and occasional laughter rippled through the air like bright silver threads. 

My daughter had been lost to us for almost a year. She'd turned to the streets to find her way away from the structures and schedules of home and school. Because of the attitudes of the city and the laws of the state, she could stay out there. Fetching her back was difficult, to bring our own child home broke laws more fiercely enforced than those against child indigence. So, for nearly a year we took the brief phone calls and the occasional impromptu visits with a kind of gratitude. At least we could know that our girl was alright. 

That wasn't good enough, though. As you might imagine we wanted something better for our daughter, something better than the street life she found so alluring and free. We wanted more for her than self-medication through speed and heroin, more of a home than a sleeping bag in the local park. 

We had the opportunity, finally, to try and bring her to understand why she needed a different life. She was picked up while hitchhiking with some friends and held by the police. Instead of bringing her home, we contacted a Child Transport agent and had our daughter taken to Oregon. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the usual therapy and counsel of the public sector being worthless and actually counter-productive, we needed something more reaching. We found it in a wilderness program. 

It was expensive. There's no way to deny that, but what the money bought was something that, well, money can't buy. What I mean is, that during the next three weeks, the training our girl got would stand a lot longer than any encouraging or discouraging words of a Politically Correct Youth Counselor. She got the opportunity to "live" in a world where planning and caution were foundational, and inspection and introspection were prerequisites to making it from one week to the next. 

The belligerence is worn away by rigorous physical exertion. The kids in the wilderness programs carry their lives on their backs. Fifty and more pound packs and steep mountainsides can take a lot of the resistance out of a child. It can and does wear off the rough exteriors and permit the real kids to emerge. When that happens, progress is made and the kids get the chance to really see themselves and their lives. Sometimes it's for the first time ever. When all is said and done, the kids have pride in what they accomplished during the seeming eternity of the programs. They have a feeling of success and worth that displaces low self-esteem and the emotions it entails. They find some respect for themselves, and in that get the basis of respect for others. 

It isn't always successful. But it's true that it's never completely Unsuccessful. The vast majority of kids who come through wilderness programs inevitably take with them a new sense of themselves which is never lost. But it's also true that a wilderness program is, for many graduate kids, merely a start. 

Some kind of follow up has to take over where the program leaves off. No matter how well a program works, the lure of the street, the attraction of unfettered freedom, the pull of no responsibility is still everywhere. I know that, and I know it too well. 

When my girl finished her program I brought her home. I couldn't do anything else. Arrangements for the next step after the wilderness took too long, and the acquaintances my girl made on the street swarmed around her when they discovered she'd returned. There's something about a street kid that seems to require that they encourage others to abandon families that care for and love them. They paint concern as a crime, and urge contempt instead of respect. 

It's necessary to make sure that we, as parents, have all the ducks in a row. We can want to believe that three weeks in the wilderness can erase all we find disquieting, but it can't. All it can really do is to put the kids into the right frame of mind for the long-term work to stand a chance. Decide on a set of actions and make sure that they're completed, one right after another. We have to because there's always the attraction of the street to contend with. 

So it's quiet in the house again. The ripples of laughter are only echo's in memory, the stereos sit in silent disuse. The sadness is somehow worse than before --because she came so close. The note she left simply said she loved us dearly, but couldn't be happy. Her friends explained that too clearly. She's with them and our thoughts are with her. 

Copyright 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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