Being There: Houseparenting at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children
...She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark.
Just in time for Mother's Day, here's a tribute to Kristin McGee, who found her calling 12 years ago when she began her work as a houseparent in one of the residential cottages at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children, a charitable year-round home and school for children at-risk or in need.
Kristin McGee says there's only one thing she dislikes about her job: Graduation Day. It rolls around all too quickly every year - the time when Kristin has to say, "See you around" to the older girls of Dickinson Cottage, some of whom have been living in Kristin's steady, loving care for two or three years.
Children come to Kurn Hattin Homes from all over the Northeast when, for whatever reason, their parents or extended families are unable to take care of them. Each small residential cottage has two houseparents whose job it is to provide a stable, loving home-away-from-home for up to 12 children. The older girls at Kurn Hattin (ages 11-14) live in Dickinson, where Kristin splits the houseparenting shifts with Tenielle Nicholson.
Some of the 11 middle-schoolers Kristin calls "my girls" have lived at Kurn Hattin since they were 6 or 7 years old. They've grown up here; it is home. Along the way, houseparents like Kristin have helped instill in them important qualities and practical life skills - from independence, responsibility and honesty, to time-management, healthy habits and doing their part to help out around the house.
After classes on a Friday afternoon, the Dickinson living room suddenly bursts to life with bubbly energy. The girls file in the door in twos and threes and collect around the dining room table, where Kristin waits with a snack of popcorn and fresh whole strawberries. Among the girls - Kristin included - there's a casual ease and camaraderie, as they swap anecdotes about their day, razz each other about pop icon crushes, and pepper each other with questions about what's up for the weekend, and which DVD they should watch tonight. Little by little they finish their snack and settle into the early weekend activities, lying on the sofa with iPods and earbuds, making duct tape crafts, or grabbing some yarn for a "Jacob's ladder" session.
This is a sisterhood. Everyone belongs here.
Here's what Kristin had to say about the joys and challenges of being a second "mom" to 11 adolescent girls, and how she helps make Dickinson Cottage a home.
How did you first get involved with Kurn Hattin?
KM: It was at a time when I was looking for a new career challenge. I wanted to find work I could do well and be proud of. I knew I wanted to serve others, so I looked for something with either children or the elderly. I saw an advertisement for Kurn Hattin in the newspaper, and mailed in a letter and a resume.
I had my first interview over the phone on September 11, 2001 - 9/11. The day was so devastating for many reasons. I have no recollection what she asked me or what I answered. Apparently, I must have said something right! I started work about a month later.
How do you make the cottage a home?
KM: There are a lot of little touches I like to add to make cottage life seem more like home. For example, every morning I make it a point to tell the each girl "Good morning" and every evening I tell each of them "Good night" and wish them sweet dreams. It might seem small, but I want them to know that no matter what happened that day, I am still there and I still care for them.
I also love to chat with them at snack time. This is one of the most comical and rewarding times of the day, as the girls replay their school day for me and we discuss upcoming events.
I think talking and listening are the two most important things I do with the girls that make them feel like they are home. Whether we are doing arts and crafts, cheering each other on in sports, cleaning the cottage, cooking a meal together or just watching a movie together, the key word is together. They know they can talk to me and I will not judge them and I know they will at least pretend to listen to my advice before making their own choices.
What do you love about the job? What are the challenges?
KM: What I love most about my job and the biggest challenge are actually the same thing; graduation. Graduation is a very emotional time for both me and my girls. I love watching them walk proudly to get their diplomas and reflecting on the years I worked with them to help them achieve their personal goals.
When I say good-bye to my 8th graders, I am both proud of how far they have come and what they were able to achieve with a little help from me, and saddened to know I will never live with them again. You see, I don’t just work with these girls, I live with them from 1-3 years of their lives. I know everything there is to know about these girls; from their likes and dislikes, to their biggest hopes and fears. I know I am living my life right alongside their lives, even if it is just for a short time.
When I see my girls achieve something we have worked on together, there is such a feeling of purpose in my life that words cannot fully explain and nothing else can duplicate.
What's an example of a moment one of your girls that has touched your heart?
KM: There have been so many it will be hard to choose one, but I will try. Recently, on my day off, I took three of my girls shopping. All three of the girls needed shorts for school, so we went to a couple of stores, but could not find anything. It was very frustrating, because I thought it would be easy, but shopping with teenagers never is. On the way home, we were listening to music, and I decided we needed to do something silly to shake off the bad shopping experience. I began singing, very loudly and completely off key, to the song playing. The girls joined in and for several songs we were quite the rock band on the ride home.
We were laughing at each other and having a good time, and one of the girls, an 8th grader who will graduate a couple of weeks from now, told me she would miss me. This particular girl is not one for showing any emotions, so I was quite surprised by what she said, and very touched. I told her I would miss her too, and then began singing again, even louder and more off key than before.
This is one example, but the truth is, the girls touch my heart all of the time.
This year, six 8th-grade girls from Dickinson will graduate and go on to high school. Many will keep in touch with Kristin by text message or email, and many will come back to visit. All will bring with them the cherished memories of their time spent at Kurn Hattin with Kristin and their Dickinson Cottage sisters.
During our visit, some of them gave brief messages to Kristin for this blog post. All of their messages started with the same three words:
Thank you for
... helping me when nobody else could. You are the one who is always there. -Krysta
... helping me through thick and thin. -Andrea
... always being there when I was down. I love you. -Evany
... a wonderful year in Dickinson with you. -Gamael
... being the best houseparent. -Bri Bri
...all of your help. You make me feel at home. Love you. -Danielle
...being my second mother. Thank you for making me feel happy when I am sad. Thank you for understanding me. I will visit you before you know it! -D'Leanne