I’m a planner by nature. My type-A personality allows me to have everything mapped from departure to arrival, carefully calculating in each individual bathroom, coffee and gas stop along the way (and doing everything in my power to beat the suggested arrival time on my GPS).
So when I found out the Children’s Emergency Shelter was going to the Tulsa Zoo, I knew immediately that with 4 staff and 18 children (ranging from ages 8 to 17), the day was not going to go as planned. I prepped my type-A personality with low time expectations and decided I should get an extra shot of expresso to start off the day.
We planned to leave the shelter by 9 a.m. and I knew the staff was going to have a long day, so I stopped at Fort Smith Coffee Co. to grab our extra shots of expresso and lattes. (God bless our staff because they are so incredibly patient… sometimes I just watch in awe as they deal with the ins and outs of taking care of so many children and do it with grace and ease).
I arrived at the shelter by 8:30 a.m. with coffee in tow and was greeted by children gathering their pillows, blankets and iPads for the trip. Of course, downloading music and games were absolutely necessary and way more important than eating their breakfast. That’s when I laid eyes on an 8-year-old girl, still in her pajamas, with soaking wet hair… we were definitely not leaving by 9 a.m.
Surprisingly, the little girl reminded me of myself… We have the same dirty blonde, brown hair color and she was rocking the same bowl cut hair style (parted right down the middle) that I had around her age. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why she wasn’t ready… She had gum in her hair.
I stepped in with no previous experience of gum removal, told her to go get dressed and we’d deal with her hair afterwards. She came out with her pink patterned pants, matching shirt and tennis shoes and we made our way to the bathroom to blow dry her hair. I tried not to laugh as I remembered pictures of myself with the exact same hair style. After blow drying her hair, I went to Google for gum removal techniques. For those wondering, peanut butter and a lice comb work wonders!
The gum and peanut butter were washed out in the kitchen sink, she was dressed with dry hair and we were ready to go. By 9:15 a.m. both of our 15 passenger vans were loaded with 10 boys and 8 girls. I rode on the boy’s bus with Dannah Goodnight, another one of our staff members, and we were on the road to Tulsa!
It doesn’t take long to be around our children in crisis to forget they are in an unusually hard situation. Boys will be boys, cracking jokes, sharing music and picking on each other, but when we arrived to our first toll booth in Oklahoma I was reminded of why we’re here.
An 8-year-old boy in the backseat asked as we drove up to the toll, “what is this?”
I didn’t understand his question, often I’m naïve and forget they probably haven’t traveled across town, let alone into a different state… but of course, Dannah Goodnight answers with ease and starts explaining that we were at a toll booth and why we had to give the toll booth money to drive through. We provide first experiences at the CES, but sometimes I forget that it also includes small things like toll booths.
The ride was filled with a few of my favorites, “Do we have to pay the toll again?” “Can I open my window?” and “How many minutes left until we’re there?” We finally arrived at Chick-Fil-A for lunch.
We took orders ahead of time and took up an entire section of the restaurant. I asked everyone if it was their first time at Chick-Fil-A expecting our youngest ones to raise their hands.
7 of our children had never been to Chick-Fil-A, including our 17-year-old boy. That’s almost half. I was reminded of the neglect that some of them faced… Some of our children weren’t fed in their homes before coming to the CES. I watched my now clean-haired, 8-year-old girl examine a waffle fry trying to figure out what it was because she’d never seen a waffle fry before.
There shouldn’t be much to say about this part of our spring break trip, it was just lunch, but then a 14-year-old boy showed me his new black, Nike tennis shoes he decided to clean in the bathroom. I remembered again that we are building self-esteem. Providing new shoes that they get to pick out, that fit their feet and fit their personalities.
After lunch, I ran to the bathroom before we left and found several of our girls using the mouthwash dispenser in the bathroom. You would’ve thought it was Christmas morning. I hesitantly accepted an invitation to smell one of the girl’s breath and then was convinced to also use the mouthwash. Fresh breath for the zoo, we loaded up into our vans.
We made it to the Tulsa Zoo and walked through every single one of the exhibits. We saw bears, penguins and snakes. Pressed our faces to the ground to look through glass floors to watch the otters swim. We rode the train at the end of the day for the younger children. After 15,850 steps and walking the entire park, it was so nice to sit down and enjoy the spring breeze.
There were tears of missing mom. There were tears of clumsy walking and falling down. They’re just like any other children. But there was freedom in their laughter. There was excitement of getting to choose what they wanted on the Freddy’s menu for dinner. And there was shock when they also got dessert after dinner.
We got home a little after 9 p.m. Our children were exhausted with full bellies and tired legs and a packed day of first, fun experiences. They climbed into their beds that Wednesday night on spring break safe. Without blisters on their feet from shoes that don’t fit. Without worry of where their next meal was going to come from. Without lice in their hair. And with a response to the question, “what did you do on Spring Break?” when they head back to school on Monday.
One of our teenage girls announced later, “This place is like heaven.”
This was one day. One spring break trip. The average stay at the CES is 22.5 days, where we have the opportunity to allow our children in crisis to “just be kids!”
To laugh. To run. To play. To eat. To sleep. To begin this journey in foster care without fear.
Support the CES and our children in crisis here.