Christmas in June 2015
Top: Mt View Elementary
Bottom: White Center Heights
Thirteen years ago, Roxanne & Reed Slattery had a dream about a Christmas toy drive for kids in our community. They came to YES! and asked if we would be part of this project and we, of course, said “YES!” As they kept thinking and visioning through this toy drive, Reed reflected back to when he was a kid, and remembered that it was during the summers when he was scrambling for things to do and he thought maybe we should move the toy drive to June…thus Christmas in June became our focus. Reed and Roxanne wanted to give kids extra incentive to be outside and away from video games which is how they decided on balls and sporting equipment and bikes.
I remember being with Reed & Roxanne when they shared this vision with the principal at one of the schools. The principal’s eyes got big – she wanted to help this young couple scale their dream to what was manageable so she very gently suggested, “Maybe we could just focus on a classroom this time! Even if you just did one classroom, that would be great.” I knew she didn’t know to whom she was speaking when she suggested giving “beach balls to kids in gym class”…I think that was the moment it all got real! It was a nice meeting, everyone was smiling but when we walked out Reed looked at me and said, “Diddy,” (Reed calls me Diddy) “Diddy, Christmas in June is happening…every student…Mt View AND White Center Heights…” Game on.
What happened next was a lesson in what sheer force of will looks like. The Slattery’s raised money, formed a partnership with Baden Sports and mobilized friends, family and many others in the community around this one purpose: Christmas in June for White Center children! Since then, we have shared Christmas in June with several elementary schools in our neighborhood but we always end with the last day of school assemblies at Mt View and White Center Heights Elementary Schools. Our message is the same every year…Have a fantastic, fun and safe summer. Play outside. If you are riding your bike or skateboard or scooter or skates, wear a helmet. There are people who care about you and are thinking about you all year long. When you see us in the neighborhood please say “Hi” because we live here just like you. Come back in September ready to learn!
This year’s Christmas in June crew killed it: Tiffany Mowatt Theari Leng, Dar Paet, Kedyn Apelu, Matthew Pfiffner, Shearl Cornelius Michael Raybell Dylan Leng and Basil Nims….thank you. I’m grateful for the work of our bike elves, Mariah Maib & Silas Strickland and for Lisa Nguyen, a 2015 HS3 graduate who came to speak to the youngsters. Definitely want to thank Bo and the folks at Baden Sports, Reed and the good people at World Vision G.I.K., individuals who support the work of YES! and those who donated bikes, this year! Thank you everyone!
Lastly, and I really hope it is okay to do this here but at the risk of a feel good post turning sour, I’d like to address a question that a friend asked me in regards to Christmas in June. Her question came out of concern that CIJ might be creating and contributing to a sense of entitlement and expectation of our community’s kids and might hand-outs like this one rob people of their dignity?
We don’t see this event as a threat to anyone’s dignity. Of course, we don’t. It’s a ball. On a good day, a ball bounces and offers opportunity for play and activity…and on an even better day a ball is also a tool for community and relationship. You can’t really play volleyball by yourself and shooting hoop is infinitely more fun if there is someone with whom to play. During the year, when we see a kid with a CIJ ball, there are usually a couple kids with him or her walking to the basketball court at Steve Cox Park or a few kids on the field throwing a football or at the school kicking a soccer ball between them.
As for YES!, we believe and we behave in a way such that the gifts of CIJ happen out of relationship. When we stand in front of students at their schools, we already know and are known by many of them. At those assemblies, I see children from the UGM after school program and from our Jack Thompson Run to Win Camps. I see the little brothers and sisters of teenagers who are in bike club and in OFM. I see kids who are children of the people who work at Viva Mexico and of the owners at a local PHO restaurant. I see kids who are the children of my neighbors, my colleagues and my friends. We’ve been doing this awhile so now I am seeing the children of people who were kids when I met them…former participants of YES programs…and from even before there was a YES! A ball from a friend or from a friend of your parents is just a ball…it is NOT a handout. Moreover whether it’s balls or bikes or backpacks or books or toothbrushes or breakfast or shoes or what have you….for me personally, if I have it or if I have access to it and someone needs it, I want to be a person who will share it.
There is something really right about a kid with a brand new ball on the eve of Summer and the thrill of calling the names of each bike winner never goes away, it never gets old. If you wanna do something great for yourself and for your community or if you wanna feel indescribable joy follow the Slattery’s lead. It doesn’t have to be Christmas in June, it can be equipment for the high school wrestling team, books for the school library, host a day at the pool or a museum for the summer day camp in your neighborhood…I guarantee you there are coaches, teachers, librarians, youth workers who would love to hear from you!
A couple of months ago, a friend took me flying. I’d never gone before and we were fortunate to fly on the kind of day for which every Seattleite waits and hopes will come in May! Spring seemed to come early as that February afternoon was beautiful and sunny… an absolutely perfect day! In all honesty, I gave my friend a bit of grief about his invitation to come along on this adventure. I said, “Yes,” to going, not so much because I felt it was a great opportunity (which it certainly was that) and not even because I knew it would have an incredible “thrill factor” (of course, the “thrill factor” was off the charts!). I said, “Yes,” mostly because Jeff is a good friend and I appreciated the chance to spend time with him. I said, “Yes” also because I understand enough about Jeff that despite all of my fears and stress and anxiety regarding Gravity’s hold on me, if Jeff tells me that he’s going to take me flying and bring me home, safely, then that’s exactly what he’s going to do. I went and he did! It was quite an experience! We didn’t have to get too far off the ground before I realized that my perspective about White Center, about the kids, even about my own life might be challenged, enhanced, and probably tweaked by this exercise of being taken above and given a chance to get away to see a bigger picture! Soon after we lifted off the runway, the little things around us literally disappeared into the landscape and the big things were not so big anymore.
Time with our young friends is often about looking for ways not only to present the “big picture” but also to help them engage and participate in it! Something that is clearly easier said than done. The reality is that our kids deal with issues of poverty, substance abuse, gang violence, broken relationships, teenage pregnancy, lack of resources, opportunities and even, just a flat lack of hope.All of these have a Gravity-like pull on our kids and make it difficult for them to get above to see anything other than the drama and chaos that they face day in and day out.You can imagine now what a few days of hiking in the Cascades could mean to a White Center teen or how a bicycle can provide not only a healthy means of transportation but also a new way for a kid to encounter and engage the city and his/her surroundings and environment.
Listen to what a 15-year-old young man said to me just today, about his **Seattle to Portland (STP) bike ride last July, “We split up into 3 groups according to our riding speed. I liked being in the 2nd group because I liked having the time to look around and see new things. I feel like the door opened and I got a new perspective.” He even said, “I liked looking at the houses and the streets and the different places. I feel like that ride gave me confidence to do a lot of things I never thought about before. I can’t wait to do it, again, and do a lot of other things, too.”
As we prepare for summer, I get giddy when I think about programs like Christmas in June and the Jack Thompson Sports Camps because I know what they mean for White Center kids. Summer is almost here and I am about as excited as any kid I know. This year, the YES Foundation is 10 years old! We are grateful for the privilege of serving White Center children and youth. We are heart-and-mindful that your faithful presence in, generous support of and ardent prayers for our work have been core to how this privilege has been granted to us. Thank you. When kids say something and they want you to know that they really mean it, they want you to know that it’s absolute truth, they will often say, “I put that on everything.” So, thank you. Really.
We Put that on Everything,
**Last July, several of our kids rode with the Major Taylor Project in the STP. The STP is a two-day, 220 mile ride from Seattle to Portland sponsored by Cascade Bicycle Club. It is a pretty big event in our city and our state, even, and our teenagers rode along side 10,000 other cyclists who literally come from all over the world to participate.
One of the great things about my job is that I am around a lot of talented young people and I often have the privilege of seeing people in the throes of their own creative process. For someone who doesn’t feel particularly creative, it’s an exciting thing to witness. Although, it can be a little messy and feel a bit perilous at times, this place where someone brings into existence that which did not exist before feels holy to me. It has made me ponder God’s creative process.
I have been thinking about something a teenager said at DubCee a few months ago. We got into this rather interesting conversation about Genesis 1 (yes, I said Genesis 1). In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. We were “hovering” around the idea of the Spirit of God hovered. Charlie, a 16 year old who loves to draw and is pretty good at it, commented, “I get that ’cause when I am about to draw something, I sort of hover. I have to think about what I’m gonna do, what’s gonna happen. Sometimes, I do that for a long time before I can start…sometimes it just comes to me.” I was taken by the far away look in Charlie’s eyes…as if he suddenly realized that he and God had something in common.
The image of God hovering over the dark; over that which was void and without form; one translation calls it a “watery abyss”…this image of God’s spirit brooding over the deep much like an artist would hover over a blank canvas is an image that simultaneously rattles and comforts me. When I think about the lives of some of the teenagers with whom we share our days, words like “dark” and “void” come to mind. On some days, even the word “abyss” might be applicable. Sometimes I feel that the most important, most significant thing that we get to do is be on the receiving end when a teenager trusts us enough to ask this question:
“Where is God when my life feels so dark?”
Frankly, this is a question that continually dogs our kids. When you are 14 years old, and you are managing a life that includes a parent (or parents) who struggles with addictions, brothers who are involved in gangs, friends who are sixteen and pregnant, again; when your family is evicted from your home not
necessarily because your parents couldn’t pay rent but because your landlord couldn’t hold on to the house in this economy; if your reality is going to school and holding your breath because it seems like a whole month has gone by where nobody has died but you’re not relieved, you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Besides that, there was a helicopter “hovering” over your block last night, and now you can’t help but wonder…
If that was our life, maybe we might understand the gravity of the question, “Where is God when my life feels so dark?” I think you know that sometimes the best answer to that question is silence but I am aware that our journey with kids requires us to offer something tangible, something real. Charlie has an idea about what it is to hover over something that is yet formed…might God be hovering over our lives as well? Brooding over the deep and the dark? Can hope come from this image, God’s Spirit hovering over the watery abyss that is so often our lives? I think so. I hope so because what comes next is verse 3: And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. We are waiting for “God said” and then we are waiting for “Light”. Some days, it seems more complicated than that but at the end of most of my days, in my heart, I know it boils down to waiting and working and walking with our young friends through these years that can be troubling, trying and very chaotic. These are young people who have much to learn and even more to show us about perseverance, character and hope.
Thank you for helping us in this work. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for caring about the children and youth of White Center. Thank you for waiting and working and walking with us. We know that we have a lot to learn, too and hopefully will have a lot to show about our own perseverance, character and hope. I am praying that you are also able to sense God’s Spirit hovering and brooding over your own life and as well as that of your loved ones.
Yours and His,