Linda McMahon, a former candidiate for U.S. Senator, visited our blog program at Waterbury Youth Services and made an extraordinary impression.
Column by Chelsea Murray
This summer instead of basking in the sun or traveling, I have had the pleasure of spearheading a blogging program with a group of amazing young women at Waterbury Youth Services.
The program evolved out of an argument with my father, who owns the Waterbury Observer, and who drives me crazy sometimes. Frustrated that day, I picked up the phone and called Kelly Cronin, the executive director of Waterbury Youth Services, and asked if I could invent a program for the summer. I felt the need to do something different with my life and wanted the opportunity to help others. I wasn’t sure what her response would be. I was young, practically just-out-of-college, and she could have told me to get lost. Instead, Kelly invited me down to her office and asked me to propose a program.
Four years ago I ran a program with Quajay Donnell for Youth Services that taught a dozen Waterbury teenagers to create their own newspaper. We called it Young Voices. It was incredible to empower the teenagers in our group and give them a voice. I wanted to do that again, but there was barely a budget to pay for notebooks, let alone money to cover the cost of printing a newspaper. Off the top of my head I proposed to run a blog program using the computers at Youth Services. There would be no printing cost and it would open up the kid’s voices to the worldwide internet. Kelly approved of the program on the spot. They decided to give me a group of 11 young women ages 13-21 that were in the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF). They had some powerful stories to tell and they were the perfect candidates to write raw, open blogs.
I wasn’t sure what to expect because these girls had major trust issues. I was prepared for it to take awhile to break down barriers, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it.
I created an environment where they could openly talk about their gripes with DCF, their lives, and practically anything on their minds. It was a safe environment with no judgement. As the program unfolded the girls were stunned because I was incredibly interested to hear what they had to say. I wasn’t jamming things down their throats. I explained the concept of the blogs and told them that they had the power, through honesty, to make some waves in the system. They had the potential to openly talk about their experiences - many of them horrendous - with people who were willing to hear them out. I was floored when I read their first entries. The raw intensity and incredible writing abilities were beyond anything I had expected. I was mesmerized by their words and knew I had a game changer on my hands. Writing is a powerful tool to bare the soul, whether in a secret bed-side diary, in a novel, or in a blog accessible to the world. It’s an important way to make a change.
The program became a quest for truth to help a severely screwed up system straighten out. Working with these girls has given me an inside peek at “the system”, and quite frankly, it sucks. All of these incredible young ladies have been treated like sub-human criminals at one point or another during their time in the system. Some have only been in DCF for a few months, others since they were infants. During the first week we had candid discussions about DCF and what the girls’ experiences had been. They felt as though they had no freedom. One girl said that she would call her social worker and wouldn’t hear back. She felt that her social worker didn’t care about her and had only taken the job for money and job security. I was disgusted and saddened by their portrayal of the social workers in their lives. Why go into this fragile profession if you didn’t have the compassion and heart to do so? I encouraged the girls to express their feelings about their social workers, group homes, foster care and biological families because they had power through these blogs to publish the truth.
When given the tools to make a change, the girls flourished. I’m not sure what will happen with these blogs once they are done. My goal is to show the leaders of Waterbury Youth Services and the head of DCF to try and make changes in the system. I’ve learned not to promise these girls anything, since they have been let down so many times. All I could promise was a safe environment for them to release their bottled up frustrations.
In early August I was told Linda McMahon, the former CEO of WWE, and a 2010 candidate for U.S. Senator, was paying our group a visit. She was interested in hearing the girl's stories. I told the girls to be real. I told them to read their raw blog entries and say how they truly felt about the system and the way they are treated. We refused to put on a show. We didn’t give two hoots about Linda McMahon. I had made a promise to these girls to protect them and provide an honest and open environment for them, and no one was going to take that away from us.
What transpired was astounding. The hour long event with Linda McMahon proved to be the climax of the program. Despite being worth nearly a billion dollars, Linda was shockingly real and down to earth. We sat in a circle of chairs surrounded by press, Youth Services staff, members of DCF and Linda McMahon’s staff. While potentially intimidating, the girls didn’t blink. They brought the goods.
The first girl began to read her blog entry aloud and Linda stared intently, yet maternally, the entire time. The way she looked and actively listened made each one of the girls feel as though they were the most important person on the planet. The girls were prepared for Linda to be fake and distant. “We thought she was going to be a stuck up, buff lady,” one girl blogged about the experience. Linda had pointed questions to ask, and shockingly, after a brief introduction, remembered all of the girl’s names.
The last girl to share her entry provided the most powerful moment of the entire program. She sat directly to Linda’s right. She began to read her entry about the day her sisters were taken away from her mother and placed into the system. Her voice started to shake and a hot tear rolled down her cheek. She said she couldn’t imagine life without her mother. and when DCF knoocked on the door, she ran away. She lived on the streets for two days avoiding DCF workers, and reached a point of such despair that she stood at the top of a ramperage and considered jumping to her death. She was nine years old. As she shared her story the pain flooded back and she began to sob, and then Linda McMahon began to cry, and so did everyone else in the room. We were all deeply moved.
Afterwards, Linda said, “I was called in here to give you an inspirational speech, but you girls are the inspiration.” She said that her story couldn’t possibly compare to theirs. She gave a brief synopsis of her life and said how truly motivating these young women had been to her. She said that each one of them could do anything they wanted because of what they had gone through in their lives, and the powerful way they were able to express their stories in writing. Linda said her experience with the girls was beyond anything she had expected, and was so proud that there was a program established in order to let them express their true feelings.
One girl blogged that Linda gave them her undivided attention, which she didn’t think would happen. “She began to ask questions about what we had read and how we had made changes in our lives,” she blogged. “She seemed like the only person that realized this was real, and that we weren’t making up these stories to make her feel bad for us. I’m glad she gave us time to share some things about our history, and she also shared some of her history. It was good to just have an outsider sit back and truly listen to us.”
I was exploding with pride. These young ladies have become more than just employees to me. They have become like my own foster children. We openly talk about everything. Once the work day is over, I worry about their well being.
A few hours after the visit with Linda, my Dad and I decided to chow down on some pasta at the Ponte Festival. We spent the entire drive down from Morris discussing the events of the day, and how I was over the moon about Linda’s genuine interest in the girls and the program. As I was stuffing my face with meatballs I looked across the gathering and there she was - Linda McMahon was working the crowd with Mayor Mike Jarjura. We went over to take some pictures and Linda made a bee line over to me and gave me a huge hug. Instead of campaigning, she spent several minutes talking about the girls. She remembered their names and continued to sing their praises. She asked me to e-mail her links to their blogs so she could follow them, and write comments. It capped an unforgettable day with a bang.
I now realize that I don’t have to travel to Somalia to help those in need. I’ve created an environment in which these incredible girls feel comfortable and are able to pour themselves out in their writing. The program has real potential to make a difference for them, and for others that pass through a shattered system.
One of the girls said it perfectly in a blog entry, “When you become close to something, it is a bond that is made strong. The Youth Services blogging group has become not only a summer job, but also a place we can call a second home. It’s a place we can spill out our emotions and know others care. We have become friends, and sisters.”