Terri shares stories from her time in a group home for teens. Learn what it's like for kids in a group home as she describes her experiences.
They told me it was a nice place, that there were Shetland ponies and lots of room. That it'd be like a private school dorm where there would be people my age, lots of activities, and that I'd like it there.
I don't remember if they told me the name ahead of time but I remember the huge sign that read Elks-Aidmore Children's Home.
It was written in fancy blue scroll against a white backdrop and there was uncut grass behind it as we rounded the curve. There were individual little "houses" (cottages) divided by gender and age, a tennis court, game room, administration building, pool, trails, and lots of room to walk. It was owned by the local Elks Lodge and a big, booming man named Milton oversaw the large staff who supervised us for better or worse.
There was Ron, a handsome staffer, later accused of child molestation; Ginger, who had cerebral palsy; Maxine, a twenty-something with long, flowing curly hair. The others I can't remember.
There was a piano in the main room of our cottage and a big living room where we had dorm meetings when everyone would go around the room and tell you what was wrong with you but never what was right. The hallway was tiled and there were bedrooms up and down the hall and offices and a nurse's station in between.
The large dining room seated young girls on long wooden benches as we passed bowls of food to one another on a long brown table. The kitchen was where we prepared our own meals, each of us taking turns depending on the week. Some of us had KP duty, cleaning up the mounds of dishes and pots and pans before heading off to one activity or another or just back to our rooms to dream, write letters, cut or dye our hair, or play our radios too loud.
One time one of the teenage residents and I painted a deck bright red earning some money in the summer sun that beat down on our backs as we later argued about who did what and how much. Another time my roommate Melody caught me reading her diary and told everyone about it. I thought she didn't like me so I read her diary to see if she did, which after that was a moot point. We had posters all over our walls of John Schneider, Shawn Cassidy, different rock, and TV stars, and we shared a small bathroom which had been made frilly for us girls.
No one ever talked about why we were there, only when we were leaving and how. Everyone dreamed their parents would pick them up one day and tell them they could magically come home.
Orabelle had been there ten years and she was 17. She and her roommate, Teresa, got kicked out one night after the staff caught them in bed together.
My friend Kelly and I faked being sick but the staff rubbed Vapor Rub all over us and made us stay in bed during school time.
- We laid there for a few minutes in silence until Kelly said, "Terri?"
- "Yeah?" I said, slowly turning her way.
- "That shit burns doesn't it?" she asked, laughing.
- "Yes!" I exclaimed and we raced to the bathroom to scrub it off then hurriedly went back to bed.
One resident, Serena, had an older sister who was killed in a car accident while she was living there. I remember how quiet Serena became after that and how the staff wanted her to bounce back so quickly after a brief period of hugs and kisses they handed out gingerly and hesitantly.
I did see the Shetland Ponies but never rode them.
We took a lot of field trips to movies, skating, the Elks Lodge for barbecues and pool parties where some of the members would sing "You Are My Sunshine" and give us gifts and cards. On the 4th of July, we had watermelon at the pool, cooked out, and swam all day. We weren't supposed to think about parents who left us there temporarily or for some of us, permanently.
While I was there I developed anorexia to get my mom's attention, hoping that if I starved myself she'd let me come home, but all it did was land me in the hospital for two months and I went back to the children's home as a bully.
The staff used to drag me out of bed at 2 a.m., weigh me for my anorexia, and if I'd gained a pound, haul me down to the pool to make me swim six laps. Then I was allowed to go back to bed.
They kept telling me "We're going to put you in the hospital if you keep losing weight and they'll have to stick a tube down your throat to get you to eat - a feeding tube." I didn't believe them so Ikept losing weight. I didn't think I was fat, I just wanted Mom's love, but it never worked.
Kelly and I terrorized a girl Rebecca, who reminded me of myself, by chasing her on our bikes, teasing her unmercifully as I was teased, and generally making her life miserable. I was 14 and wanted to fit in. Kelly, Jackie, another resident; and I started hanging out together. I soon became the ringleader of the bullying, going from victim to victor in my adolescent mind.
I remember "The Shining" and "Friday the 13th" movies that came out during the summer of 1980 but the staff wouldn't let us go see them. Turns out a couple of the older teenagers managed to see them somehow on their own during a home visit.
We had different levels which granted us various privileges. The higher the level, the more you were allowed to do. Then there was Punishment Level which you could be bumped to any time you did something you weren't supposed to do. Needless to say, Punishment Level had no privileges.
I kept all the letters, my sister, Cindy wrote me. She came to visit me too although I only remember my mom visiting once or twice. Cindy was my savior, my God, my confidante.
One houseparent couple, Bernie and Sandy, had a baby daughter and later had another. They took some of the residents to their huge church once and we sat up in the balcony, trying not to fidget after a breakfast of pancakes. We rode in a white van to all our outings and the name of the home was inscribed on the side so that everywhere we went, people stared and whispered as we got out. I was embarrassed and ashamed but the other kids didn't seem to be bothered by it.
All these years and I could never write about any of this, like a dark secret hidden away underneath a bunch of memories you'd rather forget. I can still remember everything as if it were yesterday - the rolling green hills and the promise that "this was a good place, a fun place, like camp." But as the months and for some, years, ticked by we knew this camp was like no other and that is what made the difference. I remember the faces, some names, the rules, the meals, the hope of one day going home and I wrote every day, my many stories, fantasies, poems, and prose. It kept me sane in an insane time, breathing, living, hoping as I told myself I was different from "them," from all the other residents who did or did not have parents. I repeated all this to myself regularly, silently, wistfully, hopefully as I hung on to my sister's letters of hope and inspiration. While my friends were spending the summer with their parents and their friends who lived in real houses and had normal summers, I was in a children's home with numerous others who all had the same hopes and dreams of one day going home. We never asked one another "Why are you here?" because we didn't have to. We knew it was because we were "bad" or "too much trouble."
Sometimes I'd hear my roommate cry and one time I laid in silence, crying quietly with her. We turned our passions and anger inward and some of us turned them outward in the form of acting out, being creative, or simply surviving.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to all those girls and boys. Did they go to other institutions like me or did they become the good children we were all supposed to be? How many others traveled through those halls since me? How many went on to lead "productive" lives? How many kept their souls bottled up until they felt safe enough to express their grief? And how many saved their kids from such fate without having the skills to raise them on their own?
I still question authority and I still rebel, looking for that loophole that keeps me from losing myself, spirit, and sanity as I write.
And l hope, dream, and contemplate about the home that doesn't exist, that is, until I build it.