Tonya Allen: Caring adults, find a 'bonus baby' in your life
At least once a month, I’ll meet someone new who is also a parent, and we’ll begin talking about our children. I’ll tell them I have three girls, ages 7, 17 and 23. The usual comments then begin: "Your children's ages are really spread out.” Or, "Wow, it’s like you have three only childs." Or, "You don't look old enough to have a 23-year-old."
The last comment is always delivered as a statement, but I believe it’s really a question. So my response is, "Well, she’s my bonus baby. I didn't give birth to her, but God blessed me with her anyway."
My oldest daughter faced significant adversity growing up. She overcame many challenges to become the successful, confident young woman she is today. Her accomplishments fill me with pride, as does knowing that I contributed to her ability to thrive.
While my first bonus baby came through marriage, there are others I have “adopted” along the way. Two of them are away at college, and we talk at least once a month. They too prevailed despite adversity, and both are studying to become attorneys. In our conversations, I praise them, help them navigate life, and offer advice and guidance. Sometimes I financially support them. Mostly, I love them. I am invested in them. I might not have any formal role in their lives, but I take my informal role as cheerleader, friend and advocate seriously. In return, they are blessings to my life.
A key component of the Skillman Foundation's work in neighborhood and schools is to recruit as many caring adults into the lives of children. We want them to engage formally as teachers, youth workers, faith leaders and mentors. But we also want them to engage informally as block club leaders, neighbors and friends.
Years ago, when we first began our work in six Detroit neighborhoods, I met a woman named Kathy Aska. She had nearly 20 bonus babies. These kids sought her out, coming to her home to play on her backyard play-scape. Instead of sending them away, she embraced them, fed them and kept them safe.
Too many of our children face significant adversity like my bonus children did. Some face much worse. And too many don't have the opportunity to overcome those challenges, because they don't have a caring adult in their lives. For many, simply having that person who picks up the phone once a month, an adult who is willing to listen and offer a bit of guidance or help, could make a real difference. It’s not always about spending big dollars or finding the perfect program. These little things are not so little when it comes to changing the course of a child’s life.
Whatever your role is, your place in life, your connection to children in Detroit – or anywhere – here’s my challenge for you. Stop, and take notice. Look around you for kids who could use another caring adult in their orbit. Think about where you can fit in. Even if it is just showing a bit of kindness to the kids on your block, or asking a child you see often how they’re doing, just take a small step. Hopefully, it will lead to a bigger one, one in which you really consider what way you could be a “bonus parent” to a child who needs one.
I promise you, you will be the one feeling blessed in the end.
Tonya Allen is the Skillman Foundation's CEO. She will take on the addition title of president in January 2014. Follow her on twitter @allen_tonya.