It was a very faint sound, barely audible in the context of the evening dinner noise. My mother turned toward the front door. Within seconds, our housekeeper had reached the door. My mother darted up from the table and met her there. It was our first night in Colombia. We had arrived in the midst of an extremely hot summer and we were all eagerly awaiting our first dinner in what for a 7-year-old seemed to be a very exotic place.
I jumped up from the table to be near my mother. I needed to know what was delaying dinner. I was hungry. As I reached the door, I saw Esneda, the housekeeper, open it. We all moved back a bit in anticipation. He was very small. Even at my age he appeared little. Wearing nothing but a tattered T-shirt, his eyes spoke to all of us. They were huge, brown and caring. He had no name. He told us that he needed food. His mother was poor and she needed food for herself and his two brothers. I thought it odd he didn’t mention himself. He carried a tin coffee can, empty and extended, his arms reaching in the direction of my mother. “Please, do you have any food?”
Before my mother could answer, my housekeeper began to close the door. “Signora, you cannot give him anything.” Her tone was almost clinical, not harsh. It was a voice of experience, of denial. “Nonsense,” replied my mother as she made her way back to the dinner table. Within minutes she was stuffing food into the bright, shiny coffee can. The little boy smiled and dashed off. Each and every night for all the years we remained in Cali, we would feed him. Often we would watch him bring the can to his mother who waited discreetly down the hill. His eyes would haunt me for a lifetime.
We returned to the United States when I was 10. We brought Esneda back with us. Spanish was spoken at home so it was only natural that I would major in it. Each word seemed to bring me back to Cali; each arepa in its own Proustian way, evoked the lifetime I had spent in my adopted country so far away. Before college, I worked as an assistant teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant with Operation Head Start. Little children with big black eyes surrounded me once again. It felt so familiar.
I began teaching at Montclair State at 23, incorporating in my classes in Spanish language and literature, the culture of which I had felt such a part. Within three years of completing my doctorate in Eighteenth Century Spanish literature, I found myself enrolled in a psychology doctoral program. I had decided to specialize in children. I completed my internship at Beth-Israel Medical Center working in the Outpatient department, Inpatient department and pediatrics. I met Jamaal. He was a little boy, 9 years old, piercing brown eyes with two failed kidney transplants. I would spend hours talking to him, listening to him. Two weeks after leaving my position, Jamaal died. It would take a long time for me to recover.
My private practice has always included a significant number of children. Early on, I also worked as a consultant to the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). I performed forensic evaluations on physically and sexually abused children, termination of parental rights evaluations, etc. Through my work with the Division, I realized the importance of appropriate training for those professionals electing to work within the public child welfare system. What quickly followed were programs that my colleagues and I developed: the concentration, the certificate, the post-B.A. certificate, the M.A. and the newly introduced major in child advocacy.
Child advocacy is an exciting “new” field. No longer the exclusive purview of social work, child advocacy is a transdisciplinary discipline, one with its own journals, conferences and methods of inquiry. It includes social work to be sure, but also embraces psychology, law, sociology and medicine. It allows for the cross pollination of knowledge; it requires the integration of several fields and the admixture of theory and application. Our programs are cutting-edge courses and degree programs in child advocacy. Students leave us prepared to work with, and on behalf of, children in a myriad of settings and contexts.
Armed with more appropriate tools, students may now make more appropriate interventions. However, this is not always the case. Often, when I teach courses in child advocacy, I am struck by the hopelessness I hear in many students. They believe that we can’t make a difference, can’t fight the system, etc. The cynicism is often contagious and frequently the classroom becomes the space where a middle-aged professor tries to inspire passion and hope in young men and women two generations younger than he. We can make a difference. There is so much that can be done in our local communities. I take my sons to soup kitchens on a regular basis where the number of children seems to be increasing exponentially. There are literacy programs for children, hospice care, food banks, clothing drives and yes, checks may be written also. The important thing is that we all do something helpful.
Several years ago—my sons are now 10 and 8—I had the great fortune to adopt two babies from Guatemala. They define who I am while adding new, personal meaning to the term child advocacy. I have never forgotten my little Colombian friend who so needed the food my mother gave him. I have never forgotten those huge brown eyes. Today, those eyes live with me, a living memory of the early modeling of child advocacy.