He walks to the door with his supervisor to let us in the locked rusty metal door double bolted entrance, which leads us through a cement-to-ceiling wired fence that takes us into a courtyard where deflated basketballs and wet picnic tables are pushed to the side.
“Welcome to my home.”
Home for the past four years.
As he leads us into the next set of doors, we walk in and to the left we see a living room like area where there is a small Christmas tree with LED colored lights. There are lights but no ornaments on this Christmas tree, and it is nice to see a Christmas tree in the room. It is simple yet sparse.
Next to the large living area in the middle is a counter area where you see PG and maybe PG-13 1980’s or 90’s movies that are videotape format.
And then he wants to show us where he sleeps. He points to a large room with 28 beds, many of them bunk beds, and the beds are smaller than a single size bed.
“Mine is the top bunk there by the window overlooking the courtyard.”
This is not your usual courtyard. A concrete slab yard and a high walled-barbed wire fence borders this courtyard in the background.
“This has been home for the past four years,” he says.
And, there’s the kitchen, he shows us.
He entered McLaren Youth Facilities as a 16-year-old teenager, young and bright and hopeful and positive and with such heart. Yet, had started going down the wrong path.
He was a refugee from Sudan.
Now, he’s a 20 year-old man. No teenager anymore. No high schooler any more. No little boy.
He’s is like a second son to us. He calls me his second mom. We’ve known him since he was 14. He is a refugee from Sudan, who escaped a country where he watched his village burned down when he was 6 -years-old because, as he shared, his family was too Christian.
Yet, now, he is not innocent anymore. But I know he still has so much heart. He made a mistake and is working at rehabilitation and he says to me, “Cornelia, I don’t ever want to come back here again.”
That is different than what he said two months ago as he was beginning to think about transitioning out of McLaren Youth Facilities, which he has called home for four years.
A place in which he has ended up in the hole for two months, a couple different times, which is solitary confinement, away from that L-shaped room for 28 people with bunk beds. The hole where you end up if you mess up in “Juvie.” He then thought it’d be easier to just stay here or go to another institution. Easier.
My heart broke. My heart broke when he ended up in the hole in Juvie.
“Make good decisions Jima,” I encouraged him. When he was in the hole, I could not visit him.
It’s scary thinking about getting out, he says to me. Is that why he messed up and ended up in the hole, I wonder? His fear of the future.
It’s also sad to think that the place you called home on the outside is now no longer there. The family has moved away.
And he is no longer a kid. He moved into McLaren at 16 who had hung with the wrong crowd and made some wrong choices. He thinks about people who will judge him on the outside. He thinks about people who will not give him a chance. He worries, he frets. He is anxious. I share with him Jeremiah 29, where it says “I know the plans I have for you, to give you a future and a hope.”
Later on that same visit to the unit where he lives, we met with him in the large visiting area where other families and friends were.
Moms and dads and brothers and sisters and girlfriends gather in a white sanitary room at tables to wait for their loved ones. While they are waiting, they purchase Pepsi and sprite and vitamin water from one vending machine and they purchase corn nuts and spiced potato chips and Doritos and flavored rice cakes from another vending machine that the manager of McLaren uses his hook arm to smash to get to work.
And while the families wait for their loved ones who are locked up at McLaren, the mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters choose Yatzee or Monopoly or Skip Bo from the front of the room and place them on the tables where they are waiting for their loved ones.
And we also get board games as we wait for Jima, and we also grab one of the Bibles and bring it to the table we are waiting at. And, we purchase Sprite and spicy chips for him, as those are his favorite.
When he arrives at the table in the visiting room, he hugs us and he has his hair in dreadlocks, and looks all grown up, and he is changing, and he is no longer a kid, and he picks up my youngest son who is 9 and says to him, “I cannot believe how much you have grown.” And, we talk and he shows us his welding certificate he earned while locked up at McLaren. He is so proud of his welding certificate. It is like gold to him, it is currency to get a job in the real world.
We talk about how he wants to live with us during his transition period when he is released from McLaren, his home the past four years, and we talk about how he wants to go to school when he gets out, community college, and I ask him what are his greatest fears.
“I’m worried about what it is like out there and I am worried about college being too hard.”
That is such an every day fear of every-day college kids who have not been in McLaren.
I tell him about my twins who worried about high school being too hard when they were in middle school but when they got to high school this year it was so much easier.
The reason? They studied every day, they studied hard. They kept up with the work load.
Yes, it’s hard in real life. But as God reminds us, and as I try to read from the Bible which we bring to the visiting table, “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” (Philippians 4:13). And I told him about how people say that “God will not give you only what you can handle” and I say that I disagree with that statement, that I actually believe that God gives us precisely that, so that we might come to a place that we cannot handle it without him.
There is only one way I can handle things and that is through Christ and the power of his Holy Spirit.
And that is not a cliché. That is real life. And I pray that will be real life for him when he makes his new home outside of McLaren.