After my dad left, my brother and I were allowed to stay with our Grandma. My parents were still given the chance to work towards getting us back but they had things they had to abide by before that could happen. Classes they had to attend, random pee tests they had to be clean for and counseling they needed to complete.
In the coming months we continued our early morning walks to school, sometimes accompanied by our uncle who had lived with my grandma for as long as I can remember, but mostly we strolled alone. The trailer park my grandma lived was connected to a bike trail that lined most of “4-mile” creek. Bret and I would take our time walking to school, throwing rocks into the creek or exploring the dirt trails my cousins and older brother Bryan created with their friends in the years prior.
I was that little sister who forced her way into most of the boys’ activities. Thankfully my brothers were the cool kind and always welcomed my presence. I attribute that to the brave face I’d show when following them into the woods to jump dirt hills on bikes and explore the embankment of 4-mile creek. Having a better arm then most of the boys our age didn’t hurt either. That credit goes to our dad who would join us in whatever yard we had at the time to throw a football and play catch like we were in our own little baseball league.
Staying with our grandma offered the most stability then we were ever given in our early years. We got an allowance that was contingent on how many chores we could accomplish within the week. Grandma joined us in creating a “chore” board that consisted of a list of chores we were asked to do but not necessarily required. We could earn anywhere from a nickel to a dollar per chore and at the end of the week my grandma would dish out the money. We spent our earnings on hot Cheetos from QT and ice cream treats from the legendary “Granny’s”, both located within easy walking distances.
One week my uncle actually helped me set up a lemonade stand at the entrance to the trailer park. Grandma made cookies and let me sell those too! It was almost like my childhood was finally turning into the ones I’d read in books and seen in movies. Unfortunately my life was not a Disney movie and it certainly was not destined to have a fairytale ending.
My grandma did the best she could at the time but after a few months her health declined and the doctors said the stress of taking 2 kids on at her age was affecting her heart. I’d like to say that I was understanding and left without hard feelings but If I did, I’d be lying. I was frustrated and heartbroken as my brother and I were forced to throw what little belongings we had into trash bags and wait for our case worker to show up and take us to our next placement.
Thankfully there were enough beds at the Des Moines YESS shelter for my brother and I to stay together. Even more thankfully, we were close enough in age to be placed in the same “unit”.
Our unit had a desk in the middle/back of the “room” where the staff was stationed and a whiteboard hung that had all the names and “level” of each kid. A bathroom was placed at each end of the room, one for girls and one for boys. On the left side were tables and chairs where we ate our meals or played board games during free time. Directly in front of and to the right of the staff desk was a “lounge” area with couches and a TV located in the corner. The unit adjacent was for the age group below us and almost identical to ours with a wall separating the two. Kids of all ages were placed at YESS, even little babies on the other side of the building that I got the privilege of helping with every now and again.
Most of the staff were kind and sympathetic to my brother and I’s predicament. Like the first group home I was sent to, I got the feeling and later on; knowledge, that this home was also structured for “troubled” youth. A place where parents sent their children because they couldn’t “handle” them. One girl I talked to said she’d been there 4 different times and after this time, if she didn’t change her “ways” she would be sent to a juvenile detention center.
The “levels” I saw written on the whiteboard when I had first arrived were created as a deterrent for bad behavior and also a reward system. Ranging from levels 1-6 the youth could used the system to work toward things like outings to the park, walks outside, bowling trips, movie nights and other things like being able to participate in some of the group activities arranged by the staff inside the facility. All newcomers were automatically put on level 3.
Among other rules, we were not under any circumstance allowed to touch each other. No handshakes, pats on the backs, hugs or even high fives. Most of the kids were only there for a few days, maybe a week but after a few weeks into our stay I think the staff started to feel bad for the amount of time we had been there and actually made an exception to that rule. Since we were in the same unit, my brother and I were allowed to give 1 hug before lights out every night. It was the biggest gesture of kindness from people who were trained to caution themselves in the midst of some of Des Moines’ most stereotyped youth and I couldn’t have felt more privileged and thankful.
It didn’t take long for me to attain level 6 and stay there, my brother on the other hand had been knocked down to level 1 within the first few weeks. Level one consisted of early bedtimes, 0 Activity participation and basically complete isolation. He even had to eat at a table alone every day. Thankfully he didn’t stay there for the remainder of our stay but he did give the staff a run for their money.
After being there for a few months and at level 6 I had the green light on all activities, I got to stay up the latest and even got to be one of the firsts to pick which chores I wanted to assist in. My least favorite chore was mopping the floors, my favorite was working in the kitchen. Unfortunately the kitchen lady kind of held the reigns when it came to who she let work alongside her. Fortunately it didn’t matter that I couldn’t choose because she always requested my presence. I guess after being the longest resident there, she grew a soft spot for me. And I her.
Sandra was the feistiest lady I’d met in my life, I think that’s why I liked her so much. She may have been “just” the kitchen lady to some but she didn’t let anyone treat her like she was “just” anything! Sarcastic as they come she never really showed her affection towards any of the youth in a standard way and I was the only white girl she went out of the way to encourage. She was a dark skinned, skinny, brown eyed old woman who I never saw without an apron on and a hair net in place. I’d never met any woman who could match her confidence and sense of self.
Sandra always made it a point to let everyone know that no matter what they looked like, their rank at the shelter or how big and bad they thought themselves that they were not better than the next. Another thing I admired about her. She was like the mother I never had and I could feel that she loved me. She stuck up for me, vouched for me and always made sure I told her what was in my heart, even when the counselors tried and failed. I couldn’t lie to her… If I did she’d cock her head, give me this look and say “girl”. She saw right through my bullshit.
Outside of our dance parties in the kitchen and banter whilst preparing meals, my fondest memory of her was on my birthday. She showed up at the end of dinner with a huge cake that said “Happy Birthday Sara”, in the absolute worse handwriting. She sang loud, above all the youth and staff combined. Her smile made me cry and even if she had made a cake for all the kids’ birthdays who were stuck here before me, I know mine was made with that little bit of extra love.
Everyone knew my connection with Sandra was strong. The staff, counselors and even staff from other units knew we had connected. I didn’t really let my parents know too much about her during the few visits they actually decided to show for. I figured, if I kept her to myself then nothing and no one could take her away from me. But like the plague I seemed to carry, that kept taking all the people I cared for… It took her too…