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“Home hoppers” – how it feels

Nate Whittaker experiences being far from home, being moved from place to place

Ambiguity, loneliness, and hopelessness are not new to those of us who have often found ourselves in new surroundings, new “homes." I have found myself in over 25 different “homes" and I’m only 24 years young. During my days of shifting around, I often found myself questioning what “home" really meant. To me, each new home meant more frustration, heightened anxiety, and continuing hopelessness of the future. Imagine what “at risk" children feel when their families move from one place to another, from “home" to “home" “and when they are moved into a residential program, and, perhaps again from one place to another. No matter how clean, how friendly or homely a new residence may be, it can be a daunting place.

I began reflecting on this idea while visiting South Africa this summer. During my three-month trip, I once again had to cope with frequent moves. Each new place I stayed was another new environment in a long list of new environments, and I found myself dealing once again with new neighborhoods and new people “and with things like feeling accepted, finding courage to explore and engage ... and with loneliness. I was an “American" who had never left the North American continent before and my first overseas trip was to a place vastly unlike that which I knew as “home."

The experience brought me back to my eighth grade year at Minnetonka Junior High School just outside Minneapolis, MN. My moves from “home" to “home" before then grade had always been within the same suburb of the city. Grueling as these moves had been, when I had to move across the city to a different suburb and go to a new school, I was terrified. Here I had to relearn social frameworks, new systems, new rules, and new norms. I was also faced with acquiring new friendships, whether with adults or others my age, which was the most difficult to do, especially at a junior high as uninviting as my new school. On my first day, I sat in the cafeteria crying over a cold hotdog while 200 or more kids watched. During the year I spent in there, never did a smiling face approach me with a message like, “It’s going to be alright, we’ll make this work."

In each new environment I’ve found myself, I can remember lying in bed at night with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness “feelings which were revived when, as an adult, I was moving about in South Africa. Anxiety about change, ambiguity and uncertainty is rooted deep within us. What is xenophobia? It is the fear of strangeness and difference, and we all suffer from this to some extent as we encounter new situations. We can manage an afternoon or even a day or two, but any new context of a more lasting nature, a new “home", has within it, new variables, unknowns, doubts.

While in South Africa, I stayed at a number of youth care organizations in which I was doing placements. The unknowns of who is in charge, who is approachable and who is less so, where is the bathroom, how, when ... quickly allowed me to empathize with the youth who were resident there “especially the newcomers and the not-yet-settled.

Questions which all of us who work in programs with children and youth may ask ourselves are: How can I be more aware of how they feel here? How can I help to diminish their fears? How can I reassure, inform, comfort? Each individual youth needs a smiling face to say, “It’s going to be alright, we’ll make this work." If we fail to convey this message, these “home hoppers" to whom we have dedicated ourselves can quickly become alone, insulated, inaccessible. With each new “home" there must be a new friend. Nelson Mandela once said, “Nothing is more dehumanizing than isolation from human companionship."

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