|Deja and I at the National Aquarium in Baltimore|
In Memory of Deja A. Sands
God presents us with infinite moments for inner reflection and change. We can either listen or defiantly sulk, and resist the lesson.
As I drove home one frigid winter afternoon, resigned to traffic and bumpy roads, radio host Marc Steiner interviewed Mary Joel Davis, activist, founder and past executive director of Alternative Directions, an organization dedicated to assisting former inmates with re-entry into society. Davis has spent decades visiting jails, lobbying for the release of the innocent and those imprisoned for lengthy terms, much to the chagrin of some.
I wondered, as I often do when hearing these kinds of programs, what concrete actions I could take to effect change. Inspired, I visited the website and searched for volunteer opportunities. The Children of Incarcerated Parents (CHIP) program, which matches kids with mentors, immediately stood out. For years I contemplated mentoring, but convinced myself this should be tabled until success came, awards hung in a corner office, and I traveled the world. Yet, this time, thoughts of embracing the challenge remained.
After a few days, I called Laura Sudec, CHIP program coordinator, and asked to be matched with a child. Some months later I met Deja A. Sands, a beautiful, lanky, 13-year-old girl, whose ebullience made me feel young again. We talked incessantly, like sisters who had not seen each other for weeks; she glowed when the conversation turned to clothes, cute boys and her favorite music. Deja’s mother, Melissa, a warm woman with an easy smile, welcomed me into their lives and watched us connect.
The value of mentors, according to Sudec, lies in their ability to simply be a friend: “Kids are always being told what to do, and what to think, and how to act, and it really takes a while, I think, for them to find their voice.” This kind of relationship, she says, is crucial to young people’s development. Yet not only do we reach children, but they reach us – subtle reminders that life is precious, spontaneous and meant to be enjoyed.
Quite often, the problems of the world are overwhelming and complex, but if we dedicate ourselves to touching the life of a young person, they will reach others, and this empowers us all. It is not only an opportunity to give but to receive.
Although I knew Deja for a little over a month before she passed away weeks after her fourteenth birthday, her life leaves me with many lessons such as welcoming joy, despite obstacles. Join me in fostering this movement of love and transformation; you just might get beyond yourself, and remember that it’s an amazing journey.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” – Rabindranath Tagore