This summer the Harmony Family Center at Montvale held our first Therapeutic Family Camp for adoptive children and families. The experience was overwhelmingly positive, and we were humbled by the amount of healing that took place in such a short amount of time. We have infused throughout these therapeutic camps a set of values, which we call the “Montvale Ways,” and they are: courage, creativity, kindness, respect, honesty, patience, and connection. Here is one small story of very great courage:
Like all of the children at camp, 9 year old Jeremiah had been adopted from the state foster care system after being removed from his birth family due to abuse and neglect. He suffered from severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and obsessive compulsive behaviors. Jeremiah had come to camp with his younger sister and his adoptive parents. Like his sister, Jeremiah was extremely quiet and shy, and by the second day he still had not said a word, except to whisper to his sister or to his parents. Both Jeremiah and his sister clutched little stuffed animals like security blankets, and brought them on nature hikes, to the campfire, to meals, and even down to the barn.
Jeremiah had been reserved, but attentive during our first Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session, which had consisted of “ground work,” where the children worked with the horses without getting on them. In the second session, we would be doing “mounted work,” where the children would actually ride the horses, and Jeremiah had told his parents that he had absolutely no intentions of getting on a horse.
When it was time for the children to ride, I was shocked to see that Jeremiah had agreed to give it a try. As he approached the horse, Jeremiah looked scared, but I could see in this little boy a deep and weathered resolve that went well beyond his 9 years. Jeremiah timidly mounted the horse, gave a very nervous half-smile to the camera, and we began to walk on. With each lap, Jeremiah’s eyes grew brighter and he looked more and more secure. As each of the previous children had ridden the horse, I had slowly prompted them to test their balance, “Can you put your right hand up in the air? Good, put it down. Now can you put your left hand up in the air?” I was amazed that Jeremiah had agreed to ride the horse at all, but as I saw his confidence growing, I figured that perhaps we could take it one step further. I started to ask him, “Can you put your right hand up in the air?” Suddenly, Jeremiah’s quivering half-smile turned into a full blown grin and as he threw his hands up into the air, he proclaimed with great assurance and pride, “I can do both!”
All around me I saw the mouths of the parents and of our staff drop open. In those moments, riding tall on the back of one of our trusty therapy horses, Jeremiah was transformed. We couldn’t believe that this was the same frightened little boy who we thought might not speak one word during camp, least of all ride a horse with such self-confidence and courage.
That night at the campfire we had our Bead Ceremony, where the children and families could award different colored beads to one another, based upon the “Montvale Way” that they thought the other person had exhibited at camp. Red beads were for courage, orange for creativity, yellow for kindness, green for respect, blue for honesty, purple for patience, and white for connection. The first beads to be bestowed were the red beads for courage. One after another, after another- every single red courage bead went to Jeremiah. When the call went out for the last courage bead of the night, Jeremiah’s adoptive father stood up, took a red bead from the jar, and proudly stated, “This red bead for courage goes to my one and only son, Jeremiah!” Jeremiah, a child claimed and loved, beamed at his father’s words.
Jeremiah arrived at camp full of fear, but his fears were not irrational or invented. In his life before adoption, the world had, in fact, been a very scary place. This strong, resilient child had survived the horrors of that world, and he was now able to begin his journey of healing in the safe and loving home of his forever family. We were all honored that night to bear witness to Jeremiah’s great show of courage. To ride a horse, to conquer this one particular fear, was simply a small example of the innate and unending courage that was dwelling inside this brave and precious little boy. To trust, when those who were supposed to care for you had neglected you; to love, when those who were supposed to protect you had hurt you; to have hope and faith, when your past is full of fear and darkness – these are the true marks of courage that Jeremiah, and so many of our adoptive children, show us each and every day.