March is the National Social Work Month

March is the National Social Work Month. Early in my life, I got to benefit from the presence of a devoted Social Worker. Social work can take many forms and if it is well done, it can leave a positive and everlasting mark on someone's life!

What follows is excerpt from my book, Citizen of Happy Town. An excerpt that recounts the very first time I met Danielle soon after my arrival at the orphanage.

"... A couple of weeks after settling in, one of the Educators takes me to a small room to introduce me to a woman named Danielle. She shakes my hand and asks me if I would like to join her for a walk in the backyard, an offer I promptly accept since I spend most of my time there anyway and I also know we’ll find Alain playing marbles with the other kids, a game I can only enjoy as an observer since I still don’t have my own marbles.

Danielle, to the best of my recollection, is the first human being to ever hold my hand, which I instinctively put into hers as we walk outside and we make our way to one of the wooden tables in the backyard, away from the noise my friends are making. We walk in silence, but I can feel Danielle looking at me. I can sense she is curious about who I am. When we reach the table, I sit down and I ask immediately if she too is going to take me to a new home.

“No,” Danielle answers with a smile.

“Not today, anyway. But my goal is not to find you a home; it’s to find you a family. That’s what I do for a living; I find families for children who don’t have one.”

A few words from her is all I need to hear the kindness in her voice, to notice the determination in her tone. Just a few words, yes, but well-chosen ones and Danielle has just told me that she is real, that she is sincere and by the same token, she reassures me a little about whatever it is that awaits me in the near future.

We remain at the table where she asks me more questions and lets me talk her ear off about what my life has been so far and how much I like being here in Happy Town.

Speaking with Danielle makes me feel good. It’s easy and the sound of her voice alone adds to that feeling of peace I found when I moved here.

Before Danielle says goodbye, she surprises me by opening her purse to reveal a gift she brought just for me, the very first one of my life, I think. When I see what it is, I can barely breathe; it’s a blue pouch, filled with brand new and shiny marbles. I use both hands to grab it carefully, as if she were handing me a velvet bag filled with diamonds. Danielle was the first person to ever hold my hand less than an hour ago, and now, she is the first person to whom I say “thank you” spontaneously. The Educators have been trying to teach me these two words ever since I got here but now, they just plain exploded out of my throat like a reflex.

I can now play marbles with the other kids, my ticket of admission to the most popular activity in the orphanage’s backyard and to truly be a part of the group.

Danielle tells me to go play with my friends and  that we will see each other again soon with, what she hopes, will be good news.

I run towards Alain and the others as I scream “I got marbles too. I got marbles too ...”

This second excerpt is taken from the last chapter which is titled Reflection:

"... Since I can no longer see her face, when I think of the afternoon I first met Danielle, I can only see our shadows walking as we hold hands or sitting down as we talk. I admit it; the scene is incomplete at best. But what it evokes in me is crystal clear: in that moment, I sense an unspoken promise from Danielle that she would do everything she could to find me a family.

Through the many challenges of my reality and her grave illness, she kept her promise and gave me a chance at a better life while she was in the process of losing her own.

She lives still, wrapped in the memories of my many returns to an orphanage called Happy Town and I know for sure she smiles with pride whenever I recognize the kindness of others, something I can do thanks to the exemplary kindness she showed me at a time of my life so marked by confusion.

Danielle also lives in the feelings I still have every once in a while, when I think of some of the things I wish I could erase or maybe just change.

When I’m hit by the regrets spawned by either the sadness I may have caused the P family when I turned my back on them, by my inadequacy to please the B family or by my impressive failure with Gerard and Grace, it is Danielle who comes to remind me that I was just a child and that every single human being’s destiny must follow its course, fueled by its own logic and its own purpose.

Most of my regrets fade when I remember that it was Danielle who brought some peace to my heart that afternoon I said goodbye to a family and then drove me to the one with which I would spend the rest of my life. 

There is nonetheless a regret I will carry in me forever : I wish I could see her again. Even if only for a short moment. The one moment where I hold her tight in my arms as I know I can.

This moment by which I repay her, penny for penny, everything good she has done for me by telling her the words - the only words - I know she would long to hear:

“I’m fine” ..."

You may purchase Citizen of Happy Town as an eBook or in print by clicking here

Christmas in Happy Town

This is why I will always have a special thought for the orphanage at Christmas. The following is an excerpt from chapter 14 of Citizen of Happy Town:

"In the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a friend of ****'s visits us dressed up like Santa. While I'm grateful for the thought, I'm not at all impressed. I come from a place where we didn’t have the luxury of falling for fairy tales. I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus and I’m quite certain the cheques left by the neighborhood’s Tooth Fairy of would have bounced.

And so *****, ***** and I celebrate Christmas for the first time together. We spend the evening, toasty warm, by the small wood-burning stove in the basement of our house.

It’s a quiet night, filled with a simplicity that makes me feel safe. So much so that, if someone asked me to describe what tonight means, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant; the first and only word to come out of my mouth would be “family”. Not because it’s the word I think others would want to hear but because at long last, it’s a word I can now truly feel.

It’s difficult to resist the temptation of comparing this present night to Christmas at the orphanage.

I can still remember the feeling of anxiety growing inside of me as preparations were underway for my first Christmas in Happy Town.

I was sitting on the lowest step of a tall ladder that had been used to hook ornaments on top of a giant tree. Well, I’m pretty sure it was a giant tree. Then again, when I was seven years old I was so little I could make anything look gigantic just by standing next to it.

The adults had been running all day like headless chickens to make sure everything would be perfect for the big night, now just a few minutes away.

In the weeks leading to the holidays, I had heard the other kids from school describe what a Merry Christmas was going to entail for them. The words they used sounded beautiful, but I couldn’t associate any of them with my own experiences. I was so relieved the teacher never called on me to make me tell my December 25th stories because until then my only memory of it was that of my brothers, my sister and I sitting by the electric stove in our apartment. We had cranked it up to the max and left the oven door opened to help keep us warm.

The few words we heard that morning were from my sister when she reminded us that it was indeed Christmas morning. Need I point out there were no presents to unwrap?

There I was, just a couple of years later, living in an orphanage where, ironically, I was about to actually celebrate Christmas for the first time.

Thanks to the other kids from school and to the description they had given in class of their upcoming holidays, I had discovered what Christmas was truly supposed to be and it wasn't what had been in the making that day at the orphanage. At the same time, I now knew what being safe and warm felt like on this cold but special winter night. The weight of the envy I was feeling toward my classmates was equal to the weight of my gratitude for what Happy Town was giving me. My heart, my skinny legs also, didn’t have enough living in them, and thus, not enough strength to carry that burden. The ladder was the closest thing to me when the weight became too heavy and my knees buckled. 

When she noticed I was sitting there alone, Carol came to me and asked how I was feeling. Honesty being a top rule there, all I could do was to tell her that I felt happy and excited about the night to come, but I also felt kind of bad for wanting, just as much, what my friends at school were having with their families at that same moment. I told Carol I knew Christmas wasn’t supposed to be what was about to happen. She convinced me to try and live in the moment so as to not miss the little joys life was so going out of its way to give to me.

I took her advice. All of us - the orphans, along with the Educators and some very special guests -  marched to the orphanage’s auditorium to celebrate Christmas. We were treated to an entertaining show of skits and songs put together and performed by some of the police officers from the local precinct. They had raised money through various events and rehearsed their performances just so they could buy us gifts and entertain us. All of them had left their families behind on Christmas night to spend time with us instead.

As presents, I received a small worktable with real tools and a guitar. I laughed and sang all evening long, such an extravagant affair for a kid who didn’t have a family.

For these few hours, it no longer mattered where or who I was. Not once did I even think about what the other kids from my school were enjoying on their side.

Thanks to Happy Town, to its people and a few generous souls, I had learned that happiness exists regardless of where we sit. Even if it's on the lowest step of a very tall ladder in an orphanage. I felt safe and warm, much like I do on this simple Christmas night by the stove with ***** and *****.

A heated shelter and the promise of a tomorrow are sometimes the best gifts of them all."

Click here to purchase Citizen of Happy Town

In 1977, I was an orphan...but I still got to see Star Wars!

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Citizen of Happy Town:

"One night - one memorable night - Lucie treats me to dinner and a movie. At the orphanage, we get to see movies but it’s on a medium-sized screen and they are a few years old movies like the whole Planet of the Apes series, Blackbeard’s Ghost or The Time Machine. We are, after all, just kids; old movies or not, as long as it means having a bucket of buttery popcorn on our lap, we’re happy. But now, Lucie takes me to see a brand new film, a super production in a real movie theater with a gigantic screen.

Lucie takes me to see Luke Skywalker take on the Empire.

She tells me a couple of days in advance and even has to show me the tickets she has purchased just so I can believe my luck. The news of my good fortune spreads throughout the orphanage at hyperdrive speed and makes the other kids madly envious of me.

When the big night comes, after a copious dinner at a restaurant, we take our seats in the theater. As the lights go down and the curtains open to reveal the screen, my heart starts beating to the rhythm of the famous opening scene with the music and the yellow text that disappears on the horizon. Each time something amazing happens on the screen, I turn to Lucie and smile at her in absolute joy. Each time, she answers with a smile of her own.

After the movie, Lucie drives me back to the orphanage, way past my bedtime. It’s so late in fact that the others are already asleep and the reel of Cat Stevens music has to be nearing the end of what must be its second run. I lie down in a comfortable and familiar bed, my tummy filled with restaurant food. I think of Lucie who had convinced the director of the orphanage to leave me in her occasional care by telling him she wanted to do simple things with me. She ended up taking me to a galaxy far, far away with R2D2 to save a princess.

I go to sleep the luckiest orphan in the galaxy. In the morning, I open my eyes to the other kids standing in silence by my bed and waiting for me to wake up at once so I can tell them the tale of Star Wars."

Citizen of Happy Town can be purchased here for only $3.99

Why Christmas in Happy Town will always remind me of the police!

Here's why I will always have a special thought for the orphanage at Christmas. The following is an excerpt from chapter 14 of Citizen of Happy Town:

"In the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a friend of ****'s visits us dressed up like Santa. While I'm grateful for the thought, I'm not at all impressed. I come from a place where we didn’t have the luxury of believing in fairy tales. I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus and I’m quite certain the cheques left by the neighborhood’s Tooth Fairy of would have bounced.

And so *****, ***** and I celebrate Christmas for the first time together. We spend the evening, toasty warm, by the small wood-burning stove in the basement of our house.

It’s a quiet night, filled with a simplicity that makes me feel safe. So much so that, if someone asked me to describe what tonight means, I wouldn’t hesitate for an instant; the first and only word to come out of my mouth would be “family”. Not because it’s the word I think others would want to hear but because at long last, it’s a word I can now truly feel.

It’s difficult to resist the temptation of comparing this present night to Christmas at the orphanage.

I can still remember the feeling of anxiety growing inside of me as preparations were underway for my first Christmas in Happy Town.

I was sitting on the lowest step of a tall ladder that had been used to hook ornaments on top of a giant tree. Well, I’m pretty sure it was a giant tree. Then again, when I was seven years old I was so little I could make anything look gigantic just by standing next to it.

The adults had been running all day like headless chickens to make sure everything would be perfect for the big night, now just a few minutes away.

In the weeks leading to the holidays, I had heard the other kids from school describe what a Merry Christmas was going to entail for them. The words they used sounded beautiful, but I couldn’t associate any of them with my own experiences. I was so relieved the teacher never called on me to make me tell my December 25th stories because until then my only memory of it was that of my brothers, my sister and I sitting by the electric stove in our apartment. We had cranked it up to the max and left the oven door opened to help keep us warm.

The few words we heard that morning were from my sister when she reminded us that it was indeed Christmas morning. Need I point out there were no presents to unwrap?

There I was, just a couple of years later, living in an orphanage where, ironically, I was about to actually celebrate Christmas for the first time.

Thanks to the other kids from school and to the description they had given in class of their upcoming holidays, I had discovered what Christmas was truly supposed to be and it wasn't what had been in the making that day at the orphanage. At the same time, I now knew what being safe and warm felt like on this cold but special winter night. The weight of the envy I was feeling toward my classmates was equal to the weight of my gratitude for what Happy Town was giving me. My heart, my skinny legs also, didn’t have enough living in them, and thus, not enough strength to carry that burden. The ladder was the closest thing to me when the weight became too heavy and my knees buckled. 

When she noticed I was sitting there alone, Carol came to me and asked how I was feeling. Honesty being a top rule there, all I could do was to tell her that I felt happy and excited about the night to come, but I also felt kind of bad for wanting, just as much, what my friends at school were having with their families at that same moment. I told Carol I knew Christmas wasn’t supposed to be what was about to happen. She convinced me to try and live in the moment so as to not miss the little joys life was so going out of its way to give to me.

I took her advice. All of us - the orphans, along with the Educators and some very special guests -  marched to the orphanage’s auditorium to celebrate Christmas. We were treated to an entertaining show of skits and songs put together and performed by some of the police officers from the local precinct. They had raised money through various events and rehearsed their performances just so they could buy us gifts and entertain us. All of them had left their families behind on Christmas night to spend time with us instead.

As presents, I received a small worktable with real tools and a guitar. I laughed and sang all evening long, such an extravagant affair for a kid who didn’t have a family.

For these few hours, it no longer mattered where or who I was. Not once did I even think about what the other kids from my school were enjoying on their side.

Thanks to Happy Town, to its people and a few generous souls, I had learned that happiness exists regardless of where we sit. Even if it's on the lowest step of a very tall ladder in an orphanage. I felt safe and warm, much like I do on this simple Christmas night by the stove with ***** and *****.

A heated shelter and the promise of a tomorrow are sometimes the best gifts of them all."

Click here to purchase Citizen of Happy Town

Finding the orphaned memories

I remember the exact day I met my parents.

Not many people can say that.

It was on my tenth birthday. February 23rd 1979, to be precise. Danielle, the social worker in charge of my case since I had become an orphan four years earlier, took me to a restaurant where she and I met with a nice young couple. They treated me to a giant piece of cake and gave me a crisp two-dollar bill to celebrate. At the time, I was happy because of the sugar rush and the money.

Today, however, after a long and intense look into my past, the scene that took place 35 years ago is a comforting memory not only because of the good my family has brought to my life since then, but because it also serves as a reminder of all that had to happen in the years before that meeting just so I could sit with these good people, at that very table, on that very day.

The path leading to that restaurant was a long and peculiar one, no doubt about it.

I was born in poverty, taken from my biological family at the age of six and driven in a big white car to an orphanage by a man wearing a suit. No one has ever given me a reason. I can only speculate that, since she was raising us alone, since I was the youngest of the five kids and we were so poor, my mother wanted to give me a shot at a better life. There can be nothing but bad explanations and this the only one I’ve ever allowed myself to contemplate.

So I was left behind at the orphanage, which was called “Ville Joie,” or “Happy Town,” and this is where the quest to find a family for me began.

The adults at the orphanage were called “Educators,” a group of people as kind and as dedicated a kid in my shoes could ever need. It still amazes me to this day: an orphanage called “Happy Town” and it actually lived up to its name.

Soon after my arrival, I was introduced to Danielle. She was so kind and had nothing of the bureaucrats who sometimes manage cases like mine.

I loved Danielle immediately. During our first meeting, she told me her job wasn’t to just find a home for me; it was to find family where I would be happy. Right then and there I knew she was for real. She also gave me marbles. That sealed the deal between us.

If the orphanage was as close to perfection as it could be, the era in which I grew up wasn’t.

At the time, kids like me who were, in essence, children of the system, were somewhat treated as guinea pigs. It wasn’t done with mean intentions, but it has had its consequences. And so I never lived in “foster homes”. I was instead sent to live with “pre-adoption” families. People would pick me up at the orphanage and on our way to their home my entire world would change. I had to adapt to their lives: new habits, new rules, new food, new school and new friends. A new name also. That’s how it was at the time: when I joined a family, I took their name. That would have been inconsequential had it happened once or twice. I didn’t have that kind of luck; considering I had to revert to my birth name whenever I was sent back to the orphanage after things didn’t work out with a family, I changed my name nine times in a little over four years.

Some kids are loners. I was a loner.

Families were allowed to try me. If they weren’t fully satisfied, they could simply return me, no questions asked. I sometimes joke by telling people that I came with a toaster as a free gift. When customers sent me back, they could still keep the toaster.

When I set out to write my book, Citizen of Happy Town: An Orphan Remembers, I went back deep inside that period of my life.

I saw again the man with the suit and his white car. I saw the moment I arrived at the orphanage and Alain, the great friend I made there. I saw Danielle and the “Educators.” In my head, I also went back to the families who took me in, starting with the very first one where I spent three months.

It turns out three months is an eternity when you spend most of it in hell.

Yet, in my reflection, it wasn’t the meanness of these terrible people I was able to measure.

It was the kindness of the other families I was sent to live with, like that of the “P family” for example.

They were a beautiful couple with two generous daughters. But they had the bad luck of welcoming me after my stay with the bad first family. Given my state of mind, it was never going to happen with the P’s. Ultimately, I was the one who rejected them and Mr. P drove me back to “Happy Town.” His goodbyes by the door of the orphanage’s entrance will stay with me forever.

There was the “B family” who were simple and down to earth folks. I was starting to open up a little and to allow people inside of my bubble. Danielle was on sick leave at the time and was replaced by one of the bureaucrats I spoke of earlier. I make some light of it in my writings but the truth is, this cold man caused a great deal of pain to a number of great people. As a result of his lack of compassion, and common sense, he denied the “B family” a very simple request they made and so they too had to let me go. They too had to drive me back to the orphanage.

I was eight years old and I was beginning to wonder if there was a place for me out there in the world.

There was also another couple which I won’t name because I don’t want to ruin it for those who will chose to read my book. It’s fair to say I felt they were my dream family. I was finally ready to be loved but I didn’t know how to give some of it back. I had been an orphan long enough to forget what it entailed to be a son. That family made the decision not to keep me and at the same time another one agreed to take me in. This time around, there would be no return to “Happy Town.” I would be leaving one family and going straight to another one.

That “other family” would turn out be the right one for me. They are the ones I met at the restaurant on my tenth birthday.

It sure wasn’t an easy adaptation and with everything I had experienced prior to joining them, they had to show a lot patience and understanding at first. Some people even asked them if they were in their right minds, taking in a ten year old kid with such a past. I’m glad their desire to give a child a family was stronger than the doubts expressed by some.

I tried to write my story a few times over the years. I knew it was different. I knew it was a story “you can tell”. I just couldn’t find the right words to tell it. Something was missing to my approach in the writing process and therefore, something was also missing on the pages. A chapter or two worth of meaningless words and to the recycling bin it all went.

What was missing was a reflection. The one I did in order to finally be able to write my book, which took nearly three years to complete, was a powerful wake up call.

Instead of seeing the negative or difficult moments like I did in my previous attempts, I was reminded of the kindness most of the people I met on my path showed to me.

I was also surprised by few the tears I shed; not by their presence, but more because they came at the thought of those who brought a much needed light in my life at a time where there could so easily have been only darkness to remember. You know, the right kind of tears.

It seemed like the deeper I went into the emotions of the time, the less bitterness I felt and the less regrets I found.

And with the completion of my book, not only was I able to find again most of the images of my life as an orphan, I was also able to put them back in the right order, which is behind the images of my life as an adoptee.

I can’t for one second imagine a life without the memories I have of my childhood because they now lead to my life with my family.

It’s ok to reflect. It’s ok to go back. Sometimes when you go back, you end up in a restaurant with an enormous dessert in front of you and a little fortune in your pocket.