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

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.