They come in with all the energy of a day being spent pent up behind a desk. Coats and hats and gloves and boots go flying in all directions and with cheeks flushed and eyes flashing all voices are clamoring to tell me about their day. Kickballs are quickly grabbed and soon I am roped into a hardcore game of foursquare. The girls like to change the rules to suit what is happening in the moment. I have found that once we get into the rhythm of the game this is when they begin to share with me. Their exteriors are tough. All three girls are wearing matching Chuck Taylors. They like that they are the oldest in our afterschool program.  They like that I can use them to help me wrangle the younger kids to listen and that if they help me I let them choose the game for the evening. Over the weeks a trust has been established. As we begin to play one of the girls misses a shot she would never normally miss. Too low, she complains, that was below the knees. She stomps out and lets the girl waiting come in.

“Not like you to get so frustrated?” I challenge her.

“Sorry,” she says sheepishly, and I know she means it. She is one of those girls who exhausts herself acting as if she does not care. But she more than most truly craves the acceptance from the adults present in the room. I keep my eye on her as she sluggishly tries to reenter the game. Finally, at dinner time the story comes out. She is exhausted. She is living at her grandmas with seven other cousins. Both of her parents are now in jail.  Both for possession of drugs. She worries about her little brother. She wants to make sure he is eating enough. She worries he is being picked on at school. She said it is noisy in her grandma’s house with everyone there. Her aunts and uncles are also suffering the consequences of life choices and their children are paying for it by being dumped at Grandmas. She tells me all of this in a matter of fact, tired adult kind of way. And my heart breaks open. She is carrying the very weight of the world on her shoulders and she is 12. She knows far too much about felonies and mandatory sentences and exactly how much food her brother ate for dinner last night.  

After dinner, she helps me gather the kids in the chapel for devotions. I am proud of her as she reminds the younger kids that if they are good listeners she will make sure they get to play sharks and minnows. I am both captivated and saddened by her temerity.  She sounds much too adult, much too authoritative, and her eyes are too tired. I have no idea how to even begin to imagine all that she has heard and witnessed in her short 12 years. I have no idea the responsibilities she has had to shoulder at such a young age. I feel an aching desire for her to be clueless and to hear her joking about boys and twitter feeds and the gross food in her cafeteria. I look around at all the kids gathered for our afterschool program and I know their stories mimic hers, the narrative maybe just a bit different.

Running back to the gym, she quickly has the kids count off and assigns the “ones” to be sharks and the “twos” to be minnows. I watch her as she leads the sharks. She has suddenly transformed into a young girl again, she loses herself in the game.  She is suddenly focused on being a shark, she mercifully forgets that she herself is vulnerable and afraid, and for that moment I am profoundly grateful that she has these two hours to just be a girl, to just be 12. The minute she leaves this place I know that she will morph into a beleaguered adult, her destiny seemingly set into this cycle of poverty and incarceration; but for this moment, she is safe with us, and she is a shark, laughing and chasing all of those minnows.

Karen Cassidy (

Karen is a mother of three amazing adult children. She works for a non-profit organization that serves some of the most marginalized and vulnerable individuals. She is passionate about people and believes every person has a story just waiting to be told.