Sunday, July 13, 2014

Pep Talk: "Challenge. Encourage. Care.

I read it, and while not weeping, my heart aches and memories return.

The craziness on America’s border with Mexico. Thousands of children detained in the Rio Grande Valley. Bless them. Stuck in Texas border towns like Brownsville, McAllen and Harlingen.

I used to live there. My almost 30 years as a journalist began with a job at KGBT-TV, the CBS affiliate in Harlingen, Texas. Weekend sportscaster and weekday reporter, as well as the play-by-play voice for Pan American University’s basketball and baseball teams. On Sunday nights this gringo from Missouri anchored the news, weather and sports. A former wife used to chide me; “You can’t deliver the ‘news’ like you do sports.” Why not?

I’ll never forget many things about living on the border for two years before moving to Denver to continue my career: the oppressive heat and humidity, the warmth of the people, the passion for high-school football and the food. Although I never took a liking to Barbacoa. Ever had it? Slow-cooked cow brains. An acquired taste.

Drug busts, human trafficking and the violence associated with each, often led our newscasts. But rarely was the story focused on unaccompanied children pouring across the border. It was adults, usually men, trying to sneak across the Rio Grande River and into the United States. In search of a better tomorrow for themselves and families left behind. In many ways, south Texas was northern Mexico. The conditions, Third World. From the latest news, it sounds like things have deteriorated.

One moment in time left a huge imprint on my soul and drives a passion to encourage youth and their parents about the importance of education. The television station each year would air “Christmas For The Needy” stories. I was assigned to share information concerning a family of eight. Mom, dad and six kids. Lived in a cardboard shack. No running water or electricity. Dilapidated is an understatement. Two king-size beds dominated the structure. One parent, three kids in each bed. Nobody in the family spoke English.

Most of the folks I worked with at KGBT-TV were bilingual. Thank goodness. The photographer working the story with me translated my questions and the family’s responses. I can vividly recall the drive back to the station. I had to turn the story for that evening’s newscast. I struggled with words. Do I take the angle of despair? Those kids had little chance of success considering the obstacles. Or do I take the angle of love? Having come from a splintered family myself, I admired their closeness. In hindsight, I realize the unity might have been powered by isolation. I’m uncertain. Writing on deadline,  I finally chose the love angle, while bringing light to the family’s plight.

I've always wondered what happened to those six kids. Today, they must be in their late 20s to early 30s. Did any of them defy the odds? Earn an education? Realize the American dream? Or, did they remain uneducated, poor and desperate for assistance?

When I absorb the news of the thousands of Central American kids being rounded up and detained, my heart aches and the memories return. These kids need help, especially those truly escaping heinous conditions surrounding gangs and human trafficking. For those who stay and avoid deportation, another issue arises: effectively assimilating them into our educational system.

I see video of these Central American children, and the six kids in that cardboard shack come flashing back. I hope and pray the desperate kids of today are surrounded by nurturing adults who will stress the importance of an education. I think of the financially strapped school districts and the costs associated with such a huge influx of children, many of whom are probably not literate in their native language, let alone English. We should care for these victims, but we must challenge them and those who provide for them. Overcoming the language barrier and a commitment to learning must be top priorities. There must be expectations.

I finished writing this Pep Talk on an airplane flying to Kansas City for my 25-year-old niece’s wedding. Sitting beside me on the flight was my 17-year-old daughter, who is preparing for her senior year in high school. The America we’re handing over to our next generation faces many perils: mounting debt, crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, growing economic inequality, immigration policy failure and soaring health care costs, to name a half dozen. There are plenty more.

It’s embarrassing. The wise words of President John F. Kennedy resonate: “Ask not what your country can do for you but what can you do for your country.” America has much work to do. We need to challenge the idle, encourage the timid and care for the frail. Whether crossing the border, street, town or living room, we need wisdom to apply each where appropriate. Challenge. Encourage. Care.

This week, let’s slow cook that terrific trio into the lives of others. Barbacoa can satisfy hunger for a day, but challenging, encouraging and caring? They can stuff a soul full of hope. We need plenty of that right now, on the border and beyond.

We can do it!

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