To Our Play At The Core Community: Play At The Core’s mission: To inspire healing and change through play has continued to take on new meaning as the challenges our community confronts evolve. In recent months, I have shared that the Play At The Core team is engaging in an ongoing discussion about our role in promoting greater equity in youth development programming. These conversations are helping us to better define the ultimate goals of our work, and posing some important questions:
- What does it mean to thrive for a child in a youth program setting?
- In what ways are the thriving of children and the professionals who work with them connected?
- How do we define ourselves and our own thriving as members of the Play At The Core team?
This final question has motivated a process of personal exploration to better define who I am in this work. As we step into 2022, it feels like the right time to begin sharing more about the course we are setting as a team. In doing so, I hope we can create opportunities to more personally connect our Play At The Core community with our work. To begin this process, I feel inspired to share a part of my story that, until now, I’ve been too afraid to put out into the world. My goal in sharing is not about shining a light on myself. Instead, I hope my narrative can reflect back to you all just how deeply important our shared work in youth development and human services is. In fact, the more I speak with friends and colleagues about the size and scope of the challenges we currently face, the more I am convinced that our work with children and communities must be centered in order for us to heal, to thrive, and to create the changes that we continue to need so desperately. The supportive community that I have found during my time with Play At The Core has taught me that our work is made stronger through love. One of the ways that we create space for love in our work is by sharing our authentic selves and supporting others to do the same. In that spirit, this is my story of how I have come to define myself and my own thriving in this work. This is my WHY.
As I finished loading the car with supplies, the warm glare from the late afternoon sun on Broome Street made me wince and smile. It was a perfect day at the end of spring in 2019, just before the humidity in the city gets too overwhelming. Our block was bathed in orange light.
Maggie grinned and wished me good luck as I approached from the curb to grab my backpack.
She stood on our stoop with our seven-month-old, Maeve, on her hip, and our three-year-old, Elle, at her side.
“Daddy, are you going to go play?” Elle asked. She was accustomed to seeing me organize boxes filled with balls, cones, ropes, and hoops in our tiny apartment living room. The way she understood my work was that: “I play with teachers”.
“I am, yes. Be good for mom when it’s bedtime, ok? I’ll give you a kiss when I get home.”
“Ok!” she beamed while hanging from the iron railing along the steps. I walked back to the car and climbed in. I was headed for a planning meeting with our Play At The Core team that would run a program with a partner in West Harlem the next week. As I started to pull away, I saw Elle jump up and yell something to me. I rolled down the window as the car stopped again: “What, love?”
She stood tall, and I heard her clearly: “Take care of your sadness, Daddy!”
It was said with such innocence and ease, that the people passing on the sidewalk likely dismissed her words as some confused figure of speech. This was something more though. I felt a lump in my throat as tears formed in my eyes. How could she know? I sat stunned.
“I will.” I stammered. “I love you.” I saw her blow me a kiss and hug Maggie’s leg as I pulled away. Her goodbye echoed in my mind all the way uptown.
Until that day, the story I had always told myself was that my work in youth programs was about building connections and learning spaces for the professionals and children that crossed my path. In hindsight, I think this narrative was self-serving (probably a defense) and positioned me at the center of the work. Elle saw another half to my story, though – a more reciprocal one. She was acknowledging something that I couldn’t yet admit to myself: my work with Play At The Core is also about taking care of my own sadness. It is about creating a community that is committed to healing and realizing the power to thrive despite the pain of the past.
I am a survivor of trauma. The pain I endured happened in a program for young children, transforming a place where I should have felt safe and loved into a source of deep fear and shame. For a long time, this was a secret that I kept between me and my three-year-old self. I justified this silence as a way to protect the little me, but the loneliness of quietly living with my sadness hasn’t served either of us well. Ultimately, it was my three-year-old daughter who finally taught me that the very act of healing may be what makes our love, our work, our WHY so powerful.
I recognize that many who work with children and communities have been inspired by their own experiences of trauma and injustice. In acknowledging these connections, I am finding great strength in what I see as a shared commitment to find purpose in our pain – harnessing the energy of fear, shame, or sadness to undo them with the hope, joy, and love we build through our work. In this way, I believe our stories are Play-At-The-Core stories. They are steeped in the bonds of love and caring relationships. They are about growth and the power for change that lies in the creativity of play. They are about challenging the traditional roles of teacher and student, and the incredible potential if we approach this work with a greater sense of wholeness and reciprocity. Over the coming months, I’m excited to share with you more about the WHY and the HOW of Play At The Core’s work, as well as the research and literature that are informing our perspectives. To do this, we will be sharing more narratives that frame our program pillars. They are:
- Relationships First – build connections as the starting point and greatest outcome of our work
- Lifelong Learning – cultivate an unending process of development and growth for all
- Play as Change – leverage play as the universal language of ideas, connection, and possibility
- Shift Power – strive to always center the voices and choices of those we work with. change on their terms
- Parallel Process – Ensure program quality for children by intentionally supporting the wellness of those who nurture them
Until then, please know how much you are valued. Play At The Core has great love for you!