An enormous tragedy

A week ago I was driving to town on Sheridan Lake Road and I noticed an accident investigation vehicle from the Rapid City Police Department on the sidewalk near Arrowhead Golf Course. It particularly caught my eye because there are also a couple of Pennington County Sheriff’s Department vehicles parked there as well. After years as a Sheriff’s Chaplain, I’m always looking to see of the officers are people that I know. The officers weren’t right next to their vehicles and I needed to pay attention to my driving to keep from being in the way of whatever the officers were doing. A while later, returning and going the opposite direction on the road, I was paying close attention as I approached the site where there were still several law enforcement vehicles parked. This time I recognized one of the officers and I also saw that there was damage to the tennis center building at the club. It struck me as strange that the tennis center was damaged. The hillside is steep at that place and the damage reached to the roof of the building. I kept looking at the site as I drove by. I saw the marks on the road that had been carefully made by the accident investigation team, marking the path of the vehicle. I could tell by the marks that it had been going at a pretty high rate of speed - much higher than the 40 mph limit in the area.

I have no access to any inside information about the accident. Even when I was a chaplain, I would not have asked officers to tell me more than was available to the public. Now that I have retired, I know what is posted on the newspaper web site. It was from that source that I learned that a 16-year-old girl died Tuesday who had been riding in the car that hit the tennis building. The details are sketchy, but the article had the rough outline of the events of the wee hours of September 16. The story reads like a parent’s worst nightmare.

Around 1:25 a.m. a single-vehicle crash was reported. A neighbor called police to report that a southbound car had run into a tree near the tennis center. Officers arrived and found the vehicle and the driver lying next to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He was transported to the hospital with serious injuries. The officers then found the 16-year-old girl. Life-saving measures were instituted and she was rushed to the hospital.

There was evidence that alcohol had been a factor in the accident. The driver, aged 22, was charged with vehicular battery and driving without a license and issued a personal recognizance bond which allows him to be out of the jail while he is being treated at the hospital for his injuries. He is scheduled to appear in court on October 20 for the charges.

After six days of intensive care at the hospital the 16-year-old died. The police are now investigating the case as a vehicular homicide. Under South Dakota law vehicular homicide occurs when the driver of the vehicle is impaired by drugs or alcohol.

It makes me nauseous to think of the accident. You can say that a 16-year-old girl who gets into a car with a 22-year-old man who has been drinking is up to no good. You can say that the failure to wear seat belts was a huge mistake. You can say a lot of things. None of them change the simple fact that a life is ended. It was a short life. She died too soon.

I know nothing of the rest of the story. I haven’t met any of the people who are grieving her death. I don’t know who went to visit her in the hospital. I don’t know who now needs to make funeral arrangements. There is a lot that I don’t know and that leaves a lot of room for my imagination.

What I do know is that a 22-year-old man and a 16-year-old girl made some bad decisions on the night of September 15 as the clock turned to the morning of September 16. The decisions turned out to be fatal.

Our teens and young adults are incredibly vulnerable. Every parent who has had children those ages knows that fear that grips you in the middle of the night when you don’t know where your teen is. You know that they need the freedom to make their own choices and you also know the terrible consequences of poor choices. You want to trust your child, but you also know that the stakes are high and that risks will be taken. What I also know is that there are plenty of teens and young adults in our community who don’t have strong advocates in the form of parents or relatives who advocate for the young ones and guide them through the maze of difficult decisions. Add alcohol or drugs to the mix and the quality of the decisions doesn’t improve.

I remember the conversations we had with our children when they were that age. I remember how I repeatedly said to them that they could call me any time, day or night, if they were tempted to get in the car with someone who had been drinking. I would immediately come and give them a ride with no questions asked and no punishment offered. The decision to call instead of getting into a car with a driver who had been drinking would be treated as a good decision every time. Those conversations didn’t stop me from worrying.

Into your hands, Almighty God, we command the spirit of Alexis Black Elk. We know that you have already received her as your own child and a sheep of your flock. We know that for her all pain and suffering are ended and that she has entered into your realm where all of your people are gathered into your grad love.

Gracious God, we also commit to your unending care the life of Terrance Richard, whose decisions resulted in her death and who now has to live with the consequences of his choices for the rest of his life. May he discover ways to contribute to the community and become a part of the solution to the dangers that face teens and young adults. May the rest of his life not be squandered, but invested in bringing peace and safety to others.

Comfort the grieving. And, dear God, protect the other teens and young adults who face choices with similarly huge consequences. May they choose life in the situations they face. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Exuberant youth

Yesterday afternoon we went for a walk on the trails behind Terra Sancta retreat center, which is next to St. Martin’s Monastery. The community has a couple of miles of hiking trails and we rarely encounter other walkers when we are getting our exercise on the hills behind the retreat center. The walk winds up the hill behind the chapel and we could hear the birds in the trees as we walked through the trees. As we wandered we could periodically also hear the sounds of a football practice taking place on the field next to St. Elizabeth Seton Elementary School. From a distance it appeared that the players were a bit older than the K-6th-graders of Seton School. I speculated that they might be students from St. Thomas More Middle School which is in town. It is likely that the high school football team was using the field near the Middle and High Schools and the middle school players were using the field next to the elementary school. At any rate, we could hear the coaches shouting and occasionally a player would make an especially good play and the whole group would erupt into cheering. They were shouting pretty loud and we heard a few hoarse voices. Clearly it was an exuberant group enjoying a beautiful autumn day, with temperatures nearing 80 degrees.

The walk got me to thinking about all of the middle and high school athletic programs that are usually going full steam by this time of the year. Educators have long known that most students need a balance of academic and physical education in order to achieve their personal best. Our rapidly changing world means that students experience a lot of different stressors in their lives. In order to focus on their academic work, they sometimes need physical activities to work out some of that stress. Competitive sports are one of the ways that schools seek to provide for the activities that students need.

Of course no school can provide for every need of every student. Engaged parents find that supplementing the school program with community sports, private dance programs and activities at the YMCA or youth clubs are often helpful in the overall development of their children.

With the pandemic continuing to ravage our country and our own state remaining among the highest in the nation for new infections, there is considerable concern about activities such as team sports. It is easy to imagine a single asymptomatic youth infecting an entire team while playing close contact sports such as football. However, the schools are under pressure from parents and students to return to as many activities as possible. Like the public schools, the students in the Catholic School System are dealing with a multi-tiered program of in-person learning, hybrid learning and remote learning. Students are practicing social distancing and wearing cloth face masks.

It was, however, pretty obvious to us as we looked down on the football field that there are limits to the social distancing in the team practice. We weren’t close enough to the field to see whether or not the players were wearing masks. While school officials are trying their best to take precautions and provide for the safety of students, it isn’t possible to avoid all risk in school programs.

We believe in the power of public education and during our time of living in Rapid City we have not focused as much attention on the private schools as we have on the public schools. We have known students who have attended the private schools and know of the quality education that is available form those schools. But we also know that a community has a responsibility to provide education to all of the children, not just the ones from certain families. Public education is necessary to a functioning democracy and a healthy community. Education is a huge factor in the ability of people to thrive and succeed in life. We have often prayed for our public schools, students, teachers and administrators during our annual 40 days of prayer for children.

Since we are praying for all children, it just makes sense that we join our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in praying for the students and teachers of the Catholic School System as well.

I have a good friend who is a coach in the St. Thomas More varsity football program. I’ve had many conversations with him about the hours he dedicates to working with the students, traveling to their games and planning for the program. He often speaks of the dedicated volunteers who help to make the program run smoothly. I haven’t been in touch with that particular friend this fall and so I don’t know the specifics of how the football program is being incorporated into the school’s programs, but it was evident from our walk yesterday that the season has not been cancelled entirely.

Gracious God, we offer our prayers for all of the student athletes, their coaches and the many volunteers who provide for the physical exercise and team programs of our schools. We know that your promise of shalom is a promise of physical health as well as emotional and mental health. Growing bodies need safe places to exercise and stretch. Programs that provide for physical exercise and team building help to enhance the quality of life for students. We give you thanks for the athletic programs of our schools and all of the people who dedicate their time to those programs.

Keep our students safe. May they play without fear and enjoy the health benefits of their participation. Keep the adults who work with the children safe as well. May they find balance between risk and reasonable precaution so that guidance for students will provide for safety and good health. May all who participate in the programs of the schools enjoy your blessings in ways that enable them to share those blessings with others.

May our prayers be as genuine and as exuberant as the youth who were playing on the field yesterday. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Homeless children

I suppose I could write an entire journal entry explaining why we had a box of cute baby clothes for an infant girl. Our caught is 37 years old. She was 12 when we moved into this house. You could say it was because of nostalgia. You might say that it was because we hoped to have another granddaughter some day. You could say it was because not all of her cousins wore hand-me-downs. The bottom line, however, was that the box of freshly-laundered and slightly out-of-fashion baby clothes was among the things that we need to shed as we prepare to move our household. It is pretty clear that we won’t be needing those baby clothes.

I’ve been taking a lot of things to various agencies that have thrift stores as we prepare to move. Sometimes I’ve had three or four packed boxes of merchandise in one trip. When we had planned our move, we hadn’t suspected that this summer would be the time when our church wasn’t able to have a rummage sale. The congregations we have served have always held rummage sales and this church had large rummage sales twice a year - until they didn’t. The pandemic meant that the church wouldn’t have had enough volunteers to mount a sale. It also meant that they wouldn’t have the usual number of customers for a sale. And the church had enacted policies to help prevent the spread of disease that made a sale impossible this summer. The one time they didn’t have a sale was the same time that we had planned to donate a lot of things.

All of those years of having a sale, however, combined with years of serving this community to give me a good sense of where the items could be donated so that they would go to the best use. So baby clothes needed to go to one of two shelters in our community. One in three woman in America have experienced some form of domestic violence. Often women leave dangerous home situations with children and without a safe place to go. Working Against Violence, Inc. in Rapid City provides temporary shelter to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. They operate a 13-bedroom shelter. The other institution in our community that is in need of clothing for infants is the Women and Children’s Home operated by the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. Families are the fastest growing segment of homelessness. Many of those families are single mothers with multiple preschool children. In no state in the United States does a full-time minimum wage job cover the cost of a one-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. The Mission provides temporary shelter and assistance to an average of 350-400 women and children annually. That adds up to a yearly average of 9,500 overnight stays to their guests.

The pandemic has resulted in a shortage of donations to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission. In addition to lower donations from the general public, the City of Rapid City reduced the mission’s budget by $70,000 in 2019. Additional cuts are likely as the city experiences decreases in income the the pandemic. We decided to take the box of baby clothes to the Mission Women and Children’s Shelter.

With the pandemic, the process of donation has been slightly altered. Rather than take the clothes to the Mission’s thrift store, we wanted to get them directly to the shelter, which also receives donations of items for which they have immediate need. At the shelter, there is a sign directing donors to place boxes next to the door and ring the bell. As soon as the donor steps away from the door a staff member comes out to pick up the donation. When I dropped off the box yesterday, the staff person gave me a big smile and a wave as she took the box into the shelter. I had visions of mothers, living in the tiny one-bedroom units of the shelter, struggling to deal with babies who go through several sets of clothes each day. One or two new outfits might make a big difference. Those moms probably wouldn’t be worried that the clothes are not the latest fashion. They are clean and nice and barely used. They might even bring a smile to a weary face.

There are so many reasons that people end up without homes, but the bottom line is that hard-working people end up without adequate housing. The myth that homeless occurs only to those who don’t want to work simply is not the truth. However the myth persists. Within the last week a local businessman testified before a state legislative committee that his business was hurt because he couldn’t hire enough workers. He complained that increased unemployment benefits made it impossible for him to find the workers he needed. He seemed to have no understanding of the fact that the pandemic has left children at home without care and forced parents to decrease their working hours. More importantly, this prominent businessman seems to have forgotten a basic principle of capitalism - supply and demand. A lack of supply increases demand and drives the price up. That businessman has a shortage of workers because he is unwilling to pay the price. When full-time work doesn’t make rent and groceries, you might not be paying the costs to compete in the market in which you are competing.

Dear God, We sing, “Jesus loves the little children.” and we know of your great compassion for the children of our community and of the world. Help us to reflect that love by the decisions we make. There are infants and children in our community who, through no fault of their own, lack simple, decent and safe housing. In addition to those who are homeless, hundreds more live in inadequate housing and lack the basic shelter all people need. Inspire us once again to go to work to provide for the needs of your children who live in poverty and experience homelessness. May we strengthen our community to provide for the needs of our neighbors. In Christ we pray, Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Youth in detention

When a child is arrested and charged with a crime, it is always a complex situation. Like any other citizen, juveniles have the right to judicial process. They have a right to be represented in court by an attorney and to have their case properly investigated. While the judicial process is being worked out, they have a right to a safe and secure place to live. They need to be protected from being harmed. They need to have an opportunity to continue their education. They need to have contact with family members. They need access to health care. Many need counseling. Most of the time, youth who have been arrested and charged with a crime have already had complex lives. Many are victims of abuse or neglect. They have made poor choices in part because they have been surrounded by adults who have made poor choices.

In the late 18th century and through much of the 19th century, children who were convicted of crimes were housed in jails and penitentiaries. Children of all ages and genders were confined with hardened adult criminals. People who suffered from mental illness were also confined in large and overcrowded penal institutions. Juveniles were often confined for behaviors that we’re not criminal simply because there were no other options. Children and youth ended up in jails and penitentiaries because of poverty.

During the 19th century, reformers began to oppose the practice of housing children with adults in prisons. The House of Refuge was opened in New York City in 1825. Illinois established a separate juvenile court in 1899 that required the separation of juveniles from adults when incarcerated. Legislative action barred the detention of children under the age of 12 in jails, a practice that eventually became widespread across the nation.

Reform, training and industrial schools were established across the nation in an attempt to provide for the needs of children and youth. They were generally quite large congregate living institutions with regimented activities and programs.

By the middle of the 20th century, public concern grew about the effectiveness of the juvenile justice system. In the 1960’s the Supreme Court made a series of decisions that formalized juvenile courts and provided more due process to youth charged with crimes. Formal hearings were required in situations where youth were transferred to adult court systems. In the late 1980s many states passed harsh laws in response to the public perception that juvenile crime was on the rise and that courts were too lenient. Several states passed punitive laws that included mandatory sentences and automatic adult court transfer for certain crimes.

For a variety of reasons, since the 1990s youth crime rates have plummeted across the nation. The punitive juvenile justice practices of the 1980s and 1990s have been proven to be ineffective. Systematic reforms in the juvenile justice system has reduced institutional confinement. 19th century style reform schools have been closed. Community-based interventions have been instituted that have proven to be far more effective.

The system isn’t perfect. Police are still faced with issues of what to do with youth who are charged with crime. Preventing crime and helping troubled youth to avoid poor decisions has proven to be far more effective than punishment after the crime has occurred.

For a few years, I served as chaplain to the staff of Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center, a detention facility for youth aged 12 to 21 who need to be placed in a safe facility after being charged with a crime. Youth who must be detained as the result of criminal conviction are also detained at the center. The center provides a wide range of services to youth. Case managers learn the stories and backgrounds of individual youth and help to design individual educational plans. Teachers work to help youth keep up with schooling and work towards high school graduation or earning their GED. Opportunities for physical exercise and recreation are designed to allow youth to gain social skills through supervised play.

The facility was designed to house many more juveniles. However, continuing reforms are resulting in decreasing numbers of youth who need the specific services of the detention center. As soon as possible, detained youth are transferred to other programs. Adjacent to the center is a center for homeless and runaway youth. Short term services provide for youth to make the transition back into family and community-based living situations.

Because the facility is small, the youth served become known by the staff as individuals. They are treated with dignity and respect. They are offered opportunities to learn and grow despite their controlled situation. It is, however, a serious and secure facility. It has locked doors and security systems to make sure that youth remain within the facility and are protected from each other. Violent outbursts are met with sift and direct responses. Youth who need to be separated from others are placed in secure cells.

As chaplain, I learned of the care and dedication of the staff who serve the youth in the facility. I also learned what a challenging job it is to serve in the facility. We all want safety and security in our homes. While the courts work to provide effective responses to crime, institutions are needed to provide for the safety and security of youth who have committed crimes. The adults who work in these institutions develop a specific set of skills for protecting the youth who live in the facility. It is a tough job and the people who do those jobs are dedicated professionals.

Gracious God, we know that you care for all of the children and youth of this world and that your love extends to those youth who have made poor choices and who have committed crimes that have caused harm to others. You do not abandon those who are incarcerated. We also know, that you have given us the task of reaching out to those in jail. In the Gospel of Matthew read of the judgment of nations. Those judged will ask, “When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The answer comes, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Help us, dear God, to reach out to those members of your family who are in need. May we never forget the youth who are detained. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Yard sale

We had an impromptu rummage sale yesterday. We hadn’t planned on having a rummage sale. We have plenty of items that we need to shed, but we’ve mostly been getting rid of things by taking them to the Rescue Mission and Goodwill and trying to find things that friends want or need. However, our subdivision has periodic yard sales, where the homeowners association puts up signs and any homeowner can put things out in their driveway. A couple of days before the advertised sale, we started thinking of things that we could put out. Mostly we were thinking of things that we would give away for free, but then we thought of a few other things and before long we had quite a few things for the sale. We got up early and put out a couple of tables and assembled other items in groups on the driveway. We put prices on a few things and arranged an area of free items. Customers showed up early. Our first customers were an hour before the advertised start of the sale. By the official opening time of the sale, our inventory was significantly reduced. We didn’t care. We wanted to get rid of items. We laughed that the early customers were interested in storage items, such as plastic bins and shelves. I guess people who shop rummage sales early acquire a lot of things that need to be stored.

On one end of a table we placed some toys. There were a few things that our children had played with and a few items we acquired for visits from grandchildren. We’ve never been good at getting rid of things, so there was a hobby horse and a couple of stuffed animals and some puzzles and games, a couple of squirt guns and a few other assorted items. We put up a sign that said, “Toys: 50 cents if you are an adult; free if you are a child.” It was fun to watch the parents with their children. Most set a limit for their child. “You can choose one thing.” It really brought back memories for us of the days when our children were little.

Our children grew up with church rummage sales. When they were young, we’d give them each a dollar to spend at the rummage sale. Our son would carefully examine all of the items, add up prices in his head and finally make his decisions. Our daughter would go from item to item and select a lot of things, the prices would always add up to more than she had to spend. Then she’d take them up to the checkout and see what she could get for her dollar. We had to plead with the checkout clerks not to cut her any special deals. “Please,” we’d say, “We’re trying to teach her about money, don’t let her exceed her budget.” After those years of watching our own children and how they behave at sales, I’m drawn to observing children at sales each time I attend one. One girl started out looking at a stuffed animal, then saw a circus train, then a puzzle. She finally settled on a different stuffed animal. One boy rushed up, grabbed a squirt gun and then had to explain to his father that it was OK. “That man told me I could have it for free!” he exclaimed, pointing at me.

The fun of watching the children stirred my nostalgia even more. One of the things my father did in his life was to sell farm machinery. He was a John Deere dealer for 25 years. Alongside the big machines and the hard negotiations, the store carried a line of toy tractors. Our father put considerable energy into selling toys to children. He would take trade-ins and he would negotiate price. He saw it as a way of building a future customer base. He also enjoyed making deals with the children of his customers. My great uncle, who was our parts man, would repair and paint used toys in his spare time. We always had a big bin of used toys for the annual toys for tots drive was held.

Children develop their own patterns for shopping and making purchase decisions, but they also imitate their parents and other significant adults in their lives. It is a way for them to learn about the world of adult choices and actions. Usually they don’t have much money. Their decisions carry limited risk. There ar opportunities for them to learn from their experiences. Used toys might look appealing on the table, but have limited value for extended play. There are no chances to return items from a rummage sale. Once the purchase is made, the sale is final. Through the process, children learn about value and about making decisions.

We didn’t set up much of a learning exercise with our little yard sale. We didn’t have that many items to sell and the stream of customers was mostly adults. But there might have been a moment of joy for a few of the children who stopped by the sale. It gave us a way to extend our joy of ownership of a few of the items. By the time the sale was ended, we were feeling pretty good about our decision to put out some things for sale. It is the first time in 25 years of living in this house that we had participated in the neighborhood sale - the last sale before our house goes on the market.

Gracious God, we give you thanks and praise for the children of our neighborhood and those who came with their families into our neighborhood for yesterday’s sale. Their presence gives us joy. Watching them make choices helps us remember other children in our lives and how much we have learned by watching them learn. Bless the children, God. Help them to learn from their mistakes as well as their good choices. Give them adults in their lives who are good mentors and models for behavior and decision-making. Help us to discover how we might be blessings in their lives, just as they are blessings in ours. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!