My experience with the boys at Elk Hill broke my heart and gave me The boys were precious; the challenges they face were heartbreaking. I met the boys through a project called FutureEdge@Work, in which Capital One employees visited several Richmond area non-profits to learn about the needs in our community and the vital work that organizations like Elk Hill are doing to serve those needs.
One aspect of the project included conducting mock job interviews with 10 or so Elk Hill boys to give them a taste of what it feels like to sit across from a prospective employer and answer questions. I recall, with more than a little embarrassment, the anxiety I felt during the long drive from my home in Goochland County to the Elk Hill school in Varina, about what the boys would think of me and the questions I asked. Mr. Lawson, the school counselor, explained the obstacles the boys have to overcome just to make it to school on a given day: lack of transportation, no parent to help get them out of bed, no breakfast, guardians who take their government aid and use it for their own purposes - and worse.
When the introduction concluded, and the boys slowly paraded into the classroom for their mock interviews, I was struck at how little eye contact they made. They were cautious and diffident. Almost without exception, their heads were bowed and their eyes were fleeting. When they sat down in the 10 chairs stretched across the front of the classroom, most began to look up, a glance at a time, but none smiled. They were dressed in their finest business attire: jeans or khakis, wrinkled, button-down shirts (tucked in in random places), a bow tie or two and tennis shoes. The results were mixed, but the effort was endearing.
During the interviews themselves, the boys began to transform. Some slowly at first, but a couple shone from the get-go. One boy smiled broadly when he introduced himself and shook our hands. Another articulately answered our questions and even made us laugh. Most were able to look us in the eye and share a little about their story – things they did well, things they need to overcome.
One boy’s face remains with me today. Before the interviews began, he sat at the front of the room, hunched over, looking only at the floor. His sadness seemed palpable. When he came to our table for his interview, he offered us a weak handshake and a stole a quick glance at each of our faces. Wondering how quickly we could conclude the interview, I worried about what questions to ask that would open him up without making me uncomfortable. When he began to talk with us, after a slight hesitation, he spoke softly but in earnest. He answered our mundane questions about strengths, weaknesses and work experience with deliberation and care – as if something really rode on the answers. He explained how his janitorial duties at school were teaching him responsibility and the importance of doing a job well. He shared with all sincerity how he would need to set two alarms to make sure he got out of bed on time and how he thought he could rely on his aunt for a ride to work. His innocence and honesty were moving, but his physical transformation was compelling. He began to sit up a little taller and lean a little more into the conversation. Most of all, he began looking us in the eye and smiling a bit, carrying on a genuine, heartfelt conversation with people he had only just met. Before he moved on to the next table, he shook each of our hands and boldly thanked us for our help. His transformation wasn’t huge or miraculous, but it was special and moving and real.
As I left Elk Hill that day, I felt deep sadness for the boys and the circumstances that brought them there. I also felt gratitude to the teachers and staff who stand by those kids, teaching, mentoring and loving them every day. There are resiliency factors that can mitigate the negative impact of adverse childhood experiences. Some of them are as simple as feeling that a non-familial adult is there to help the child, or seems to like the child, or notices the child is capable and able to get things done. I was honored to provide some of those resilience factors in my two-hour visit to the school, but Elk Hill provides them every day - and it shows.
Months after our visit, we invited the boys to the Capital One campus to conduct a second round of interviews and to give them a taste of what it feels like to work for a large organization. As that same boy exited the bus and walked into the room on that day – he strolled in with his head held a little higher and his eyes a little brighter. He looked directly at each of us and, without a word, nodded hello. My heart soared. Thank you Elk Hill for allowing me to see a glimpse of the way you are impacting lives, through the eyes of a young man who experienced a small, but transformative moment.