“The kind of place that can change a child’s life."
By MICHAEL GARNER, 2021-2022 TJS 25th BIRTHDAY BASH CHAIR AND FUND THE MISSION SPEAKER
The Garner family’s journey from struggle to safety.
There comes a time when you feel hopeless. A feeling that there is no one you can turn to for help. Your life is filled with despair. No one “gets” how you feel, and you cannot seem to find a way to make anyone understand what you are experiencing.
Now, imagine that you are feeling all of this…at the age of 6. Six. Years. Old. That is when it all started for our daughter, Meredith. She was a happy, fun-loving girl breezing through PreK-3 and 4 at a private
school here in Houston. But in 2015, one semester into kindergarten, Meredith began to break down emotionally. She was not able to communicate why she felt this way, but she could not go to school. She would scream “I can’t! I can’t!” and we did not understand at all. We feared the worst and asked all of the “why’s.” Is someone bullying you? A teacher? A student? Is it the work? Or PE? She could not answer. We could not understand. All she could do is scream “I don’t know!” and cry and lose control. We pushed because that is what we thought we needed to do as her parents. “This is what all kids do – they go to school!” Each day became harder.
Every day, we forced her into her school uniform; and at drop-off, we had to peel her out of the backseat of the car, screaming and crying. She pleaded and begged us not to not leave. The more we forced, the worse it got. We had no choice but to find help after missing the entire last month of school. Things were a little better over the summer, but then came August.
In the fall we enrolled her in our zoned public school for first grade, hoping a change in environment would help. It did not. In fact, things worsened. We had professionals on board, worked with the school administration, filled out 504 plans, and tried every possible idea at drop-off. Six weeks in, after an exceedingly difficult morning, I got a call – “Mr. Garner, you need to come back and get Meredith, or we will need to call an ambulance to get her.” We withdrew her and had never felt so lost and scared in our lives. The suffering affected our oldest daughter, our own friendships, and even our relationship. We were on an island.
It was difficult for her to communicate because, well, how could she at age 6 and 7? We had no idea how impossible these situations were for her. We felt like we had failed her as parents. She slowly learned how to regulate her body, but she was still scared. Scared of the weather. Scared of other people. Scared of new places. We needed to transfer her to a school where she could learn how to learn while managing this anxiety. Where she could learn social skills, gain confidence, create new friendships, and learn how to function through fear. We toured The Joy School and knew immediately it would be a ‘good’ place for her to begin third grade. But it was not a just a good place – it was an incredible place. The Joy School understood the struggle and turned things around in ways we never could have imagined, for both our daughter and our family. Safety takes many forms, from physical to emotional, and you can’t learn if you don’t feel safe. The Joy School is where she found acceptance, compassion and understanding – all of which led to feeling safe, and ultimately, an education that will serve her for a lifetime.
The road has not been without bumps and potholes. But every time we hit one, we experience support – support from every faculty and staff member. Meredith is now in 7th grade at The Joy School and is flourishing. Faculty members will say “remember when…” and we smile and say, “oh yeah, we remember!” Meredith will face battles her entire life, but thanks to The Joy School, she now has the confidence and communication skills to help her when challenges arise, and the strategies necessary to learn and function on a daily basis.
Meredith is so strong. Truly, amazingly strong. I always believed that she had it in her to fight through her anxieties and someday come out on top. However, I am convinced that she never would have made it this far, or this fast, without the wonderful people at The Joy School. The teachers and staff define this school, making it a caring place. A safe place. The kind of place that can change a child’s life. And in the words of Mary Helen Kennedy, “make the world better.”
I think this is best stated in a letter Meredith wrote on her own to The Joy School last year:
I have now been going to this amazing school for three years. It’s the best choice I will ever make in my whole life. This past year has been hard, but I have made it! I give all of my success to all of the wonderful, kind, outgoing, and most understanding people I have ever met. If I could give them the world I would do it in a heartbeat. I’m telling you, these people have changed my life. All of them are so amazing! I can’t even explain how incredibly grateful I am for them. I love you all!
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