First steps into Social Work
Experience truly is the foundation to understanding what you want out of life, and moving to the orphanage was just that: rich and earnest experience.
In 1971, I began my practicum at an orphanage in Braunlage. Looking back, I know now I was seeking refuge from my chaotic home. I remember hoping it would be a happier, safer place and that I would find something I had been missing in my early childhood. While it did become a temporary relief from my family, I never could have imagined the impact my time there would have on the rest of my life.
I was still a child myself when I arrived at the orphanage and living away from my parents was a daunting challenge. I was quiet and inexperienced, so I drew from the lessons I learned caring for the children in my neighbourhood and my little brother. Being close in age to many of the children I quickly adopted the role of the “older sister.” I tended to the younger children as if they were my own and established friendships with the older ones. Occasionally, I would sneak into the dorms after dark to play cards with the boys. Terrified of being caught, we would carefully whisper and cover our mouths to muffle any giggles. I would take them out when I could, ice skating or just to see the world outside the walls of the orphanage.
Braunlage, July 1971
As I forged my own way through life, caring for these children who had given up hope of ever having a home gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. I could relate to them. There was a bond in feeling unwanted. I would watch the perspective parents as they toured the orphanage, looking at each child like dolls in a window. “Oh, you don't want him. He’s a trouble maker,” the nuns would say as they passed by one of the older boys. I couldn't fix the sadness they felt in the moments when they knew they were not going to be picked, again and again. The only thing I could do was gift them a few moments of childhood.
To this day I see the faces of children I met while working there in my mind - one girl, in particular. She was 16, I was 16. Despite the parallel in age, our lives were on drastically different paths. Here I was working towards a career in childcare while she was abandoned, sneaking out to bars after the lights went out. Twice I went searching to find her flirting with older men at the local pub, looking for attention in all the wrong places. Twice I snuck her back into bed without the nuns finding out. After leaving the orphanage, she and I stayed in touch into our early 20’s. I often think about where she ended up in this world and hope that I helped her, if even a little.
Despite my slight bending of the rules, I never felt remorse for pushing against the strict protocol. I had been told to establish firm boundaries. The nuns taught me this was the only way to earn respect and authority. The adoration and connection I had built between myself and the children, however, always empowered me more so than demanding their attention.
The head mistress, a woman named Charlotte, was stern and unforgiving. She had a lifetime of experience caring for the forgotten children of Germany and had developed more than a few demons over that time. Charlotte ran the place like an army camp - efficient and orderly. Everyone, including the children, had daily chores and responsibilities. Falling out of line in any capacity was unacceptable and there were strict consequences for those who tested the boundaries. Most of the other caregivers were much older than I and relied on isolation to reprimand bad behaviour. I rarely saw a hand lifted towards a child, but on occasion they would be taken away and punished somewhere else. There was one instance, however, that shook me to my core. Every evening the children and caregivers would all gather for a brief assembly. We would sing, listen to music, play games and the children loved to participate as it gave them a few moments of entertainment before bed. One evening, Charlotte was playing guitar and accidentally played out of tune. Some of the boys in the front row began to snicker. Embarrassed and frustrated, Charlotte lashed out at the ringleader to silence the disruption. She first insisted he be quiet and, when that was unsuccessful, hit him across the face. Usually, my passive character would have kept quiet until Charlotte regained order. Before I could catch myself, however, I jumped to the child’s defence. “That’s not fair! He didn't deserve that for giggling.” Everyone was silent. Their shocked faces fixated on me. Charlotte’s icy eyes were staring directly into mine. Quickly the assembly unraveled. The children were sent to bed and I was summoned to the Head Mistress’ office.
Her words still ring clearly in my mind. “You cannot openly question my authority. You want to be a rebel? Not here, not under my watch,” she scolded. I was intimidated and overwhelmed, and I began to cry. I imagined returning home as a failure, leaving the children and destroying all my efforts to work in childcare. Somewhere inside me I mustered the courage to apologize and explain to Charlotte that I came from an abusive home. Everything came pouring out as she sat there quietly listening. Words like humiliation, inequality, powerlessness and confusion hung heavily in the air around us. I told her the stories about the injustice I had suffered as a child at the hands of my mother. Finally, I stopped speaking and just stared at her - embarrassed and drained. She stood and walked toward me. Not knowing if she was going to slap me or send me away, I just sat there frozen. Charlotte knelt next to my chair and wrapped her arms around me. “You’re just like me,” she said holding me tightly. She told me everything was going to be alright and that she, too, had suffered abuse. This was a turning point, not only in my relationship with Charlotte, but for the orphanage, too.
Things began to change. Charlotte softened in her approach to the children and began to allow for more creative activities. She gave me permission to organize a Christmas play, even allowing me to design costumes and build a set. We practiced for weeks and invited people from the surrounding neighbourhood to watch the performance. The room was packed with people and smelled of rich hot chocolate, stollen and gingerbread. The children were beaming with pride. That night, after the play, I was tucking a six-year-old girl named Sabine into bed when she told me it had been the best day of her life. In that moment, that day, I knew this is what I was meant to do. This was my purpose. Working with children, teaching and empowering them as individuals, encouraging them to share love and express creativity - I wanted to make a difference within them in any way possible.
Braunlage 1975 - after receiving degree in Social Work
I knew going into the orphanage was going to be an experience full of lessons and memories. I never knew that those 25 children, and the women that worked there, would change the course of my life forever. They showed me that from my suffering I could find strength, to trust my instincts and to connect through love even if it is a scarce commodity at the time. For I know all too well, there is always room for more love and kindness in this world.