In Harmony, On Behalf of Our Nation’s Children, Creating A Community Solution for Children at Risk by Brook MacNamara
I have always known that my life would be dedicated to children. I sought out opportunities to learn from and work with children. I was barely beyond childhood myself when I began volunteering in school classrooms and residential programs for youngsters. In college, besides preparing to become a teacher, I experienced life as a camp counselor, Big Sister, classroom aid, outdoor school coordinator and advocate for little people. Throughout these experiences, children taught me the importance of nurturing, stability and love. I learned that my own childhood was blessed and that some children barely escaped their childhoods intact.
My love for youth led quite naturally to pursuit of a profession in education. It was as a second year elementary teacher that I had one of the most profound experiences of my life.
As time has passed, many other events and children have touched my life and affected my view of the world. But this particular experience taught me a life lesson that changed how I thought and acted and made decisions up to this very day. Let me tell you about Mia.
Mia was the ninth child of a young Eskimo couple in an Alaskan village where I taught during the beginning of my teaching career. Mia’s young family was plagued with alcohol abuse, poverty and lack of community support. There were seven children under the age of twelve living in the home and one child who had been placed with relatives in another village.
The family cabin was located across the Yukon River. There was one large room with a wooden divider. The walls were not insulated; the cabin was heated by a wood fire in an oil barrel stove. Since we lived on the tundra, wood was scarce. It was quite a chore to collect enough for a good fire. There never seemed to be enough to eat. The cabin and the children were unclean, as collecting water was another chore that took great effort and time.
The oldest son, John, was a pupil in my classroom so I often visited his home. The youngest three sisters all were shy toddlers who loved to have visitors. Whenever I’d visit, I would always bring something to eat. Although the youngest children’s eyes never left the food I set on the table, no one ever approached the table or even mentioned the food in my presence.
John had two younger sisters in kindergarten and first grade. Other school children made fun of them because they were dirty and their clothes old and ragged. When John’s mother, Mary, told me that she had to enter the hospital a month early to await the birth of her next child, I worried that the older boys would have a hard time getting their sisters ready for school and across the frozen river. I offered to watch the two girls at my home until Mary returned to the village. She gratefully took me up on the offer. She also shared with me that if she gave birth to a girl (her sixth daughter), another family in the village would adopt her. This is common practice in many villages and accepted readily. I didn’t think much about it at the time.
Well, the little girls came to stay with me. They were astounded by everyday things we take for granted—a bath in a bathtub or sleeping between sheets. The dryer was a constant source of entertainment and oatmeal was a treat. I showed the girls how to care for themselves; their peers were startled at how clean and pretty they looked each day. Though they enjoyed themselves, they missed their mother intensely. They were very excited the day she returned home with a tiny baby sister.
This tiny baby weighed only four pounds and was beautiful beyond description. I asked her name. Mary told me that the new family would name her.
Time passed and the baby continued to remain with her family. Mary explained that no one in the village wanted the baby who still did not have a name. Inwardly, I decided to call her Mia.
A teaching couple asked to adopt Mia, but her father said no. He was distrustful of white teachers. One of the teachers suggested I ask to adopt the baby because the family trusted me. I was 23 years old at the time and couldn’t imagine raising a baby. I put off thinking about it, hoping that the problem would resolve itself. I called the local Children Services Division and pleaded with them to send someone to the village to help this family. They were aware of Mary’s family as I had called numerous times in the past trying to arrange assistance for this struggling family. The answer was always the same: “We will see what we can do.” But no one ever came.
Meanwhile, I tried to visit the family everyday. Mary, not much older than I, clearly was troubled. She sadly repeated that no one wanted the baby. I was taken with Mia and looked forward to my daily visits. When the family finally named the baby, I felt relieved to know they had decided to keep her.
Early one morning one of the Sisters from the Catholic Church brought Mary’s youngest children into my classroom to warm up. She told me the fire in the cabin stove had gone out the previous night. I felt a sense of foreboding and decided to drive the snowmobile across the river at noon to check on everyone. Before I could leave, Sister returned to pick up the youngest girls. She told me that the baby had suffocated in the night, that she had become tangled among the blankets on the platform that served as the family bed.
I ran from the classroom, jumped on the snowmobile and rushed across the river and into the small cabin. The father was sitting on the floor, working quietly. Our eyes met in silence.
I asked, “Why?”
He responded, “Nobody wanted her!”
“But, I did,” I stammered.
“You never said anything,” he retorted.
I stood dumbfounded at the realization that he was right, that somehow I had not listened to my heart, and now our dear Mia was gone. I drove my snow-mobile far out onto the tundra where I let my hurt flow through my tears.
I used to play this chapter of my life over and over in my head. Maybe I should have been more insistent that the Children’s Bureau become involved with this family. Mostly I think of how I loved that little baby and did not have the courage to listen to what was in my heart. Perhaps if I had, Mia would be alive and with me today.
Mia was an incredibly beautiful baby with snow-white skin and black hair. Her deep brown-black eyes twinkled. She looked like a porcelain doll, too perfect for this world. Her mother couldn’t ask me to take this child and I was too afraid to entertain the idea.
It was many years before I could even speak about the story of Mia. Now, 16 years later, I reflect on how out of touch we can be in our youth. Today, I would not have left things to “work out.”
A Vision of In Harmony That experience and the many children I have met and helped since then speak to my heart. Over time, these experiences turned into a heart dream, a personal commitment to providing homes and love for every hurt and needy child. From this heart dream has come the vision of In Harmony.
In 1993, I founded the organization called “In Harmony, On Behalf of Our Nation’s Children.” The goal of In Harmony is to create a planned, inter-generational community where children can heal from past trauma and live in a nurturing environment until they are placed in adoptive homes.
From my need to help and from the needs of so many children to receive has come the vision of In Harmony. Starting in my kitchen, then expanding to an office in Corvallis, this vision has begun to take form. Beginning with my initial work, the program has now expanded to include the efforts of a dedicated staff doing necessary research, planning and budgets. Their effectiveness, and the generosity of many wonderful and loyal supporters, is creating the foundation necessary for the community that is soon to be built. We now face the daunting challenge of raising a total budget of $7,750,000. From these resources will come the realization of In Harmony.
The In Harmony community will be built in the Timberhill area of Corvallis, Oregon. It will serve Oregon children who have no healthy family structure for support. Many of these children have lived in numerous homes since their infancy. They are victims of abuse and neglect and hopelessness. In Harmony will help these youngsters learn to smile and laugh again. It will teach them what it means to have a family and a safe neighborhood where adults provide love and hugs. It will give them both physical and psychological shelter until they move into their own permanent home.
Mia taught me some of the most important lessons I have learned in life. She taught me about the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it doesn’t make sense to those around us. She taught me a lesson about the value of human life, about the gift of children, about apathy, about making decisions before decisions are made for us.
My resolve to commit my life to creating a stable, nurturing community for children comes from the lessons I have learned from Mia and other children who reach up to us. These children want to trust that we will take care of them and provide them with the love and nurturing that they so crave and need to become happy healthy adults.
Brook MacNamara lives in Monmouth, Oregon, with her three children, Brendan, Octavia and Gabriel. She invites people to get involved with children in the most profound ways, and to participate in the inter-generational vision of In Harmony. See the accompanying article for details on how you can support In Harmony. Brook MacNama can most often be found at the In Harmony office at 541-753-3960.