First Report of the New School Year: the Positive Reinforcement of Play

Yesterday evening at dusk our old Toyota truck pulled to a slow stop along a narrow strip of gravel road in our neighborhood as one of our students who had been riding in the truckbed prepared to jump off. This was his stop.

I reached over to touch Darwin’s arm, motioning for him to wait, and said, “I’d like to get out and say hi to Stanley’s mom. I’ll be right back.” I then paused and laughed to myself, murmuring under my breath, “This definitely isn’t the first time I’ve visited this house.”

Jackeline, our 13-year-old daughter who was sitting inside the cab with us, piped up and said, “Yeah, you’ve come to visit Stanley and his cousin Sindy quite a few times, right, Ma?”

I laughed even harder and admitted, “No, never Sindy. Just Stanley.”

Sindy and Stanley, who both live at this address, had been students in our seventh-grade program last year. While Sindy had shone brightly as a very high-acheiving and easily-managed student, her cousin Stanley had proved to be a roller coaster of volatile emotions and foolish choices. He seemed prone to making bad decisions and had wanted to drop out of school several times. He had even told Darwin that his life dream was to join a gang, and he had participated in a robbery at our home in 2015.

And so I glanced over at Jackeline, who was a bit confused, and I smiled at her as I knew perhaps the depths and lengths I personally had been through with young, rebellious Stanley were a precious secret that only God and I shared (and Stanley’s mom). After all, I had showed up unexpected on their doorstep on several occasions looking for him, and twice I had even danced in that little strip of gravel road to try to convince him to come back to the Ranch, to continue seeking God’s will for his life.

And so I hopped down from the passenger’s seat of our truck and shouted over to Stanley, who had just gotten down from our truckbed, “Is it okay if I say ‘hi’ to your mom real quick?”

His face suddenly dropped, an instinct probably acquired due to the many times I’d had to ‘say hi to his mom’ for negative reasons, but suddenly a huge smile appeared on his face as he realized this time he had nothing to hide. We both laughed as I patted him on that back and said, “This time it’s good news.”

I waited at the twine gate, but they quickly passed me through to the  more intimate realm of their property. I guess after having visited a house so many times, you sort of become like family. Stanley’s mom suddenly appeared from behind the thin curtain hanging in the front door, and we embraced, as we have on many occasions. This time, however, instead of Stanley escaping out the back door or hanging his head low, refusing to look anyone in the eyes, he stood tall right next to his mom, proud.

His mother instinctively looked worried as she wondered what had merited my unannounced house visit (as in, what-has-my-son-done-this-time), but I quickly reassured her that this time I came to brag on him and announce the fantastic news that he had earned a daily average of 89% during his first week of intensive preparation and had exhibited an entirely new attitude among his peers and towards us. Tears welled up in his mom’s eyes as I told her that her son had even begun taking great leadership among his peers and is a godly example for the new students to follow. Respectful, attentive, enthusiastic and hard-working during the daily hour of physical training. He had even completed all of his homework over the last several days, which had never happened before.

And so we gave thanks to God, I embraced his mother one more time, and we were off to do similar visits with the other students who remained joyfully squeezed in our truckbed.

We went house to house down long, remote gravel roads as we embraced mothers and step-mothers — both ones we’ve already had a relationship with from last school year along with ones that we are just now meeting for the first time. We had, after all, just spent the entire afternoon at a local park with our students who had earned a daily average of 80% or higher during their first week of intensive preparation for the school year, and we were eager to bear that good news to their parents.

In our rural community that hobbles around, bound by laziness, apathy and self-pity (not to mention rampant violence and a culture of lies), to see teenagers — especially those who in years past have been on the margins of society, on the brink of self-destruction or turning into instruments to destroy others — become fully alive, read God’s Word, and suddenly acquire a dogged work ethic and new hope regarding their future truly is miraculous.

On one of our last stops, at a small one-room shack with several barefoot little girls running about in the dirt yard, we shared the news of Charlie’s revival with his step-mom, who truly cares for him and who had been quite worried last year as time and time again Charlie slipped into irresponsibility and self-pity before finally failing his school year entirely. We had worked hard to convince his dad and step-mom to allow him to keep studying with us after his first year was an apparent failure (for we know the secret that many local parents don’t: this battle for salvation, for transformation is one that is done over the long-haul and one that cannot be given up on if the first year or two or three don’t go as planned). Charlie, who is 13 years old but has the appearance of an 8 or 9-year-old due to malnutrition, stood tall, his chest puffed out and his face serene as we enthusiastically shared the news with his step-mom. Charlie had earned a daily average of 97% in his first week of intensive prep, and his gracious attitude, servants’ heart and leadership skills — things that were not visible in him last year — shone brightly. His step-mom glowed with joy as she commented that she, too, had seen a distinct change in him over the last several days.

As we said our goodbyes and began walking down that little rocky dirt path back to our car, our 15-year-old son Brayan, who did a phenomenal job in his first week of classes, turned around and said jokingly, “And my house visit?” (As in, are you gonna brag on me too?) I laughed, knowing that we had already bragged on him more than 653 times this past week and I said with a grin, “I think your mom already knows that you did a fantastic job.” He smiled like a little boy and reached out a long, muscular arm towards me and said, “You’re my mom!” and I nodded my head and laughed.

And so we’ve been reading a lot of the book of Proverbs and the students have been copying whole chapters for homework. We’ve been reviewing basic math, assigning personal reflections each night to get the kids thinking, and participating in quite intense physical exercises with them each afternoon. The majority of our students come to us with an extremely weak academic base and need to be taught (or re-taught) the basic of subtraction, multiplication, etc, along with basic grammatical norms and reading support. This can be a tedious process as many of our students have learning disabilities/delays, but this week — praise God! — it was fun and effective. All but two of our students attended every single day, which in and of itself is a great triumph because discouragement and lack of attendance tend to be rampant in the educational system in Honduras.

The first week of intensive prep involved roughly 20 students (those who are new to our program along with those who need additional support), and next week roughly 20 more will be joining us as we enter our second and final week of academic, spiritual and physical ‘bootcamp’ before the official school year begins in early February.

And so we took that small group of students who truly fulfilled that first week of ‘bootcamp’ with excellence to a local park to participate in games of soccer and volleyball, enjoy the pool, and generally play. We are very excited to be able to do this type of positive reinforcement (we call them ‘good consequences’) from the get-go to establish healthy limits and a good foundation of choices/consequences with our students as we enter into this year of intimate commitment with them.

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Miss Ligia, one of our beloved local teachers (who by trained profession is a lawyer) who has signed on for another full year shepherding wily, precious youth for God’s glory. She squeezed in that little truckbed with 13 youth on the journey to the park!

 

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A photo our 9-year-old son Jason took from the inside of the truckbed as more and more youth piled on! Everybody make room!

 

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Darwin explaining behavioral expectations and guidelines as we arrived at the park. Although this is a weekly trip we make as a family, the majority of our students had never had the privilege to enter, so it was a new experience for most. We hit a ‘home run’ by treating each kid to a soda and ice cream, which was also a very special treat that the majority of the local youth in our neighborhood very rarely if ever experience!

 

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Stanley, left, with whom we have a long and treasured history and Eduardo, right, a new student who just entered our high school program this past week

 

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Miss Isis, one of our very dedicated local teachers who has been with us since August 2015, leading Michelle to the pool. Michelle is 10 years old although she physically appears to be about 5 or 6 due to extreme poverty/malnutrition. She has been in school with us several times over the last two years but has had very little constancy in her education because her family moves frequently. She is currently in first grade learning the basics of reading and writing with our daughter Gabriela.

 

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Charlie (back left), one of our other students who did not pass seventh grade last year and was hesitant about re-entering, enjoyed a phenomenal first week at the Ranch alongside of his cousin, Nixon (front right), who just entered our program this year.

 

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Our 12-year-old daughter Gleny, who does not officially enter her classes with us until this upcoming Tuesday, helped out tremendously during the first week of intensive prep as she spent several hours tutoring a new student in reading and math. We are so proud of her!

 

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Our 15-year-old son Brayan, who had a 99% average in his first week of classes/intensive training, enjoying a soccer game alongside of his new classmate Eduardo. Brayan has never been a good student (he repeated fifth grade with us several times), but a change has occurred in him and he has begun taking great initiative with his homework, assuming positive male leadership among his peers (something that is also new), and showing a newfound gratitude and enthusiasm in all that he does. Praise God for this transformation!

 

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Darwin, who is naturally a very gifted swimmer, got in the soccer mix as he, Dayana and Brayan (our two oldest kids) teamed up in an intense math of 3-on-3 against three of our local students. In this photo he and Stanley are going full force for the ball! (Not bad, Darwin, considering the kids are 20 years younger than him!)

 

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Please pray with us for our students (and for our team of teachers, counselors and mentors) as we are beginning a new school year with more youth than we have ever had in our program before. Please pray also for my health, as my insomnia remains a daily constant, and I physically am weak and prone to acquiring viruses/infections, as I have one right now (high fever and throat infection that has lasted much longer than it should). The insomnia greatly affects my mood, daily energy levels, and my relationship with everyone around me. Pray that this burden may be taken from me so that I may be even more effective in this great work the Lord has put before us.

Amen! Glory to God!

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