Turning a Heart

Turning a Heart

June 17, 2014 | Shanna Dean, Program Associate, NCCD

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I arrived at the last session of the NCCD Conference on Children, Youth, and Families feeling gratified but tired and ready for the weekend. I introduced myself as the moderator to Manny Castro, the session presenter, and went about taking care of the last-minute logistics. Rushed and preoccupied, I found a seat in the back of the room right before Manny began his introduction.

I arrived at the last session of the NCCD Conference on Children, Youth, and Families feeling gratified but tired and ready for the weekend. I introduced myself as the moderator to Manny Castro, the session presenter, and went about taking care of the last-minute logistics. Rushed and preoccupied, I found a seat in the back of the room right before Manny began his introduction.

I listened to Manny talk about his background and his work as an intervention specialist and success coach at his organization, Turning the Hearts Center, and vacillated between interest and distraction of my own concerns. I checked the time on my cell phone and reviewed my moderator checklist as I mentally prepared for the end of the session and rehearsed saying, “Remember to leave your lanyards at the registration desk.”

As I ticked off my to-do list in my head, I heard Manny mention that he would be walking us through an activity that he uses with the youth and adults at the center. He said that the activity demands “an act of courage” on our parts. Although I heard this statement, I did not internalize it, and let in float in my sea of scattered thoughts.

Did I forget anything in the hotel room? I asked myself. Oh no! I forgot to check out! I checked my phone. In five minutes, I’ll sneak away to the front desk, giving me plenty of time to get back to the room before the session ends.

I left the room, checked out, and returned to find the participants wrapping up the first part of the activity. Marc Lovato, Manny’s co-presenter and executive director of the center, handed me a notecard and a 12”x12”x1/4” wooden board. “Write your goals on the notecard. Don’t be afraid to dream big. And write the barriers to your goals on the board,” he instructed. I rushed to catch up with the group and quickly wrote down three goals: to be happy, to make a difference, to write. On the board, I wrote: lack of confidence, lack of support/understanding, being scared of the future and the unknown. I reread my goals and was disappointed by my lack of depth and clarity, but thought to myself, “Well, this is good enough.”

Manny announced that he would challenge us to break through our figurative barriers by breaking through material ones—the boards—Karate Kid–style. We participants exchanged worried glances. Manny invited us to bring our boards and notecards to the front of the room. He set his board on top of two cinder blocks and placed his notecard with his goals on the carpet below the board.

“Reaching our goals requires an act of will, strength, and heart,” he said. “Today, you’ll need to break through this board to reach your goals.” Concentrating, he hovered over the board and took a few deep, sharp breaths. In an instant, he brought his right hand down and decisively broke his board in two, inciting applause from the participants. He then demonstrated the proper technique for breaking the board. I went through the motions, moving my hands “like a rubber band,” as Manny recommended. 

The first volunteer, an enthusiastic, confident blonde woman, broke the board so effortlessly that I suspected hers was made of Styrofoam. Yet participant after participant—even one with a knee problem who had trouble bending over the board and another with a delicate, fragile-looking build—broke their boards with ease. As my turn approached, I went through a few preparative motions with Manny. I’m young, in relatively good shape, and I just want to get this over with, I thought to myself. I heard, “She looks nervous. I wonder if she’s going to do it,” uncertain if the words came from my fellow participants or my fragile ego.

Okay, I’ll count to three and punch the board and be done with this. One, two, three … I retracted my hand and thrust it forward with force. Anticipating the impact of the board, I closed my eyes. My hand hit the board with a loud thud. I waited for a moment for the release of my hand and the sound of the board falling to the floor. Instead, I felt an intense throbbing in my hand. I opened my eyes and to my shock, I saw the board lying intact under my now-pulsating palm. I felt my face flush with embarrassment and tears spring to my eyes. I blinked them back, struggling to maintain my composure and diverting my eyes from the other participants.

Manny quickly intervened and placed a reassuring hand on my back. “It’s okay,” he said. “You can do it. Try it again.” I heard applause and words of encouragement all around me. 

Suddenly, it hit me. Fighting for your goals is hard. “Good enough” won’t cut it. The 13 other participants in the room—youth development professionals, juvenile corrections officers, child welfare supervisors—showed such inner strength and focus. Although I didn’t know their stories, I imagined the challenges they must face every day. I became overwhelmed with admiration, respect, and humility.

I took a deep breath, re-centered myself over board, and searched inside myself for determination. I dug through the layers of self-composure, self-containment, and self-preservation to a place of passion. Not breaking through was not an option. I prepared myself, closed my eyes, grimaced with effort, and hit the board with all the heart I could muster. I opened my eyes to see the board in two pieces, laying by my feet. Tears welled up in my eyes—tears of relief and hope.

Working at a research organization like NCCD, I regularly interact with data showing the stark realities of violence, abuse, and inequity. I was becoming inured to it. This moment shook me out of my complacency and reminded me that it takes courage and heart not only to reach personal goals but also to make meaningful change. Strength, whether through top-down bureaucracy, political power, or money, is not enough. As Father Greg Boyle reminded us during his plenary speech, compassion is necessary to shrink the emotional distance between us, build human connections, and, ultimately, make a difference in systems and with people struggling to improve. In a landscape where interactions between agencies, policies, communities, families, and individuals are increasingly complex and often frustrating, something more must drive us.

Although I have a lot to learn yet about the work that we do, I left the conference with a sense of possibility, knowing that breaking through barriers is possible—and requires a turn of heart.