A pantheist and priest meet in a hospital...
When a bad turn gives you a good break
My involvement with Downey Side, America's least known charity, began on January 6th, 2012 in Stowe, Vermont. Skiing is the only thing that stops me pining for summer in Australia during northern winters and every year I go to the FCS Race For Kids charity event. But that year, on my very first run, I crashed. Big time! All I will say—it was far more Charlie Chaplin than James Bond. And I'm extremely glad there were no witnesses.
After getting carted off in an ambulance, x-rayed and bandaged, this priest shows up at my hospital bed and my first thought is, Jesus! It’s just a thumb! I don’t need my last rites! Is there something the nursing staff aren't telling me? Despite my reservations about organized religion, Father Paul was very gracious and offered to drive me back to the resort.
Along the way, he resisted any temptation to attempt to convert me, but he did casually mention that Downey Side, the children's adoption charity he ran and ski race beneficiary, could use a little marketing help. Well, naturally, who couldn't?
In my oxycodone haze, I mulled it over: Maybe I’d write them a brochure? Sure. A nice, quick, little three-fold. Just a few hours of my time. No worries.
Well, beware of clergy as clients. They are awfully canny businessmen.
A few weeks later, Father Paul and I met again in New York, in a diner opposite Penn Station, along with a fellow Capuchin monk, Brother Terry, who also worked for Downey Side at that time. In this more sober environment, it became clear that Downey Side needed a hell of lot more than a brochure. Finding orphaned, abandoned and abused kids permanent families was their forte. Telling people about themselves wasn't something for which they had had any time, energy or aptitude in forty-five years. It didn't take long before my involvement grew to rebranding the organization and building them a new web site—with assistance from the agency HNW—then writing articles on Downey Side in Adoption Today magazine and ultimately assisting with all their communications. It has been a fascinating and enriching five years.
Downey Side has been a door into another world, one that is literally hidden in plain sight all around us but is seldom opened in the media. It's the world where families fall apart and children slip through the cracks. The hinges of the door connect everything in American society—class, race, family, religion, sexual identity, government, drugs, health and criminal justice. A world Father Paul has navigated for half a century.
It's tempting to see Father Paul's mission as quixotic. Placing 7,000 children into permanent families over fifty years may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the 500,000 kids in foster care at this moment. But it's enough to fill a minor league baseball stadium. And when you add in their families and the effect over generations on the community, you start to hit the majors.
Getting to know Father Paul along with the people of Downey Side, growing to understand how one person can inspire and be a catalyst for others has been extremely rewarding. And, despite my own lack of religion, I'm a sucker for a good theological chat.
A little over a year ago, the idea of writing a book emerged as a means to shift the agency's focus from placing children into families to playing more of an advocacy role. (The reasons for this shift will be evident in the book.)
It's a challenge taking the life work of man and putting it into literary form. But this book demands more than that. It can't simply be a biography or the history of an organization. That's not what Father Paul wants, nor do I. What we're hoping for is that it inspires change. The paradox we face is that the foster care industrial complex is as bad as it was when Father Paul first made the connection fifty years ago that foster care and reform schools were a pipeline to prison. The great work he and Downey have done needs to continue and perhaps the best way for that to happen is for others to hear his story and pick up the thread then repair the fabric of society in myriads of new ways.