In this one May weekend there will be countless college graduations, Mother’s Day, and the LEAF festival. LEAF is a weekend-long music and art festival held at Camp Rockmont twice a year, led by the amazing Jennifer Pickering. People come back year after year, many camping out, all reveling in the atmosphere and the magical vibe, even if the weather turns nasty, which it often does.
When I was still working at the juvie facility, Jennifer offered to help include my boys in the festivities. First, she sent the fabulous Michael Franti to spend time with the boys and do an in-house concert. Later, she sent African drummers and dancers to spend the week with us working with the boys, and we even got permission from the prison bosses to allow the boys who had worked with the artists to go to LEAF and perform.
I will never forget the looks on the boys faces as we experienced LEAF together. The first time we went, as we unloaded the van and I found a spot under some trees to leave the big cooler of food I had brought, one of the boys asked, “You aren’t going to leave this food here, are you? It’ll be gone when we come back.”
Of course they never believed me when I said anything, so when I reassured the boys that the food would be fine, they sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes at me. Imagine their amazement when they not only found their food waiting for them later, but also saw countless other coolers and stacks of valuable items sitting around unguarded on our way to the performance stage. In their neighborhoods, that could never have happened. The boys looked with envy at families playing happily together, something else they had never experienced.
They were invited to paddle around the lake in canoes, and hesitated because they had never done anything like that before, and it was scary. They overcame their fear, though, and even though they couldn’t swim or paddle, they donned life vests and climbed into canoes. They wobbled at first, paddling in circles, but they soon figured it out and paddled across the lake laughing and enjoying themselves. The prison guards who were with us, were very nervous that they boys would all get to the other side of the lake and run away. The guards warned me that if the boys escaped, it would be on me. Although I later learned the boys did their best to score cigarettes and pot while out of sight, they came back safe and sound, to the guards’ amazement.
The best part, though, was watching them on stage at LEAF, drumming and dancing, catching the rhythms of the festival and infusing them with their joy. Their performances were inspired and were truly excellent. The audience was blown away and stood to cheer when they finished performing. These were boys who had never been praised for doing anything right. They had been abandoned by their families when they were young, raised by gang-members, and praised only when they pulled off a crime. They had never been given a chance to do something positive, and so to be given a standing ovation by a middle class audience was a first for them. They had never played youth soccer and received a trophy. They had never been in a school play and heard the audience clap. They had never gotten a certificate at school to say they excelled at anything. This was a first and it came when they were teenagers and had a long history of failure and repeated incarceration. All they knew was punishment. And they were being cheered by adults and children standing on their feet in front of them.
People ask me all the time whether I think I made a difference when I worked with these kids. I always answer that they made a difference in me for sure, but I don’t know if anything I did made a difference for them. Seeing the smiles on their exhausted faces as we returned to juvie on the prison bus, I have to say that the part I played in oiling the wheels for these visits to LEAF to happen did make a difference. And it is Jennifer Pickering we have to thank for making it all happen.