"When you see that you are able to affect change, it is not work, it is a joy to do...It is just in me. I cannot not do this."Connie Siskowski
|Connie Siskowski (http://www.encore.org/Connie-Siskowski-purpose)
Connie Siskowski knew the hidden children were out there because she used to be one of them. They were just kids, middle schoolers mostly, who had one very heavy burden in common: someone in their family was very sick, and there was no one else to take care of them. There are more than a million caretaker kids in America working hard behind closed doors to keep someone they love alive, well before they have have a chance to develop their own life skills. While the other kids at school play sports or study, the "hidden heroes'" homework is rushing home to give mom her meds, feed a disabled sibling while mom works, bathe grandmother, or balance a single parent on a walker to get them to the bathroom. Most of the kid caregivers aren't really up to the job, but they have no choice. Most suffer in silence because there is no one to talk to or ask for help. These kids are estimated to make up almost a quarter of those kids who will end up dropping out of school. That is why Connie Siskowski created the Caregiver Youth Project in 2006.
Siskowski was only a tween when she was put in charge of her sick grandfather. She loved him, fed him, bathed him, set an alarm to give him pills at two in the morning, all while she tried to keep going to school. Siskowski was also the first person to discover him dead. She was only 12. Part of her felt it might have been her fault. Later in life she realized she'd had too much responsibility, too soon. But the worst part had been keeping it all to herself. She didn't know any other caregiving kids. Siskowski never forgot her early job in life. She went on to become a nurse and spent most of her career caring for the sick, until she followed her true passion to care for the youngest of the sick's caregivers.
Today there are many more American kids living with either a grandparent or a single parent, leaving the family much more vulnerable if illness strikes. Also, modern medical care has turned what used to be killer diseases into chronic diseases. Despite their demanding daily needs, most of these kid caretakers do not want to be separated from the relative who is ill, and are terrified of losing them, so they soldier on scared, depressed and isolated. When Siskowski started the Caregiving Youth Project in Palm Beach County Florida, these middle schoolers finally had a support group. They met the other kids carrying the same overwhelming responsibility. Siskowski created Camp Treasure to give these kids something badly missing in their lives--fun. Just that support was helpful, but Siskowski took her helping ambitions much further. Most of the caregiving kids needed things for both school and home jobs to make each work better. Siskowski raised money and was all hands and ears.
The list of what each child in charge needed was as long and unique as the patients they cared for. One common need was computers and tutoring at home to help with schoolwork. One family needed a whole new home because of dangerous mold. One needed a wheelchair ramp to get grandmother in and out of the house. One needed a scooter for when the walker wouldn't do. Others needed a doctor's visit, or a dentist. Almost all needed a break, a nurse to take over so they could take a day off. Many were lost trying to figure out finances, health insurance, county bureaucracies, the proper use of everything from syringes to feeding tubes, keeping track of sometimes a dozen medications. Most of the hidden helpers also needed counseling for themselves, and somewhere to set goals for their own futures. Even with such an daunting present, the kids needed the constant help and reminders that the whole family's future would be better if they could manage to stay in school. In 2011, the first class of the Caregiving Youth Project proudly started to graduate.
The stress of being a caregiver is well documented--for adults. Long term on its effect on children haven't been done yet. Siskowski has no doubt her Palm Beach County program needs to spread. These "hidden heroes" are in every county in the United States. There is no question that these kids know the meaning of empathy, and could teach a thing or two to classmates more fortunate with carefree time and healthy loved ones. In Great Britain, the so called "Care Kids" are acknowledged and treated as partners in the care of the disabled or sick relative. In America, they are still scared, tired and alone behind closed doors. They give all the help they have, but get little help in return.
Connie Siskowski and her Caregiver Youth Project have slowly been picking up notices and awards. In 2012 she was nominated as one of CNN's Heroes. With each recognition comes more help for the project, and if she has her way, more help for the hidden heroes she is bringing out into the light. She is determined to give them what she needed but never got, simple support and a sometimes complex helping healing hand.