ORDINARY PEOPLE MAKING AN EXTRAORDINARY DIFFERENCE
ORDINARY PEOPLE MAKING AN EXTRAORDINARY DIFFERENCE
A few weeks ago, our team was out in Austin, TX for our organization's first annual national conference. On the last day, we all settled into our seats to prepare for author and speaker, Anna LeBaron's presentation. We noticed that a single pencil had been placed on the table in front of each person's name-tag. Anna began her talk by explaining the significance of these pencils and how they related to the stories she was about to share...
As a young child, Anna collected discarded pencils. Whenever she stumbled upon one, she would quickly snag it and bring it to her school locker, which would be its new home. All of the pencils she collected over time were ever so neatly lined up next to each other in this locker for safe keeping. Some of these pencils were way too small - she was usually the student that would always get the pencils stuck in the pencil sharpener because they were too tiny - but that never mattered to her.
The reason for this pencil collection? Anna was never quite sure where her next school supplies would be coming from. In fact, she wasn't quite sure where her next meal was coming from either. Anna was growing up in a world of chaos, trauma, abuse and neglect. As a young girl, she didn't have control over much of anything in her life - except for this pencil collection so carefully protected in her locker.
Anna LeBaron is the daughter of Ervil LeBaron, who was the infamous leader of a polygamist cult (polygamy is the practice of marrying multiple spouses). He was known as the "Mormon Manson" because he would regularly send hit men to carry out murders on his behalf for anyone who challenged his authority. Anna was just one of more than 50 children, all fathered by Ervil but from 13 different wives. Anna barely knew her father and spent very little time with him, yet she and everyone else in the group was taught to worship him as a prophet. They were all constantly on the run from the FBI, moving back and forth from the US to Mexico and staying in various safe houses. "We were taught that we were being persecuted because we were God's chosen people and that the world outside didn't understand us. That was how they used to explain all the moving in the middle of the night and staying ahead of the law," Anna said.
They lived in horrible conditions and often scrounged for food in dumpsters. The kids were reduced to a life of child labor, beatings, abandonment, neglect and sexual grooming - the girls were expected to become future wives of other polygamist men once they reached the "marriageable" age of 15. Luckily, Anna escaped at the age of 13 (which meant she had to leave her mother behind, who would not separate from the cult) and hid out with one of her sisters, who had moved to Houston, TX. Ervil was eventually captured by the Mexican police and handed over to the FBI, put in prison for his killings, and died there years later.
Anna stood up in front of the room telling us these stories, now as an accomplished author, speaker and advocate. The idea that Anna was eventually able to move on from the chaos and trauma of her childhood, go off to college, start a new life and career, and have a family of her own is truly remarkable - but admittedly took many years of healing to accomplish.
Anna's childhood trauma is not unlike the traumas that many children in the foster care system have gone through as a result of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, chronic instability and/or harmful living conditions, which all require intensive healing to overcome. Anna described living in a chronic triggered state, always on high alert and waiting for the next threat to arise. As a coping and survival mechanism, she learned to compress her emotions and minimize her needs. Living in this triggered and suppressed state, which is experienced in the lower half of the brain, is like living in a constant state of fight or flight, with adrenaline and cortisol pumping, and feelings of anxiety and agitation that never quite go away. It is no wonder that a child with past trauma and triggers will commonly experience behavioral problems, trouble sleeping and eating, and difficulty following along in school. Their body is so consumed with all of the physiological and psychological changes that have been induced by their trauma and leave little energy for much else.
Luckily, school was a safe haven for Anna. Although she was always behind and trying to catch up, school was where she could experience some structure, learning opportunities and fleeting moments of normalcy. The school decorations were colorful, her teachers were caring and she loved to read. Her friends at school, whom she wasn't allowed to bring back to the house with her, gave her a sense of belonging that she never experienced at home. School represented a place of community, connectedness and healthy relationships, and was a place she could breathe and express herself.
Later in life, Anna learned different ways to overcome her childhood trauma, including physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual healing. She learned how to rewire the neurological pathways of the brain (which is possible thanks to the brain's plasticity), and develop awareness of her personhood and identity; this would allow for new beliefs about herself and the world to form. She also learned important tools and skills for coping, calming and grounding, such as taking 6 deep breaths to activate the vagus nerve and connect the mind back to the body and recognize her current safety.
Anna says that her healing was brought about by a steady state of connection with herself, others and God. Community played a huge role in her healing and there were so many people that positively impacted her life: siblings, neighbors, teachers, friends and classmates, community members, spiritual mentors, and other trusted adults. She also had to begin the process of reparenting her childhood self - such as being patient with herself throughout her healing, and giving herself permission to experience a wide range of emotions.
Anna is living proof that healing from immense childhood trauma is possible - but also requires intentional and consistent work, and a lot of community support. Children need to be surrounded by people that allow them to feel safe, seen, heard, valued and protected, so that they can fully heal from their past and become the person they were always meant to be.
To read more of Anna's story, grab a copy of her memoir, The Polygamist's Daughter. We thank Anna for so bravely and vulnerably sharing her story at our National Angels Conference, and for that pencil she gave each of us - which will always remind us that this work we are doing matters.
To learn more about how you can help support children in foster care who are healing from trauma, visit www.houangels.org.