She was laughing.
For the first time since the five year old had come to live with us, and perhaps for the first time in her life, the five year old was laughing. And what a laugh it was.
I did not laugh. Instead, I cried. The emotion of the moment had overwhelmed me, and the tears freely came forth. As I looked over at my wife, I was not surprised to see her crying, as well. Placing my hand upon her shoulder, I wiped my own tears from my eyes. We both knew what was happening.
Little Sarah had been placed into foster care and into our home six months earlier. A victim of sexual abuse, as well as severe neglect, the child was unable to speak a single word, and instead was only able to grunt sounds in her attempts to communicate. To be sure, Sarah was suffering from tremendous anxieties and traumas of which we would never truly understand.
Over the course of the next several months, we worked with Sarah in so many ways. She began to learn how to speak, how to eat with utensils, how to use the toilet, and even how to play. Our own younger children, adopted from the foster care system, had claimed little Sarah as their own sibling and playmate, and spent hours each day with the traumatized child, teaching her how to play. Yet, Sarah really never allowed herself to be a five year old child and to truly play like one her age should. Once in a great while, a smile might slightly form at the end of Sarah’s mouth, but she would quickly dismiss it when someone was looking. Her years of abuse at the hands of biological family members of hers crushed all happiness and joy from this little one, and it crushed the hearts of my wife and me, as well.
We knew what we had to do. We knew another trip to Disney World was in order.
The second morning of our trip at the Magic Kingdom is when Sarah began to genuinely heal; genuinely begin to leave behind her the rape, the abuse, the neglect. And all it took was for someone to bend down and take her hand.
A princess named Cinderella.
Leading six children into the Magic Kingdom that morning, we decided to wait in line to see one of the Disney Princesses, and hopefully get a picture of her with some of the children. On this particular day, the line was to see Cinderella. My other children were excited, as the anticipation of meeting one of their favorite Disney princesses was building. For little Sarah, though, it was apparent that she was nervous, and perhaps a little scared. Holding her hand tightly in mine, I tried to reassure her as we waited to meet the princess dressed in the long, blue, sparkling dress.
At first, Sarah was hesitant to meet the princess she had watched in the movie at our home dozens of time. I imagine that Cinderella noticed the hesitancy, anxiety, and nervousness in the frightened child. Bending down and taking Sarah’s hand in her own, Cinderella’s affectionate words, warm smile, and patience brought a transformation upon our daughter from foster care. Breaking forth into a tremendous smile, this little girl who had suffered such horrific sexual abuse by those who professed to love her launched her tiny five year old battered and scarred body into the arms of the Disney Princess, hugging Cinderella with as much strength as her small frame would allow. My wife and I looked on in gratitude as Cinderella returned the hug in kind.
Moments after leaving the princess behind, the laughter began. Sarah was laughing and skipping down the main street of the Magic Kingdom, with her heart being opened to what I refer to as “Disney Therapy.”
Each time we take our foster children to Disney World, it becomes a sort of Play Therapy for them. Indeed, play therapy is not knew, and has been around since the times of Plato. Play Therapy is a therapeutic technique designed to allow the traumatized child to better cope with their emotional stress or trauma through the expression of emotions and or play. This type of therapy allows children like Sarah who do not have the verbal skills or language to express their thoughts and feelings. What better place than Disney World than to take our children from foster care so they can not only express their emotions, but to find ways to play at the same time. There are a number of ways we have found for children to engage in this form of therapy and begin to allow them to feel and express themselves. If you want to see your child come to life or come out of his or her shell, take them to a visit with one of their favorite Disney characters.
More than anything, a foster child wishes one thing and has one desire; to be loved. Foster parents can protect the child from harm, provide a safe and secure home, offer nutritious meals, and open up a doorway of opportunities for foster children, granting them new and exciting experiences that they may never have dreamed of. Yet, with all of this, with all of the wonderful opportunities and safe environments, foster children really crave love the most. Even more, for little Sarah, the simple hug from Cinderella allowed our little child from foster care the chance to be loved by someone who was not going to harm her like all the others. Princess Cinderella gave what Sarah what all children in foster care need and want.
They want to be loved.
After all, every child deserves to be loved. Not only do children deserve love, they need it in order to grow in a healthy fashion. While there are many forms of love, the strongest one, and most important for a foster child, is that of unconditional love. Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella; they all provide what a child in foster care needs; unconditional love.
Whether it is the music, the fireworks, the attractions, or the interactions with the many Disney characters, these experiences all come together to create a time of delight, wonder, and joy for all who experience it. For children who have suffered from the horrors of trauma, neglect, and abuse, this delight, wonder, and joy only aid in permitting a child to heal from their pain as only Disney can; something that cannot be done in the child’s everyday environment.
It is essential for children in foster care to find a way to leave behind their pain and trauma; to leave the horrors that they are faced with each morning they wake up. It is vital for children in care to find a way to get the therapy they so dearly need in order to face the future, and survive as an adult. Sadly, many of the children in foster care will never have these moments, and will never receive this therapy. For our family, this Disney Therapy is our way to bring the foster children in our home the opportunity of a life time to escape their pain and traumas, and instead allow them to simply be a child, free from pain.
About Dr. John DeGarmo
Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 13 years, now, and he and his wife have had over 50 children come through their home. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of several books, including the brand new book Faith and Foster Care: How We Impact God’s Kingdom, and the foster care children’s book A Different Home: A New Foster Child’s Story. Dr. DeGarmo is the host of the weekly radio program Parent Factors with Dr. John. He can be contacted at [email protected], through his Facebook page, on Twitter or at his website.