Michael: A Place To Call Home
It all started out by being pushed in a pool.
In the early 90’s, Daniels was a resident of Northern Home for Children for three years, which has since then evolved into Northern Children’s Services. On one summer day, Daniels was pushed into the pool and a staff member at Northern Home for Children introduced him to swimming. Now, 20 years later, Michael Daniels is working as a lifeguard at that very same pool at Northern Children’s Services that he once swam in as a kid.
Michael Daniels • Former Resident of Northern Home for Children in the early 90′s
• Current Lifeguard for NCS
It was experiences like this that made Northern Home for Children feel like exactly that – a home.
“I would recommend it to everyone,” Daniels said. “It taught me how to grow up. It taught me respect. It taught me how to be a man.”
a mentor and a friend
As it would be for any 9-year-old boy, it was hard for Daniels and the other children to sometimes understand the situation they were put in but luckily his mentor, Kevin Weber, who has worked at Northern Children’s Services as the Director of Recreation and Volunteer Services for the past 32+years, was able to give him a sense of direction, a grasp of the good in his reality.
To do that, Weber would decipher between a “real” and “unrealistic” expectation and would ask him when he got overwhelmed, “Is this a real or unrealistic expectation?” This mindset is what allowed Daniels to take a step back and truly analyze this experience for what it was – a chance for a better life. Daniels admits that this same question is what helped him through life well beyond Northern Home for Children.
Taking a great passion to his work, Weber explains that as a mentor it’s about helping the children see that they are in charge of their life and the decisions they make – not the people who said they wouldn’t make it.
“I wanted to see all of our kids have the opportunity to have some success in their life but, along with that, you have to make good decisions too,” Weber said. “There will always be steps forward and steps back in their life but they’ve learned to take responsibility for each step and that will always get them to the next step forward. They make me proud by doing their best, each day, in little ways.”
Like many children, Daniels did not have a father around to look up to. Weber was able to fill that void for so him and so many other children, who needed a role model or maybe simply just a friend. From skating to camping, fishing and sporting events, Daniels fondly remembers Weber taking all of the residents on trips, giving them the same experiences that all children should have.
Weber also looks back on those times with Michael with happiness and pride. “He was this spunky 9 year old kid, who was a little nervous just trying to fit in and get acclimated to our program, “ Weber said. “He, like so many of our children, was taking life one “half day” at time, trying his best to overcome the hurdles and obstacles that was placed before him and trying to make the best of his situation. Michael was a great kid to work with and to see that big smile on his face when he succeeded at one of his goals was a wonderful feeling for all of the staff and we tried to keep that smile consistent as often as we could.”
a second chance at a better life
Because the Department of Behavioral Health choose the children for these facilities, there wasn’t ever any guarantee. Many of the children who needed homes never got the chance because of space limitations. Daniels was one of the lucky ones and looks back on that with great appreciation.
“A lot of people were not getting these opportunities,” Daniels said. “It was a privilege. I was lucky that I was dealt this deck of cards.”
However, there were many days of despair. Daniels described a moment in his life at Northern Home for Children that he lost hope and said to a former NHC employee, “I’m not going to make it.”
Like many NCS employees now can agree, the response was inevitable. “What do you mean you’re not going to make it? You WILL make it.”
“I was 11. I’m 30 now and I’ll never forget that,” Daniels reflects.
One of the most rewarding parts of Kevin Weber’s job is being able to see the “kids” come back as successful adults, knowing how far they have come to get there.
“It took an accumulation of small steps forward just to get over one hurdle and they had to take these small steps many, many times,” Weber said, “Many of the children have this wonderful resiliency about them, always positively pressing forward despite the odds and people telling them that they wouldn’t make it.”
paying it forward 20 years later
Now, Michael Daniels hopes to have that same effect on the children of Northern Children’s Services. To him, it’s not just about giving swimming lessons or overseeing the safety of the children – although that is a huge part of the job – it’s about allowing the children to look up to an individual who understands exactly the situation they are in and tell them that it does get better.
In fact, Michael Daniels was recently honored with the Alumni Award at the 9thAnnual Children’s Awards for being an inspiration to the entire organizations as a whole. Kevin Weber was there to bestow the award to him. For the full story of his recognition as the Alumni Award recipient, please click here.
“I could be the one sitting in jail or lying in the ground in West Philly,” Daniels said, admitting that he has attended the funerals of former residents and friends who weren’t able to break the cycle after leaving the facility.
Daniels, however, believes that Northern Home for Children shaped him as an adult. In the back of his mind, he knows that this place grounded him and ultimately gave him the hope that he needed to push through.
When asked what he would say to the same child who was just like him, he responded, “Don’t look at this as a punishment. If you are lucky enough to be in this caring environment, take advantage of it.”
With great appreciation, Daniels has come back to Northern Children’s Services but this time, as a certified American Red Cross lifeguard for the pool, which just opened this past week. Stay tuned for swimming lesson schedules, as well as pool hours for community swimming in the month of August.
But this is not a way for Daniels to pay Northern Children’s Services back for their services. No, he has a different perspective.
“Don’t try to pay it back,” Daniels explained. “Pay it forward.”