PLAINS TWP. — There was a time when Brooke Rowe feared her son Noah would never speak.
“When he was about one-and-a-half, I started seeing things I didn’t want to admit at first,” the Dallas woman told a packed ballroom Thursday night at the kickoff for the United Way of Wyoming Valley’s 2018 giving campaign.
Noah wouldn’t talk. He wasn’t making any sounds. He wouldn’t play with his toys, Rowe recalled, but would only organize and sort them on the floor.
He was diagnosed with autism in 2015. Today, Noah is an active 5-year-old who communicates openly with his mom and the world.
Rowe came to Mohegan Sun on Thursday to give thanks to the Wyoming Valley Children’s Association for everything it did to help Noah — and to United Way for everything it does to help WVCA and other groups that assist children and families.
The theme of this year’s United Way campaign is “Poverty to Possibility,” part of the agency’s ongoing commitment to end child poverty in the region.
The campaign is aimed at developing long-term solutions to reducing childhood poverty in the region by supporting new and existing strategies in education, income and health. Nearly one third of all children in Luzerne County live below the poverty level, the agency has pointed out.
WVCA was honored as United Way’s Outstanding Partner of the Year at the gathering, whose keynote speaker was a Jesuit priest and bestselling author who has worked in some of Los Angeles’ worst neighborhoods to rehabilitate gang members.
Call to service
Father Gregory Boyle is founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program; and the author of “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” He also was the subject of Academy Award-winning documentary, “G-Dog.”
Boyle said United Way’s slogan, “live united,” fits into his approach.
“I believe we are called to create a community of kinship such that God would recognize it,” Boyle said, emphasizing the Christian theme of serving others, especially the poor.
For Boyle, that call to service has taken the form of his work at his Los Angeles-based organization, the largest gang intervention, rehab and re-entry program in the world. His organization focuses on employing former gang members in different businesses.
Each year, 15,000 people come through Homeboy’s doors, and there are an estimated 120,000 gang members in Los Angeles, Boyle said.
On top of the financial and physical sufferings of the disadvantaged, Boyle stressed that they face two other debilitating traumas: Shame and disgrace.
Boyle told the story of one of his “Homies,” Jose, whose mother told him at 6 that he was a burden and he should kill himself. She abandoned him at an orphanage, but family members brought him back.
Jose’s mother beat him so severely during his elementary school days that he wore three T-shirts to school to cover up his bloody wounds, Boyle said — even in 100-degree heat, and even when the other kids laughed at him.
Boyle described how Jose related that story to a group of social workers during a conference at which the young man, now in his 20s, talked about his own experiences and how he uses them to assist others who come to Homeboy Industries.
“I wore three T-shirts until well into my adult years because I was ashamed of my wounds,” Jose told the social workers, as Boyle related. “But now I welcome my scars. How can I help heal the wounded if I don’t acknowledge my own wounds?”
Boyle also reminded the audience how poverty and abuse feed gang culture, urging his listeners to support the work of the United Way.
“Gangs are the places kids go when they’ve encountered a life of misery,” he said. “And who doesn’t know by now that misery loves company?”
“The United Way infuses hope into kids for whom hope is foreign,” said Boyle, who received a standing ovation.
For Rowe, there was a time when hope felt foreign.
When Noah was diagnosed, she was a single mother and didn’t know how she would afford his specialized treatment and education.
“I was so nervous that Noah would not be able to attend Wyoming Valley Children’s Association because of my financial situation at the time.”
Thanks to educational stipends provided by WVCA with United Way help, Noah was able to participate in the program.
“Because of these two organizations, I finally got to hear my Noah say ‘I love you mommy,’” a tearful Rowe said to gasps from the audience. “At one point, that is something I thought I would never hear my baby boy say to me.”
To learn more about the campaign, visit www.unitedwaywb.org.