Letters to the Editor:
My name is Jessica Suhr, but most people know me as Jessica Gabriel. My journey at IJH began when I was very young, because my mother Revae Gabriel has worked at the IJH every since the early 80's.
My twin sister, younger brother, and I knew how much work she put into working at IJH late nights, weekends, not to mention the constant phone calls when she was on-call.
I watched her make decisions based on doing the right thing and making ALL kids safe, and giving the kids a fair shot in life. Although she was never a traditional foster parent, I still say she 'fostered' many kids into our family. Given the kids were behaving and not a danger to themselves or others, the kids were allowed to come with our family to church, come shopping with us, came to our sports games and other activities, among other events. I remember having kids over to our home for the afternoon and being a part of our family.
Those who know my mother well, knows she is quite the fitness person. The IJH has had a workout room for kids and employees, and my siblings and I would accompany her to the gym. Kids were encouraged to come to the gym with us and play basketball with us. Not only were the kids a part of our family, but we were also a part of the IJH family. IJH Christmas parties with the kids was a fun time for our family, and being invited to share in that opportunity was always very special. Other staff's children were also invited, and the Christmas dinner was exceptional for all kids. After Christmas dinner, an IJH staff dressed up as Santa delivered Christmas presents to all of the kids at IJH.
These activities and many more are examples of how the kids were encouraged to explore what 'family' means to them, and fostered a sense of belonging. She and other staff members brainstormed on countless evenings at our house how to have fun with the kids and how to teach valuable life lessons through play and interacting with the community.
Throughout the years of my life, I continued to watch my mother and her friends/employees have fun with their jobs, but also struggle through difficult decisions. Ultimately, because I have grown to have such respect for the institution and staff who worked there, I also became an employee of the IJH. I did not work in the same cottage as my mother, but continued my respect for her as a cottage director. She knew how to have courageous conversations with staff that opened perspectives on the extent to which people would give their time for the children.
I worked with both the girls and boys at IJH, and had my share of difficult days with children. Upon gaining employment at IJH, I began understanding the real sense of danger that could occur on the job, which challenged my sense of therapeutic relationships with the children. One staff member shared that he was threatened by a child with a knife, and if not for quick thinking of his employees, he could have been seriously injured.
Long-lasting employee relationships were essential at IJH. Absolute trust in your co-worker was paramount for safety in that profession, which also led to a level of security for the children feeling safe, too. The kids knew staff had strong relationships and wanted to be a part of the fun and learning. Unfortunately, some children were not comfortable with the challenge due to their own life experiences and continued to be self-destructive. In my experience, children quickly found that staff were non-judgmental about long-term relationship, despite how hard some kids worked to destroy those relationships.
IJH a 'last stop' for most kids, and the staff were special to work there because they never gave up on kids. After a short time, some kids simply understood they could not fight any longer and learned to trust staff, and address their own issues. This process took time. Staff understood there is not one thing they could tell kids that would turn their lives around, but the work of the team over a period of time. The staff who worked at the IJH were special people who cared deeply for kids and for each other. A therapeutic life like this is second to none and cannot be duplicated by a private facility.
I planned on being a life-long IJH employee, just as I have grown to know and love from the other employees. Other life plans led my career in a different direction after five years of employment there, but my mother continued her passion. On 12/31/13, after 30 + years, my mother retired from IJH. The circumstances were beyond sad. I had planned to throw my idol a wonderful party for her life work, and she deserved it, but the situation did not call for pomp and circumstance. We are all devastated by the decision to close such an overall wonderful facility for the state of Iowa.