Poultry parable for homeless youth

'Beryl the chook', by Reuben BrandThere's much fear around. I'm generally concerned that the sky may fall in. I'm personally troubled that my super fund is going south. I'm particularly appalled by a recent report that 43 per cent of young people who became homeless in Australia before the age of 18 were formerly in the care of the State.

I work with abused and homeless young people. They are in the care of the State, usually because their family and other family options have fallen apart. We try to stay with them in their anger and chaos. They display a lot of what the professionals call 'oppositional behaviour'. Placements can easily break down.

We used to say we had to show 'unconditional positive regard', but now we try to build 'constructive alliances' which focus on 'strengths' rather than 'deficits': we respond 'to the person' rather than 'to their behaviour'. It's all a test of love really.

Even when a young person settles down and starts to rebuild relationships, there's nowhere for them to go after care that can get them out of the circle of disadvantage they are in. Imagine the chances of a young person who has been in care trying to get rental accommodation on the real market. No bank balance, few references, poor education and employment history, and there is no rental accommodation available in the first place. No chance.

It's good that homelessness is on the agenda again. I hope something happens. I need someone to buy a few bedsitter flats to give us an option for the 20 or or so young people who leave our houses each year. We will provide support and the young people can pay basic rent.

For privacy reasons, I can't tell you the true story of any of the young people. But I can tell the true story of Beryl, and there's a lesson in it somewhere I believe.

Nearly a year ago I brought home three French hens in a cardboard box with holes in the side. 'Which ones are the good ones?' I had asked the young man in the produce shop.

'They'r'allgood', he said bluntly with a half broken voice, 'D'youwannapickem?'

So I picked the only blonde in the group, and she became known as Cheryl. Then I picked the brownest one, and she became Beryl. Finally there was a beaky medium red one that looked interested in life, and she became Meryl (though we sometimes call her Julia, for obvious reasons).

Beryl, Meryl and Cheryl burbled all the way home in the box in the back seat of the car, and I made chook noises back at them. I was already engaging in a constructive alliance. 'Keep'emlockedupf'raweek,' the young man had told me.

Seven days later I opened up the hutch and out they came. Meryl was full of beans and conversation. Cheryl preened herself and quickly became boss chook. Beryl waited behind and then slowly hobbled out. She was lame. Her left claw was withered.

Cheryl and Meryl grew, went into lay and scratched and screeched around. Beryl hobbled along behind, making little bell-like sounds as if she were talking to herself. She was last on the pecking order. I had to feed her separately from the others. She never laid an egg.

I told Nigel, my chook advisor who had grown up on a poultry farm, about Beryl. He looked at me and made a 'ring her neck' gesture. But she was ours and we kept her.

Every afternoon the chooks have a free roam around the yard. 'One of them is lame,' observed John, a neighbour who keeps cows, judges dairy, and helped build our new bell-tower at St Patrick's. 'She's special,' I said. I'm glad I didn't say anything else. John had polio as a child and now walks with a limp.

For eight months Cheryl and Meryl laid an egg a day. Beryl did nothing but burble to herself. But she was sharp of eye. She was the one who first noticed where the white ants were in the fence. She was the one who spotted where the mulberries were hanging just so high that she had to flap her wings to get to them. She was different.

I continued to talk to her in burbling tones, feeding her separately, and patiently walking her back to the chook run when the afternoon roaming was over.

A few weeks ago I noticed that her comb was growing bigger and redder. This is a sign of coming into lay. I also noticed that she was eating more (the other two never stopped) and getting bigger, and starting to push the other two around. 'Good on you Beryl,' I told her.

She started laying a week ago and hasn't stopped. She still limps, but the way I see it, she has found a home. Maybe I was right to focus on her strengths and not on her deficits, to build a constructive alliance by speaking her language.

I find the same thing works with young people. It helps, too, if you can walk with them every afternoon.

International Youth Day, 12 August

John HonnerJohn Honner is the Director of Edmund Rice Community Services and lives on the south coast of NSW. In a September 2009 update, John advises that Beryl passed away due to illness. He writes: "We have two new chooks called Agnes and Alice. They are young and very shy!"


Topic tags: john honner, Edmund Rice Community Services, homeless youth, constructive alliances, beryl the chook



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Existing comments

Great article. Well made point!

Tom Cranitch | 12 August 2008  

Aah John.

What a beautiful article.

Thank you.

Adrian McMaster | 12 August 2008  

Well written. To be truly understood in our needs, it's what we all long for. Keep up your good, most vital work.

therese van kints | 12 August 2008  

Nice parable! Of course it would have been a more complex tale if Beryl had shown against you some challenging 'oppositional behaviour' but your point extends to that anyway :-)

Matt Bishop | 12 August 2008  

Good article John. Best wishes,

Philip Mendes

Philip Mendes | 12 August 2008  

My lovely secretary's name was Beryl!

greg o'kelly sj | 12 August 2008  

Love does such things!

Hilary | 12 August 2008  

I love the way you tell a story, I was chuckling into the wee hours. A beautiful message.

The walks, aah yes, the walks

Jeam I Myers | 12 August 2008  

I was wondering if Beryl would be interested in giving a motivational squawk to our Pensioner Focus Group. I for one (as Kevin Coxscomb might say) hope that we haven't heard the last of Beryl and intend to follow her unfolding life story with great attention.

Claude Rigney | 12 August 2008  

Great work John. Loved Beryl and great to hear from you through your words too!

Sheree Limbrick | 12 August 2008  

Hello John - It was lovely to meet you again through this touching story.

Anne O'Donovan | 12 August 2008  

What a joy to come on this story at the end of a difficult day. Thanks John Honner.

Joe castley | 12 August 2008  

A beautifully told story John, thank God there are people around who will do the "hanging in" so that together we can reach fullness.

Re accommodation, I am sure there are many Australians who would provide a rental property for homeless Australians, we just need to get the message out and promote a way of doing this.

Cheryl Sullivan | 13 August 2008  

Thanks John. Keep burbling - it's a good story.

Bill Armstrong | 13 August 2008  

Thanks John. Brought a tear to my eyes. I'll print and read to our son Chris who, since a severe brain injury 12 years ago, has been unable to speak or move or see much. He hears and understands and continues to break through the 'prison' of being locked in a profoundly disabled body and communication system, and to make a difference for himself and others. This is only possible with the love and support of others who walk with him.

I marvel at his presence and influence, and his strength in the midst of his deficits. The key is in building the constructive alliance (relationship) by 'listening', tuning in to his non verbal language!

Communication is so much more than words, and like Beryl he teaches us much.

Coming from a farm he'll love Beryl. As a child, after a fox killed their mother, Chris raised peacock chicks to eat from his hand. Until they died many years later, the peacocks would come running when he called.

Mary Nolan | 13 August 2008  

I love John's parable. Even the name attracted my interest. I certainly find the message encouraging for myself and those around me.

Christine Wood | 14 August 2008  

Delightful and touching story John. Now I'll find it even more difficult to dissuade my wife from adopting 'lost' chooks (and other strays).

Chris Cotter | 14 August 2008  

What a sensitive story full of warmth and compassion. It speaks volumes on the right of the individual to claim their own dignity. Give them time to develop to the best of their capabilities within a supportive caring environment.

Cyril Bosco | 18 August 2008  

I fell in love with Beryl. What a great story and metaphor for life.

DONNA BARNARD | 25 August 2008  

John, I have just been to a 2 day course known as Bridges Over Poverty (work of Ruby Payne) presented by Nairn Walker. The reflecting on the two days, I now see it all summed up in the last two paragraphs of your article. Thank you for your wonderful insight and for teaching us.

Cath Murphy | 21 April 2009  

wonderful story -thank you, makes me want to cluck! Will pass this on to our young volunteers who work along side many 'gorgeous Beryls' on the street BBQ's.

mary storey | 16 September 2009  

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