As we at Weave have toured the country, we’ve made an interesting discovery: the people who do the best work in this country transform strangers into family members.
“The family” has been a hotly contested subject on both sides of the political aisle for decades. The right is obsessed with the virtues of the nuclear family – 1 mom + 1 dad + 2.5 kids = family – and at this point the left, in an attempt to avoid the judgmentalism of the right, manages to say essentially nothing about how families ought to be. But out in the real world, on the ground, people are solving this problem in ways that work, weaving one strong bond at a time.
The Vanier Institute of the Family provides a functional definition: families provide physical maintenance and care of group members; addition of new members through procreation or adoption; socialization of children; social control of members; production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services; and affective nurturance – love. In simpler terms, families provide for basic needs like food and shelter, bear and raise children, give guidance, and provide love.
The phrase “family love” roughly approximates the things we most deeply need in relationships, by our very nature. One caveat here: some families are a source of lifelong trauma. Here we use the phrase “family love” to mean the best version, which is not necessarily biological – the kind people refer to in warm tones when they say, “she’s like a sister to me.”
If you look carefully at the people who hold society together – you know some of these people, and may be one – behind all the metrics and outside their day job, they are offering this radical style of family-esque love. And it transforms lives, none more than their own.
Let’s meet some of them.
Charles Perry is a 52-year-old man in Chicago who spent almost two decades in prison for multiple felony convictions, and now is determined to help young men like him avoid the same fate. He programs every single number he receives into his phone, so that went Lucinda from Ward 8 calls in the middle of the night to say that she thinks Carlos might be ready to change and can he please come talk to him, Charles knows who’s on the other end of the line. He makes himself unconditionally available. You just have to call.
What’s one of the things people say about family, and friends that are equally close? “I can call him anytime, day or night, and he’ll be there for me.”
One way to approximate a family is to include everyone who lives under one roof. By this definition, Diane Latiker has a very large family. One day she let a group of her daughter’s friends come in to do homework, and then let them sleep over. Those kids told others that Diane would open her door and help them. Word got around, and more and more showed up for help. These days Diane has at least 20 kids who sleep in her house every night. Some hot summer nights there are upwards of 75.
What do you say about people who are like family to you? “I could show up on her doorstep anytime and she’d take me in.”
Franklin Peralta is in his thirties, and he has a quiet presence that makes you feel like you can tell him anything. Franklin first encountered the Latino American Youth Center as a teenager, and they helped him put his life back together. Almost two decades later he’s still there, and he refuses to be promoted because he just wants to work with the kids – whether they’re in his official caseload or not.
Franklin has a piece of advice for anyone wanting to do what he does: “If you’re only going to stay in this field a couple years, don’t do it. These kids need people who will be there for the funerals, the graduations, all of it.” Franklin’s love for his kids stretches across years.
“They’ll be there for me no matter what. They were there when everything happened – the good times and the awful ones.”
Weaver love is radical because it is unconditional. The kids from rough backgrounds Lloyd Dennis mentors in New Orleans constantly tell him with surprise, “You didn’t give up on me.” This is easy to envision when you think of the good times, but really what it means is that a Weaver will stay with you when you are unbearable.
“There’s nothing you could ever do that would make me stop loving you.”
Weavers make a practice of unconditional love, but it isn’t naïve. In fact, it’s like parental love: there is a gentle side and a tough side. Darius Baxter, Danny Wright, and Troye Bullock are an energetic, hip trio who run a DC-based program to help youth like them make it from tough neighborhoods to adulthood, but that doesn’t mean they bail them out every time they receive a 4am call. They take every call, but sometimes the answer is “Nope, not again. We can talk in the morning .” Charles Perry says he doesn’t coddle the kids he talks to. “I’m just real. None of this “it can get better” stuff. You’re not a victim, you choose this.”
“You need to experience the consequences of your actions.”
On the gentle side, we meet a Gloucester, Ohio Weaver who is a former boxing champion. Sam Jones runs a free gym in Gloucester, Ohio where he helps kids in the region find self-worth, as well as basic supports like coats for winter. Though soft-spoken and genial, Sam is all about discipline. Nonetheless, when two kids broke into his gym and were caught stealing a bunch of equipment a few weeks ago, he went to the judge on their behalf and asked that they be given light sentences. He has hired them to work in the gym for awhile, to see if he can teach them a little about life.
“I know deep inside you aren’t that sort of person.”
Sam saw what all Weavers see: that you have to love the whole person, and that means recognizing where they’re coming from and what else is going on in their lives. When a kid goes to school, they don’t leave behind their family circumstances, their hunger, their trauma history, their fears about walking home alone.
“I don’t have to pretend, I can just be myself with them.”
Bringing your whole self also means bringing your pain. Weavers often start as very broken people, but one of their hallmarks is that they allow suffering to transform them rather than reduce them, and it becomes a source for profound empathy. Dylan Tete talks about how for years after he returned to New Orleans from combat in Iraq, he was just unbelievably angry. Now, after more years of painful processing, Dylan talks about an encounter after Hurricane Katrina with a man standing in the wreckage of his home and his life. Dylan asked what the last few weeks had been like, and he said, “Hell.” In that moment Dylan knew he could help the man – because he’d been to Hell too.
“I can tell her anything. She gets it. Even the bad stuff.”
Because Weavers love these people in the way most of us only love our families, they also feel acutely the burden of all those lives. Think of the way parents are with their children – they will do anything to get them what they need. Weavers bond to people in a way that means they can’t ignore the needs of those they love. This means they tend to be very driven people, often frantically busy, and sometimes seem haunted by all the suffering they can’t stop, no matter what they do.
The upside of this high-stress way of living is that Weavers are also inexplicably joyful. They have found their vessel nature, their way to do what every person wants to do: serve something good, and become good. Diane Latiker expresses this in one short sentence, eyes wet with tears and voice dripping with joy: “I am being used!”
“I’m crazy busy all the time, sometimes I think I’m coming apart at the seams. But I just love them so much. Every second is worth it.”
If all this sounds good but impossible to you, remember, even these fully-fledged Weavers started with very small steps. Charles takes a minute to program in new numbers, and doesn’t turn his phone off at night. Diane agreed to let a kid who had no place to go sleep on her couch. Franklin refused a promotion because it would take him away from the kids he loves. Sam noticed a kid without a coat and gave him his extra. Dylan saw that he could use his pain to reach other people, and that it would help him too.
The secret is essentially to take the way you love your dearest family and friends, and direct it outward. We all have imperfect families, some of them really bad, but we’ve all tasted this kind of love somewhere. We just need to focus on it.
Weavers fiercely and unabashedly give themselves away, to people they’ve known and people they’ve just met. In a modern world that has largely forgotten this path, let alone prioritized it, Weavers have found a surefire way to live a meaningful life. I want to join them – don’t you?