By Carla Morris
Saying "yes" to serving as foster mom at age 22 to neglected and abused children was a bold move for recent graduate, psychology major Emi Hug '18. Then again, Emi is accustomed to bold moves.
The former softball player and three-time SLIAC champion registered 16 stolen bases as a Lady Panther. Now, four months into her yearlong Hands of Hope internship with Casa de Esperanza in Houston, Texas, she steals the hearts of children in her care.
"I was worried I wouldn't have a 'mom' instinct, but it kicked in rather quickly," says Emi, who cares for children age four and younger. "I wake up to the slightest stir when they're sleeping, and I worry about them when I am away."
Emi and four other "parents" live with 22 children in a house situated in a neighborhood of similar foster families. Casa de Esperanza, a leader in the fight against domestic violence, oversees the residential intervention program. It is just one of the services Casa provides to break the cycle of child abuse and neglect for at-risk infants, children and their families.
Fielding Challenges With Strategic Thinking, Quick Response
"Casa is surprising every day," says Emi. "Each kid you get is so different from the other. You have to be flexible and ready to adapt. Plus, anything can change in a matter of hours."
As an outfielder, Emi thought ahead, predicted possible scenarios and prepared for the right decision under pressure: a grounder into right field with one out and a runner on second—"Where's the play?"
Today's scenario is just a little different: a three-year-old in the throws of a bedtime tantrum refuses to cooperate or calm down. He spits and flings toys everywhere—"What's the best response?"
Problem solving fills Emi's days.
"I take care of the kids. I feed them, dress them, bathe them, everything a mom would do," she explains.
As an intern, she also manages the children's doctor and therapist appointments and engages with caseworkers, psychological staff and community volunteers working on the children's behalf.
Foster Care: Fast-Paced. Predictably Unpredictable
"I didn't expect to get so attached to these kids so quickly," she says, adding that unpredictability accounts for much of the challenge. She often receives little notice about the arrival or departure of a child.
"[When] you lose a kid, nothing can prepare you for that heartbreak. Especially when they leave unexpectedly in a matter of hours. All your plans with them fly out the window and you have to give them up. There's nothing you can do except pray and hope it's the best for them, even if you know it's not."
Knowing When And Where To Show Emotion
Competitive sport taught Emi about self-control. The lessons fully apply to her work today. As an example, she cites her exchange with the three-year-old who threw tantrums at bedtime. He engaged in all sorts of behaviors "just to get a reaction."
Emi cautiously considered her response even when her inner self was screaming and angry.
"Our minds can go to far and dark places in the middle of our toddlers throwing tantrums or not listening to anything," she says.
In that instance, she sat in the hallway, walked away, returned to sit next to the boy, anything she could think of. Ultimately, she gave in to the wisdom of letting a colleague try.
"I had to give up or I would get angry with him. And, I'm not angry with him; I'm angry with myself for not being good enough to help him. I couldn't figure out what triggered him. I couldn't figure out why he got upset. I couldn't find a trick to calm him down."
Work That's Larger Than Self
Sacrificing for something larger than self at Casa brings rewards, too, like watching babies turn into toddlers, and seeing two-year-olds string new words together into sentences.
"You get to watch your preemie grow from a small 5 pounds to 11 pounds in a matter of three months," says Emi, proud of the achievement.
Some of the children who benefit from Casa's services stay connected with Emi even when they return to their parents or get adopted. Emi can see their growth and the growth of their parents to a place where "they don't need our help anymore."
The whole process has expanded Emi's outlook.
"I've met so many different people from all over the country with all different stories and views. It's helped to challenge and shape my own views, just like Greenville [University] did."
Advice For Today's Students
Emi encourages today's university students to embrace expansive opportunities like service projects and engaging in special events on campus like lectures, dialogue and rich out-of-the box experiences that the University puts within easy reach. She's an advocate of getting to know professors and working closely with them. She also recommends a gap year of service after graduation even if it seems risky.
"This internship is changing my life," she says, wishing that same rewarding clarity of purpose and passion for others, too.