Peper column: Making Christmas brighter for Windwood Farms youth
By Warren Peper

There are a number of generous civic clubs that go the extra mile this time of year to provide a better Christmas to less fortunate children. It was an eye-opening privilege last week to watch the members of the Charleston Metro Exchange Club literally wrap their arms around a group of boys from Windwood Farm.

Windwood is designed to provide hope, help and healing for abused and neglected boys in Charleston and Dorchester counties. When the boys, generally aged 8 to 14, arrive at the facility, all of their possessions are contained in a black plastic bag. What isn’t quite as visible is the additional baggage of abuse and neglect.

While at Windwood, the goal is to provide safety, in a nurturing environment, while the boys are also given structure and therapy.

Every single boy who arrives with his plastic bag is different. What they often share is a resolute lack of trust in adults.

Severe issues
To fully understand the challenges these boys must overcome emotionally and behaviorally, consider some of their circumstances. Here are some examples of what they endured before arriving at Windwood.

Lamont’s mom used alcohol during pregnancy and added vodka to his baby bottle.

Ryan was sexually abused by his grandfather at the age of 3.

Wesley tested positive for opiates at the age of 4. His foster mother used a shock collar to handle behavior problems.

Another lived in a closet for five years while yet another told his case worker he’d never seen a bathroom because “we just used buckets.”

That’s just a brief look at what they’ve experienced.

They’ve seen the very worst, and are especially mistrusting of adult males. That’s why the Metro Exchange Club decided to see if they could help.

Hope, Help and Healing
Each year, around Christmas, club members treat about 25 boys to a night at the Charleston Fun Park in Mount Pleasant. This is essentially an amusement park on steroids that, until six months ago, was owned by Exchange member Bobby Riggs. When Riggs sold the business, there was one contingency. The new owner would continue to allow the Exchange Club to bring these boys to the park during the holidays.

As the wide-eyed boys walk in, the background Christmas music is quickly drowned out by excited voices and game noises. Each club member is matched with a boy and off they go.

“This is emotional,” confesses Riggs. “They’ll run up to you and grab your leg when it’s time to go.”

For almost two hours the boys and the club members ride go-carts, shoot baskets and jump behind the steering wheels of virtual race cars.

I watched one boy, maybe 11 or 12, who was clearly much more withdrawn than many of the others. He eventually agreed to ride the virtual roller coaster. As the lights flickered, I watched him. He was wearing the virtual headset and a big smile broke through for the first time all night. It was as if he needed to suspend reality for a couple minutes, to forget his past and enjoy this moment.

After the games, each boy was given a duffel bag with his name embroidered on it. Inside was a fleece, a couple of shirts and a new pair of tennis shoes. It wasn’t that long ago that these boys had nothing but what was in a big, black plastic bag.

The eventual goal for these boys is to return to a safe and loving home. After months of treatment, nurturing and structure, hopefully, that will be possible.

As the boys high-five the club members, they carry their bags back to the bus.

“They’re so appreciative of love,” Exchange member Lee Williams says. “Every year, if I’m not careful, this makes me cry.”

These boys are devoid of trust, self-respect and confidence when they arrive at Windwood Farm. As the bus ride takes them past brightly decorated houses, they hold tight to those bags with their names on it. One day, maybe, they’ll realize they’re packed with hope, help and healing.