Hand Me Down

by Evan Carlton

Chapter 11

Steven looked nervous as he played with the microphone, trying to stop the screech of feedback.

"Hi everyone. Thanks for coming out tonight to celebrate my eighteenth," he said to warm applause. "And thanks to Dad for my amazing gift. You'll see it in the parking lot at the school tomorrow." He grinned as he held up a set of jangling car keys. "Coming out to Dad was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I was so worried that I would see disappointment or rejection in his eyes. When I told him, all I saw was acceptance and love. And worry, of course. I think parents are hard-wired to worry about their kids, and Dad was no exception." I looked around at all the adults who were nodding in agreement. I caught Charlie and Michael nodding as well. They looked a bit embarrassed when they saw me watching them. Steven went on with his speech. "Today is a special day for another reason. I got my acceptance letter from Massey in the post this morning..." Huge cheers drowned Steven out and he held out his hands to quiet everyone down. "...so nothing remains for me to say except thank you again. Thanks to all of you, thanks to Dad, thanks to the acceptance board at Massey, and thanks to Ben Collins for coming into all our lives this year." He raised his glass to everyone and a few turned and raised their glasses to me as well. I shook my head in wonder.

The next day was a school day, so the party broke up before midnight. I rode back to the house with Sandra and Connor, worried that he was still angry with me.

-I'm not ashamed of you. You know that, don't you?

-of course. I was just being stupid because I was angry

-my life has been so easy since the accident. Everyone leaves me alone at school and C and M are the best dads ever. I suppose I've been worried about rocking the boat

-playing it safe may be easy, but it's not fun. I don't want to hide anymore

-I don't either. I promise it'll happen soon.

The next day, one of the year twelve seniors who had been at the party, Lachlan Hammond, came and sat at our table during the lunch break. When Denny and Kevin stood up to leave, he put his hand on my arm to let me know I should stay.

"Steven told me you had a rough time of it last year." I was surprised that he even knew my story. I supposed my semi-celebrity status after the accident hadn't completely faded yet

"You know, Steven and I have been friends since his first day at Taradale." Gradually I was realising that Lachlan Hammond was one of the six other boys that Steven had mentioned all those months ago. "He mentioned that you and your neighbour were very good friends. Was that the deaf boy you were with all evening?"

"Yes. Connor. We're very close," I said, wondering where he was going with this.

"He's very handsome. I'm happy for you both," Lachlan said with a kind smile. "I really think things are going to work out for you." He got up and started heading towards the hallway.

"Did Steven put you up to this?" I said with a smile.

"He was too busy fainting over his new Land Rover. Evan certainly knows how to give a gift, doesn't he?"

I made a mental note to thank Steven. It was typical of him to take the time in the middle of his own eighteenth birthday party to find a way of letting me know that, whenever I decided to come out at school, I had a group of seniors who would be watching out for me.

-what do they want to talk about? Connor asked when I told him we were all gathering at ours the next Sunday.

-I don't know. It's all hush-hush . Charlie and Michael just said there would be a lot of announcements. Connor shrugged.

-I suppose we'll find out

- I've been thinking about what we talked about. About coming out. I want to do it. Connor smiled at me.

-what changed your mind?

-knowing that you'll always be there, whatever happens. Knowing that even if it gets bad at school, it'll be worth it

-so how do we do it?

-there's an end-of-year dance at the school next Friday. Go with me. Be my date

-that sounds scary

-that's what being gay is, I think. Coming out over and over again, being a bit scared every time. I don't know if it gets easier each time. We'll just have to find out. Won't we?

I told Charlie and Michael over breakfast. They looked at each other and then at me.

"We trust you to make the right decision, Ben. And we trust Connor as well," Michael said. "Just try to ignore any stupid comments you hear. Teenage boys can be very cruel without realising it. We don't want you getting involved in any fights. Do you understand?"

"Of course, Dad. If things get bad, we'll just leave and call you to come and pick us up."

"That won't be necessary. Charlie's going to be on duty there anyway. Last year things got a bit rowdy, and they don't want any drinking going on."

I stared at Charlie. "You're kidding, aren't you? My Dad is going to be at my coming out. In a policeman's uniform."

He grinned at me. "These are the moments you'll be able to tell your grandchildren about, Ben. Savour them all."

The house was full to bursting on Sunday. Evan and Steven arrived first, followed by Mrs. Carter with Ian and Kelvin. Sandra and Connor had been there all afternoon, helping us to get the house ready and laying out some snacks. At seven, there was the deep roar of a sports car engine in the street and, a few minutes later, we were all introduced to Alex and Tim, Evan's former business partners from Auckland. Tamati and Millie from Connor's school were there as well. The very last person to arrive was Mrs. Parata from CYF. She smiled at me nervously when I opened the door.

"Oh," I said. "Is this a surprise visit? We have some friends here. Maybe we could…"

"That's alright, Ben," said Charlie over my shoulder, ushering Mrs. Parata into the house. "We were expecting Ngaire. Welcome"

I was totally confused now. I shrugged at Connor

- I give up

-Me too. I think this is going to be a weird evening. Don't let me miss anything.

The chairs were arranged in a big semi-circle around the couch. Evan and Steven sat down next to each other and we all took our seats.

"This is going to take quite long, so if anyone wants to use the toilet or help themselves to some food, I would suggest you do it now." Once we were all settled again, he continued. "There are going to be some announcements and an invitation this evening. If anyone has any questions, I'd ask you to keep them until the end, when everything should be a bit clearer."

"I'd like to start with Alex and Tim. As many of you know, we met at university about eighteen years ago and we started a small company developing security software. The internet was a very different place back then, but we all knew that once people discovered how limitless it was, cybercrime would become a massive problem. One night I was working on the coding for a firewall program and I remembered a really annoying thing that my twin sister, Karen, used to do when we were kids. I would call her 'stupid' and she would reply "I know you are, but what am I?" So childish, but it drove me to distraction. Suddenly, I realised what my firewall had to do. So I rewrote the program and in honour of Karen, we called the software Watami. Within a year, it was built into eighty percent of the firewall software being sold around the world. And then those nice people from California arrived and bought Watami for more money than I feel comfortable talking about here. Alex and Tim felt guilty about taking equal shares in the profits since I had written the program. I never saw it that way. I was hopeless at business, and if I hadn't known them, the software would never have made it onto the market in the first place. When I left Auckland, they told me that I could call in any favour I liked as a way of thanking me. So here's my first announcement. Alex and Tim – I am herewith calling in my favour. We'll tell everyone just what exactly that means in a few minutes."

Everyone looked around in confusion, but Alex and Tim were grinning, so we knew something special was about to happen. Evan took a long swig of beer before he went on.

"Now for the main business of the evening. I think everyone understands just how bad things can get for kids in the foster system in New Zealand. Michael and Charlie introduced me to Ngaire Parata recently, and she's been kind enough to join us this evening." Mrs. Parata nodded a greeting to the room. "Ngaire is a social worker at CYF, and she's also Ben Collins' case worker. Through her, I've been able to understand how it can happen that kids like Ben can be so let down by the system. It really isn't the people who work with the kids; it's the system itself that is not good enough. Kids who don't fit into foster families, who have behavioural problems or are LGBT, simply don't have a department responsible for them. There are almost no trained specialists in the CYF for kids struggling with their sexual identity. This means that kids are placed with the wrong foster parents over and over again. The problems the kids have get worse instead of better, as they have no support and, don't forget, this is all happening at a time in their lives when they are extremely vulnerable. If those kids were to get the right support at the right time, they would find it so much easier to adapt to their situation. The best example of that is sitting right here in the room with us. Ben was lucky enough to have an understanding judge and CYF administrator, who took the unusual step of placing him with Charlie and Michael. Gay foster parents fostering teenagers in New Zealand is still extremely rare. In the year Ben has been with Charlie and Michael, he's recovered from the loss of his mum, as well as having the love and support he needs to grow into a confident, well-adjusted young gay man." I felt myself blush as all eyes turned to me. There were a few murmured 'hear hears' "It all comes down to having a system and resources. If these kids can't get the help they need from the authorities, then they need to find it somewhere else. And let me tell you, there is nowhere else right now." Evan took a long drink and cleared this throat.

"About two months ago, I bought the old Marine View Motel on the sea front in West Shore. It has forty-three rooms and it's laid out around a courtyard. Alex and Tim have agreed to start a foundation with me and Steven which will provide the money that it's going to take to convert the hotel into a reception centre for foster kids who aren't getting the care and support they need in their foster families. We're not talking about a permanent living arrangement. This is going to be a sort of half-way house. It'll give CYF a chance to look at each individual case and establish what these kids really need to get them back on track, and not try to fit them into an existing system. In order to do that, we're going to start offering voluntary training to every social worker in the Hawkes Bay area. The training will be in dealing with both LGBT kids and those with behavioural issues or psychological problems caused by trauma or previous failed foster placements. In addition, together with CYF, we'll be starting a campaign to get people interested in fostering these kids, and provide potential couples and families with a three-month training course in handling the specific issues that these kids are facing. The name of the centre basically chose itself. We're going to call it Firewall." Evan paused to let people digest what he was saying. I looked around at the faces of the people sitting around me. Kelvin and Ian were whispering to each other. Charlie and Michael were sitting with Lindy Carter and talking in low voices. Connor looked at me worriedly.

-are they going to stick you in this motel? What's going on?

-no. I don't think so at least. I started to feel uneasy . It's only a motel at the moment. It's going to be a home for foster kids where they can really get help.

-this is stupid. If they try we'll still see each other, won't we ? I put my arm around his shoulders.

-C and M are not going to make me leave, Connor. This is for other kids who haven't found the right family yet. I already have, I said, trying to reassure both of us at the same time .

Evan held up his hands to signal he was ready to continue. Steven had started a PowerPoint presentation which was beaming onto the blank wall behind them. Evan stood to one side. A schematic of the motel came up.

"This is the current layout. As you can see on the next slide, this is how it is going to look when we're done. Over here on the left we'll have twenty-four rooms for the kids grouped into six blocks of four. Each block of four will have its own kitchen and living room. There will be no attempt to group together LGBT kids or kids with behavioural issues. We aren't creating miniature ghettos here. All the kids will be expected to take responsibility for their own rooms, eat their meals together and attend regular group therapy meetings with a trained counsellor. Six of the remaining rooms will be converted into one large administrative area where the training for social workers and potential care givers will take place. The last four rooms will be converted into a project which is very dear to Alex and Tim. The disabled community in the Hawkes Bay area struggles to provide jobs for deaf, blind and otherwise disabled kids who are perfectly able to work. The result is that a lot of these youngsters remain financially dependent on their parents well into adulthood. It also means that they fail to integrate into the non-disabled world, and the result is often isolation, depression and, ultimately, poverty. Alex and Tim are going to fund a work-experience centre for disabled teenagers and young adults who are interested in pursuing a career in IT. It won't be residential, so we'll have to set our sights on the Napier area at the moment, but who knows what the future may bring there? We'll start off with courses in programming, web design, and network administration, but the opportunities are literally endless. Alex and Tim will be offering employment to suitable candidates at the end of their training. The emphasis will be on the quality of the work, not the quantity, and the salaries paid will be in line with those in the IT sector throughout New Zealand."

"Our opening date for the reception centre is currently the 31 st of March. One block of rooms will be ready by the end of January, as we needed something to show the people from CYF, so here comes the invitation I mentioned when I kicked off." My heart began to race. I couldn't believe what might be about to happen. I stared at Connor and he signed don't worry it'll be alright , then he grabbed my hand tightly.

"The Carlton Foundation would like to invite Kelvin Ngata to be the first resident of Firewall. If he agrees, Mrs Parata has kindly offered to be his counsellor." I felt myself relax and let go of Connor's hand to applaud as Kelvin stood up and shook hands with Evan and Steven. Steven pulled him in for a big hug and I saw they both had tears in their eyes. Ian Carter did as well, and he made no attempt to hide them when our eyes met. Kelvin was shaking his head and grinning from ear to ear as he sat back down next to Ian.

"The administration board will be made up of myself, Steven, Alex and Tim, as well as Professor Michael Drummond and Mrs Lindy Carter. Ian looked at his mother in astonishment. "Lindy and I go back a lot further than some of you may realise. When I came back to Napier nine years ago, her husband Tony helped me to organise my finances. Let me just say that, even if he turned out to be a lousy husband and father, he was a bloody good financial adviser. I got to know them both very well, and I found out that Lindy had actually been a hospital administrator at Hastings Memorial before Ian and Samantha came along. She put her career on hold to raise the kids, and I know she's now ready to dive back into a full-time job with us as the administrator for the whole project. She's already reached out to the disabled community to make sure we'll have enough volunteers to man the work-experience centre, which Tamati and Millie have kindly agreed to run once it opens. Sandra Thompson has also got a firm commitment from Hastings Memorial to provide medical support and physiotherapy for the disabled kids. We're hoping to get that whole aspect of the project online in around nine months, so the reception centre will be up and running first. Lindy has offered to provide temporary guardianship to Kelvin until his block opens in January, and, due to his acute situation at the moment, he'll be staying with the Carter family until he can move in." Ian slapped Kelvin on the back and gave him an awkward teenage boy hug, which made everyone laugh.

"It's important to remember that this is a joint project with the CYF. Our commitment to them is to respect the laws and procedures by which they are bound. Their commitment to us is to provide training and to actively encourage social workers and administrators to take part in that training. If everything develops the way we hope it ill, we should see a huge increase in the number of social workers specialising in LGBT issues as well as working with kids with behavioural issues. We should also see a big upswing in the number of families willing and able to foster those kids and give them the lives they deserve."

There was stunned silence when he finished, followed by a round of applause. Connor and I drifted off to the side once people started asking questions.

-that was amazing, he signed. I'm happy for Kelvin

-me too. I still can't believe his own parents could treat him like that

-and I can't believe we thought Charlie and Michael would send you away

-I know. I get how the unlucky ones feel now. Knowing that you might be…thrown away like some piece of unwanted furniture when your foster family have had enough.

I looked over at Charlie and Michael as they talked intently to Tamati and Millie. Charlie caught my eye and waved to me, a big smile on his face. I smiled back, but somehow my anxiety wouldn't go away.

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