Home » The Power to Heal: Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski (Transcript)

The Power to Heal: Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski (Transcript)

Full text of Sister Mary Agnes Dombroski’s talk: “The Power to Heal” at TEDxPiscataquaRiver conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:



Thank you.

In the early 1980s, when I was a young teenager, I used to ask myself two questions. I used to like to go for long hikes and think, probably not a normal teenage activity but I did.

And the first question was: what is the purpose of my life? And the second question was, am I going to make a difference?

Now, the answer to the first question over the years of my teenage years, I came to in kind of a logical way and I would think about, okay my origin is God, he created me and my goal is God because I want to be with him forever in heaven and so that kind of led to my following a call to become a sister, as you can see.

So, that actually was easier for me of the two questions.

The second question, am I going to make a difference? I found that one much harder and I didn’t have any answer. By the time I was a young adult entering the convent and what I really discovered was really it’s a question that’s answered every single day based on how I respond to what’s going on around me, to the person in front of me, that’s how I make a difference in very small little ways every single day.

Now, fast-forward 10 years, early 90s now, I am sent by my religious community to St. Charles Children’s Home in Rochester to become a childcare worker. It was really difficult for me, partially because I had absolutely no experience working with children and in fact, when I was a teenager, I didn’t even babysit.

I mean, I came from a small town, there just weren’t people available and I was not something I felt drawn to. So, no experience with children and not only that but the children I was taken care of had very severe behavioral issues and I was really lost.

At St. Charles, we work with children with really severe behavioral issues and those issues come from a number of reasons and I just was overwhelmed. And if you would have asked me in the early 90s, am I making a difference? Okay, I would have said no, because the best I can do on any given day is just get through the day and if at the end of the day, none of these girls have killed or hurt or injured one another then it’s a miracle, it’s definitely not me.

So, I really was feeling like, wow, I was discouraged, very profoundly discouraged.

But that was until this child came and now we’re in the mid-90s and the first day she arrived, she was off the Richter scale with her behavior. I would say, she was the most behaviorally disturbed child that I ever worked with.

On the very first day, she many times went into these frenzies of screaming and shouting all kinds of vulgar words and hitting and kicking and spitting and hair pulling and she was just out of control, no one wanted to get near her and by the end of that day, I was exhausted and I was thinking, how on earth am I going to survive taking care of this child.

So, by bedtime, my partner and I brought the children to bed. I brought her over to her bed, showed her where it was. I helped her get in, I tucked her in just like we do with the children every single night, I made a little cross on her forehead and I said, I’m asking Jesus to give you a blessing. That’s just what I did when I would tuck in the children.

And then I got a rocking chair and I sat down next to her bed. Now, I was sitting there so that she wouldn’t get out of it and start running around hitting people but I sat there and my partner was reading a story and after couple of moments, she said to me something that really was to change my life. She said; “Sister Mary Agnes, this is my first safe night.”

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Now, that was the first moment that I was ever in this work able to see past behavior and see the person and it blew me away. I said, wow. I had been very occupied with her behaviors all day. I was like, wow, here’s a person here. She’s hurting, she has a past history, she has feelings.

Now, the next day, I got a call from her guidance counselor at school and she had been requiring or needing counseling every single morning from the beginning of that school year. I don’t remember what month it was but every single day, and the pattern was always the same.

She’d come into the counseling room, go straight for the doll on the shelf, take the doll and she would start hitting it and beating it against the table and beating it against the wall and she put it on the ground and she’d kick it and she would stomp on it and then the session always ended where she would take the doll and put it on a chair.

And the guidance counselor happened to have some string or some rope or something in that room. And she would tie it up really tight to the chair and once she got all that out of her system every single day, then she would be ready to go back to the classroom. And this was a pattern.

Now, the guidance counselor called me that morning and said, today was different, I want to tell you what happened. She came into the room and she said, can we play something different today? And the guidance counselor of course said yes.

She said, you’re going to be me and I’m going to be Sister Mary Agnes. So, she made the counselor get up on the table, there was an activities table there, found something in the room to serve as a pillow, okay? Made her lay down on the table, the doll had a blanket on the shelf so she took the blanket, put it over her, tucked her in, took a chair, sat down next to her by that table and she looked at the counselor and said, this is the way sister Mary Agnes tucks me in at night.

Now, that was the beginning of a daily little routine that she would go through in the counseling. Sometimes, it was me tucking her in and sometimes it was something else but from that day forward, it was a sister Mary Agnes game every morning at school.

Now, I share it because most of the time, we don’t know if we’re making a difference. Why? Because most people are not going to tell us. Well, they’ll tell us if we’re making them miserable but they’re not going to tell us if we’re really making a difference most of the time and a lot of the times, we don’t necessarily see any change in their behavior that indicates any kind of a difference we’re making. This child taught me that, wow even if someone, because she never told me that I made her a difference but see, I had this little window in and it was very powerful for me.

Now, one of the things at St. Charles that we do, a big part of our philosophy is we really try to look past the behavior to the person and we highly value, every single person has infinite value in our eyes. And we really try to help the children recognize that they have tremendous worth and value but we can’t ignore behavior, of course, we are behavior specialists, we wouldn’t have a job. So, we don’t ignore the behavior, however, we recognize every behavior has a reason. People behave in certain ways for reasons. A lot of times the reason has to do with their feelings and emotions, okay?

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So, what do we try to do? We try to really be present to the children and try to reach them at the level of feeling and emotion. And this is where we get into the running program. So, that’s not me, that is Sister Mary Rose. One of the reasons we found running to be so powerful with working with these kids is, two reasons actually.

First of all, if you’re thinking, okay first we want it to be about the person, okay so if I’m, you can’t send a seven-year-old though out and say okay go run for miles, it’ll be good for, you can’t do it, it’s not safe. So, we do the activity with them, all right? So, we’re running with them.

And what does that say to the person to the child? You’re so important to me that I’m going to spend the next hour just doing this activity with you and nothing else, so running right there, very powerful. And then a lot of conversation happens and emotions come up because what does it do? You know, it’s a physical outlet, you’re getting energy out and a lots of times with emotions, there’s a lot of energy around that.

And I want you to think about something. You know, it’s much easier to be present to someone and in a sense, feel like you’re being helpful to someone when they’re sad than when they’re angry.

Now, think of a child, okay, they’re playing, they fall down, they scrape their knee, they come, they’re crying. You got the big tears coming down their cheeks, it’s like, oh honey I’m so sorry and let’s go get a Band-Aid, let’s go clean it up and that compassion, it’s easy.

What about when they’re angry? We got angry kids. These are kids that throw chairs across classrooms and assault teachers and hurt other children. What do you do with the anger, what does anger do? It pushes you away, you know, I don’t want anyone to get near me when I’m angry.

So, the running, what it has provided for us is a way to be present and allow them to express their anger. But see, they’re not going to hit anybody because they’re trying to keep up, see. So, it’s turned out to be very powerful tool in terms of helping them to heal.

Now, it’s not the only tool that we use but it is a very powerful one. I just want to share another example of another way we try to be present to children and this is a story from sister Maximillian. I mean, pretty recent actually. She was driving with one of our kids and he started using some vulgar language, just said a few things and so she ignored it and he upped the ante a little and said more vulgar words.

We have had some really choice ones which probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to repeat here at least. So, I won’t repeat him but anyway, she still ignored him. So, then he was really wanting a reaction, okay, lots of times kids do this.

So, he really upped the ante and he got himself worked up. So, he was betrayed, he was just really yelling all these vulgar words and he just didn’t, you know, he just kept going.

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Finally, he stopped for breath and at that point, sister Maximillian pulled over the car, turned it off and turned around and looked at him and she said, I just want you to know, the sisters will never speak to you that way and he got it. And from there, she was able to launch into a discussion with him. Okay, let’s talk about how you’re feeling right now.

He had not lived with us very long, he was checking the place out, wanting to see how we would react. He was scared, he had lots of feelings there. So, that’s just one example of how, you know, we really try to look past the behavior. Of course, there’s consequences to behavior. We don’t ignore behavior all times, this was an example where it was appropriate to do that for a reason but no matter what they’re doing, the person behind that behavior is very valuable. Okay? And that’s really the core of our work and we really have this sense of, okay if we can create an environment where a person really feels safe enough to be who they are and to feel what they are feeling, then that is the place where healing can begin.

We’re not therapists, okay? We have students. During the school day, we’re teaching. We’ve done residential, so we’re in a kind of a parent/teacher role, okay? But we ourselves have to be comfortable with who we are, okay, and be present to them and that really is the power.

I like to think about the fact, going back to the story of this girl, the very first girl who made it such an impact on my life, you know. It was little things I did that she would reflect the next day and I like to think of that, if you think of a lake like when it’s really calm, you know, how sometimes the water is like a mirror and you take a rock and you throw it, I can’t throw it very hard because I’m just not, you know, I don’t do as much baseball as the other sisters but you throw it and it lands okay, and there’s these ripples and the ripple effect goes out and there’s an impact, okay?

Now, the problem with today or I think just life in general, we usually don’t have a clear lake that we’re throwing our activities into. Usually, the water is pretty choppy and rough and there’s a lot going on. But we throw that rock, okay, through the little things that we do, the little faithful activities, little acts of kindness then we are making an impact even if we don’t know it.

So, if I ask myself right now, am I making a difference? Well, the answer really depends on how am I going to respond to the next person I meet. When I go back home, how am I going to respond to the children? Am I going to stoop down and tie the shoe of someone whose shoe needs to be tied, am I going to stop and listen when they’re sharing to me something that happened at school that day and I’ve got other things to do? Am I going to give them my attention? Those are ways that I can make a difference.

Thank you very much.

Resources for Further Reading:

How to Talk About Mental Health Without Offending Everyone: Dan Berstein (Transcript)

The Science of How the Body Heals Itself: William Li (Transcript)

Prioritizing Mental Health in Schools: Hailey Hardcastle (Transcript)

Tiny Surprises for Happiness and Health: B.J. Fogg (Full Transcript)

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