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The Importance of Cultural Celebrations at CHV

Having a sense of home is different for everyone. It can include any combination of elements that include: a safe space, a sense of community, food, and a celebration of beliefs.

Kadee, Lead Spiritual Care Practitioner at CHV, shared the importance of cultural celebrations for youth and how that contributes to a sense of home, either in the physical space, or within themselves.

COVID was a challenging time for everyone, including the youth at CHV. Since it was youth and essential staff only, who were allowed in the building, Kadee saw this as an opportunity to really consider how CHV could make youth experiencing homelessness feel more at home. “It was a chance to come together, but not around one specific culture, tradition, or holiday, but to also learn about, and celebrate, other holidays and traditions that were happening.”

Kadee said that it’s important to note that what is celebrated can vary from year to year, depending on the youth who are staying at CHV. What is celebrated has to make sense to who is at CHV at the time and what is important and meaningful to those youth.

Youth and staff recently celebrated the Harvest Moon Festival. It is an important festival to many Asian communities including those from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Moon cakes are brought in as part of this celebration. “Moon cakes are these extremely intricate pastries that are filled with a sweet paste and often egg yolks, because the egg yolks look like the moon.”

Kadee says that there’s always a clear physical indication to the youth that something is happening, whether that be food being brought in or decorations going up. For each celebration, Kadee provides an informational sheet that shares what the holiday is, what the community of origin is that the holiday is celebrated in, an origin story, if applicable, how that holiday is generally celebrated, and then information related to the food or decorations that the youth are seeing in front of them.

“What I found is two things: one is that it’s really encouraging to the youth and staff from the communities where those holidays originated from to see that they are normalized and celebrated; and secondly, it’s a great opportunity for all of us to reflect on what the holidays and traditions are that we have, where they come from, and why we celebrate them.”

Diwali is also celebrated at CHV. Kadee said that during COVID, which was such a dark time, that Diwali was such a beautiful celebration of light. Kadee would bring in garlands of bright orange marigolds and little clay tea lights in clay pots, called diyas, so it was literally bringing light into CHV. She said that one youth, who had grown up in a community where Diwali was celebrated, was surprised that we were celebrating Diwali and helped staff set up.

“And that for me was a real confirmation, because not only was there surprise, but there was also appreciation — this mattered to him. And it mattered too that he was able to be the expert on his own culture. He helped show them, ‘Okay, this is how you would traditionally hang these.’ So, it was empowering too.”

Hanukkah is another holiday that is celebrated at CHV. Menorah are brought in (electric ones, for safety reasons), along with soup and the traditional donuts. Kadee shared the story of one youth who was quite disconnected from their Jewish heritage, taking part in Hanukkah.

“It’s not unusual for homelessness to involve traumas and rifts between youth and their spiritual, religious, or cultural communities. But when the youth found out that we were going to be bringing the Hanukah menorah into the program, they asked me if they could be the one to “light” it. That is to say that they wanted to be the person that sang the blessing and lit the candle. It was important for them to be supported by Jewish staff and to have that be a sort of private celebration. To see them reconnect and reach out on their own terms was a pretty awesome thing. And they were so happy at the end of it. It had been so many years since they had done it, but it was so meaningful to them to do it.”

As mentioned earlier, celebrations are catered to best fit the youth who are currently at CHV. Because this may vary from year to year, at the bottom of each information sheet that Kadee creates for the current celebration, she has a note that says, “We celebrate lots of traditions. If there’s something that you want to celebrate, please see Katie or talk to your youth worker and let them know.”

Kadee shared some final thoughts on the importance of cultural celebrations: “I think there’s this myth that if a youth ends up homeless, it’s because they have nothing. In some ways that’s true — they don’t have a home. But it’s not that they don’t have strengths or resources that they draw on in spite of their homelessness. And for a lot of our youth, their faith, their beliefs, their spiritual practices are what have helped them to survive.

One of the things that we know, particularly about addiction, is that a lot of addiction comes from loss of connection and feeling like you’re completely on your own. And what I think faith and spirituality offers them is a reminder that they’re not alone and that they’re connected, whether it’s connected to the universe itself or connected to higher power or connected to a community, whether it’s the natural world or another community of faith, that they’re not on their own, that someone cares about them. And I think that’s incredibly important for our youth to know.”

Kadee mentioned that not only do we help youth find connection at CHV, but we are also connecting them to the community around them. This is important because when youth begin to live independently, they are still connected. “What we always want is for youth to be in a better position when they leave here than when they came. And I think being connected to communities outside of Covenant House is a way that they’re better equipped for whatever lies ahead.”