"When you hear Gaelin speak, you immediately realize this is a ‘different’ kind of presentation. He messages hope and opportunities and flips a switch that allows us to start seeing the kids and youth around us as opportunities and futures. In my twenty-five-plus years as a child welfare professional - this [belonging] is what we’ve needed all along."
Adverse Childhood or Successful Adulthood:
Belonging was the common thread
Being born the youngest of 5 to a struggling household brought many complications. After spending over ten years in the foster care system and experiencing physical, mental, and emotional abuse, I was as good a bet as any to be just another youth chewed up and spat out by the foster system. And it would have been that way if it weren't for my sophomore year of high school.
In March of 2012, my dad was arrested, and I was faced with a decision: go back into foster care or drop out of school, run away, and never be seen again.
Luckily, there was another option that I had never considered. My high school coach and his family invited me to live with them. Truthfully, I didn't want to go. Against my wishes, I moved into their home. One year later, I had scholarship offers to just about anywhere I could've wanted to go. I signed to play at the University of Minnesota, graduated in 3 years with a degree in communications, and started my grad degree while playing football and excelling on the field.
Following a year of grad school, I signed an NFL contract with the Cincinnati Bengals. A year later, I married my beautiful wife. A year after that, we welcomed our first daughter into the world.
I can now reflect and know that back in March 2012, my life was completely changed for the better. And it wasn't because I got a scholarship or stability or that I wasn't allowed to drop out of school. Sure, all those things were important.
But my life changed that day because I genuinely and deeply experienced belonging. And over the course of the following year, I would begin to accept belonging as something I deserved, for the first time in my life. That acceptance changed how I viewed myself, and THAT changed my life.
I left the NFL and began working with youth from similar backgrounds to mine, assisting them in their pursuit of belonging. Through research and lived experience, I now know that adults are THE most influential champions of belonging in the lives of youth, especially those with adverse backgrounds. Let's work together to erase the belonging gap so we can see more lives changed for the better.
From foster care, abuse, and homelessness, my adverse childhood communicated that I wasn’t worthy of belonging.
That belief greatly impacted how I navigated life and relationships. Namely, running away from anything that required vulnerability.
It’s one thing to “not belong.” It’s entirely different to believe that you are unworthy and incapable of belonging.
This gap in belonging isn’t a burden that the youth should carry alone. That only cements the harmful beliefs they already have. It should be shouldered by the caring and knowledgeable adults in their lives.
Are you ready to shoulder the burden? Are you ready to mobilize others as well?
Success shouldn't be measured through finances, an occupation, or any other material status.
Success for youth with adverse backgrounds should start with healing, loving, hoping, and trusting again. Success is experiencing and accepting belonging.
Everything else that you could want will follow.
I aspire to erase the belonging gap wherever I can in the "right now" and over time. I speak both on-site and remotely to audiences all across the U.S.
I speak because I know that at this very moment, someone is going through the same things or something way more difficult than what I went through. I know they believe their experience is this way because it's their fault. They believe that connection, relationships, and good things, are just not in the cards for them. They believe that hard things are all they will ever have and that they will have to do it alone.
I want them to know that they are not alone, that it's not their fault, that they deserve better, and although I may not know them personally, I am fighting on their behalf.
I speak for the adults out there who are in the lives of those same children who are going through unimaginable things. I want them to know that they are appreciated but also to see the power in the experience and belief in belonging.
I want every adult to know the scientific and tangible nature of belonging and its transformational value.
As a child, I felt like very few adults took the chance to show me that I belonged beyond words. I struggled with seeing the value or importance of who I was, my story, and my humanity because everything in my life communicated that I was less than. There was very little they could do to change my situation, but if they had understood belonging and its impact, then maybe it doesn't take me 16 years of trauma and adversity to discover my value, worth, and importance for the first time.
I am in this work because regardless of how much trauma a youth goes through, they should never go years, let alone an entire childhood, without experiencing, knowing, and believing in their right to belong.
"At the very heart of "belonging" is the word "long". To be-long to something is to stay with it for the long haul. It is an active choice we make to a relationship, to a place, to our body, to a life because we value it."
Toko-pa Turner, "Belonging"
Your favorite coffee shop, your neighborhood, your friends, your favorite grocery store, and just about every other preference that you have can be traced back to belonging.
Imagine how being incapable of experiencing belonging would drastically change your life.
Think about a time when you felt as though you didn't belong? Now, take that feeling, multiply it by 10,000, and apply it to every home you've ever lived in, every relationship you've ever had, and every room you've ever occupied. Now, you're headed in the right direction of what it feels like for your experience to lack belonging
Belonging is the gas that makes us go. Being deprived of belonging while simultaneously being asked to navigate life is just as baseless as it is hard.