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The Kansan - Newton, KS
  • Newton author recalls rough childhood

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  • Newton Kansan
    When Kathy Wiens drives in downtown Wichita and sees people who are homeless or possibly caught in lives of alcoholism, drug addiction or prostitution, there is a connection, a feeling of empathy she feels with people on the street.
    "That could have been me."
    If she had not been taken in by a foster family at age 11 and given a new life, Kathy likely would not today be married to a physician and working on her second master's degree. She probably would not have been able to give her children a stable home life and she would not have broken her first family's pattern of alcoholism and abuse.
    "I realize if I had not had this miracle happen in my life, I could be homeless too," she said.
    Wiens wrote about her early life in Lincoln, Neb. in her book, "Bars, Dumps and Other Childhood Hangouts." A book signing is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Faith and Life Bookstore of Newton with part of the proceeds going to Harvey County Homeless Shelter. Wiens stressed the book, which addresses such themes as violence and abuse, is for adults.
    The reference to dumps in the book's title has a double meaning, Wiens said. Her step-father would take the family to dumps to collect scrap metal to sell. That is a fun memory from Wiens's childhood, but it is juxtaposed alongside the more grim memory the word has for her. Dumps is also a reference to the types of homes her family lived in.
    Bars were a family hangout. At first it was fun - little Kathy and her older brother sipping soda while their parents drank. But as the night wore on and her parents became more drunk, it became scary. Kathy and her brother would sleep out in the car until their parents were ready to go home.
    "It felt very unsafe being around people who were drunk," she said. "Our lives revolved around their alcoholism and their needs."
    At home, Kathy was scared of the drunken fights her parents would get into.
    "My main job in childhood was trying to keep myself safe," Kathy said. "When you're a child, your parents are your whole world. For these peopfle to be out of control - it creates tremendous insecurity."
    When she was 9, Kathy's step-dad died and the family got more out of control. Her mother brought strange men in and out of the house and it became much more unsafe for Kathy. When she was 10, Kathy was placed in an orphanage.
    At age 11, she was taken in by Floyd and Erma Burkey. They were an older couple whose biological children were grown and out of the house. The Burkeys never adopted Kathy because her mother would not give up her parental rights, but they were the ones Kathy considered her parents.
    Page 2 of 2 - "For me - and for them - the Burkey family is my family," Kathy said. "My parents chose me to be their child. I did not come to them through the natural child birthing process, but they chose me and wanted me to be a part of their family."
    She was also taken in by the Bellwood Mennonite Church in Milford, Neb. Church members noticed she was good at singing and working in crafts and encouraged her.
    "Part of what broke the cycle for me was knowing I was loved and valued as part of the church," Kathy said. "I felt a sense of belonging."
    For Kathy, the new family and church were "resiliency factors" - a term she has learned while working toward her counseling degree at Wichita State University. A resiliency factor is a positive influence that helps a child build trust and rebound from a bad experience.
    As a counselor, Kathy hopes to bring resiliency factors into the lives of children. As a writer, she hopes to bring understanding and hope with her book.
    "I'm really hoping people who have not experienced this will gain an understanding of living in this situation," she said. "I hope it can give hope to people who've experienced this kind of life. You can get out of it."
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