Category Archives: Work

When Hate Comes Home

I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.

I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.

The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.

I just don’t know how to write about hate.

You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.

I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”

He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.

And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.

I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.

I used to think I understood the problem of racism.

At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.

By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture.  As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.

I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.

But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.

I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.

No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.

When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.

But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.

He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.

Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.

And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.

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Pictures at the Porta Potty

Some people would have been offended by the text message I received yesterday morning:  “Every time I see a porta potty, I think of  you, Trina.”

That text was quickly followed by one from the other person in the group: “Me too.”

But I wasn’t upset. Instead, I texted back “It’s my legacy.”

And I wasn’t kidding.

For the past few weeks, a porta potty has literally been keeping me sane during long, stressful hours at the office. And it hasn’t just been a constant source of entertainment, it’s been a reminder about humanity and finding joy wherever we can.

When the porta potty first appeared outside the Catholic Church directly across the street from my office, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if the church was providing a new public service or was having plumbing issues.

As it turns out, it was both.

The church is having its bathrooms renovated, and the porta potty is the interim plumbing solution.

And while I’m fairly certain it was never intended to be a social gathering place, I am absolutely convinced no one thought it would become a source of entertainment. Yet,that is exactly what it has provided for me and my colleagues. (Although I have no doubt that they are more entertained by my obsession with it as they are with what is actually happening across the street.).

But I’m not the only one who has become fascinated by its popularity. While I was pondering why it had become a social gathering place, one of my colleagues had started a running tally of all of the random people using it.

We also wondered about the shoe lying outside of it on a Monday morning, which prompted a story
about a wine bottle that had been in that same space during church services the day before. We watched municipal employees and homeless individuals take advantage of the same service.

One day, we noticed that the trash cans lined up near it resembled the children in the “Sound of Music” singing at the command of, well Maria Van Porta Potty.

The rest of the office was highly amused the day I cringed in embarrassment after two men looked up at my window and waved  as I snapped yet another picture with my phone.

But, most importantly, we’ve laughed at our (my?)  obsession with the blue box across the street.

And I’ve  needed those laughs.

My job involves working with people who are already disenfranchised at a time when they are being threatened and marginalized more than ever. The office budget is tight and getting tighter. I have to deal with tough situations and difficult people on a daily basis. And yet, that porta potty has provided several reminders:

  1. Even though life sometimes stinks, it is sometimes, gloriously comical.
  2. No matter how our culture divides and labels people, in the end we all have the same, basic needs.
  3. One of life’s greatest mysteries remains the puzzle of those single shoes left in random places.
  4. Other people are incredibly interesting when they think no one else is watching.
  5.  Laughter isn’t just the best medicine, it’s the best way to get through life. Finding joy in the mundane, routine, and sometimes difficult challenges of life isn’t optional. It’s an absolute necessity.

I know the porta potty will soon disappear from my life, but something tells me I’ll find some other source of entertainment. It is, after all, a matter of survival.

Since I’m Not Catholic or a Lesbian…

On Sunday morning, I’ll be worshiping at a Catholic mass. I’ll also be briefly speaking about the Catholic who-am-iorganization for which I work.

The Catholic Church has always been a part of my life during the Christmas season. My parents met on the campus of Notre Dame University back in 1961, and their annual Christmas cards from Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh always held a place of honor in their home.

Despite that, my parents aren’t Catholic, and I’m not Catholic.

Just learning to call their church service “mass” was an accomplishment for me.  Less than a month after I started my current job, I made the mistake of walking into a Catholic Church on a Sunday morning and asking two women about “the service.” They looked at me blankly until one of them, with a note of disbelief, asked “do you mean the mass?”

I did. Since then, I’ve also discovered that a Catholic priest doesn’t deliver a sermon but instead gives a homily and that Catholics don’t say The Lord’s Prayer. Instead they say a shortened prayer called the Our Father. It has the exact same words as The Lord’s Prayer, but it ends sooner. Which means, if you are a Protestant (like me) in a Catholic Church, you quickly become the center of attention when you are still loudly reciting the end of the prayer you know while everyone around you is silent. That may actually be more embarrassing than loudly saying “Amen” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance during a school program. Yeah – I did that once too.

But back to my original point: many people assume I’m Catholic because of my job (unless, of course, they get the opportunity to observe me during an actual Catholic mass.)

I had a similar experience back in the early 1990’s when I worked for the statewide AIDS Program. At that time, the popular belief was that AIDS was a gay disease. Therefore, many people assumed that I must be a lesbian, especially since my job required my going to some very interesting events at some very interesting places. Needless to say,  I became quite familiar with the gay community.

But here’s the deal: not being Catholic doesn’t prevent me from doing my job or serving people in need any more than not being a lesbian prevented me from addressing the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 1990’s. And I’m fairly confident that the people who know me and have worked with me will agree.

What my work does require is that I accept people for who they are just as I hope they will accept me for who I am. In doing so, we can all work together for the common good.

During the last few months, I’ve witnessed too many individuals make negative comments about people who don’t share the same religion, the same sexual orientation or even the same skin color.

I just don’t get it.

Considering our differences as negative will never, ever allow us to work together. It certainly won’t help us identify and use our various strengths to build a better country. Most of all, it won’t help us eliminate hate, which is an enemy to all of us.

As a small child, one of the first Bible stories I learned was a parable that Jesus told  in the Gospel of Luke. It went  like this:

 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”    Luke 10:25 -37

I’m not a Biblical expert. Instead, I’m just a lowly social worker trying to do a small bit of good in a world that can be harsh, brutal and often downright cruel. But to make even the slightest difference, I have to work with and be a good neighbor to people who are extremely different to me.

I can only hope that this Christmas, all of you will “go and do likewise” as well.

The Meme I Hate the Most

megaI regretfully admit that I was in my forties before I truly understood one of life’s most important tenets: being right will never feel as good as being kind. That’s why I almost didn’t write this.

I don’t want to shame or embarrass anyone who has shared or posted the meme that makes me cringe every time I see it.

I know that it was posted with the best of intentions by great people with good hearts, kind souls and a desire to make the world a better place.

But a statement suggesting that big homeless shelters are somehow better than big churches is, well, just wrong on so many levels.

Let’s start with the fact that we live in America, a nation founded by people seeking a right to worship in the way they wanted. Dismissing how others choose  to worship is completely un-American.

Personally, I’m not a fan of churches with memberships larger than the population of the town in which I live. But that’s why I don’t attend one.

I understand concerns that the money used to build, maintain, and equip such large churches could be better used to pay for services to the disadvantaged, but couldn’t the same be said for almost any aspect of our own lives? If we had a smaller house or a less expensive cars, all of us would be able to give more to charity.

We should all spend less time judging and more time actually helping others.

Which brings me to the other reason I hate this meme.

Are there really people who think that building more and bigger homeless shelters is the answer to our homeless problems?

To me, that statement is like waving the white flag in surrender to all of the issues that cause homelessness. We are accepting that we are helpless in the face of the root causes, such as mental illness and social injustice. We are admitting that prevention doesn’t work and that people and systems can’t change.

And I’m not willing to accept that.

I work for a social service organization that fights poverty. Yet every day, I also fight a mentality that providing financial assistance and food to the poor is all we can do to help.

In reality, that’s doing people in poverty a disservice. It’s sending a message that they are not capable of doing more or being more. It’s telling them we’ve given up on the possibility that they are capable of helping themselves and helping others.

Addressing issues of poverty is hard work. It involves developing relationships with people who are often hard to love or don’t understand the manner in which middle class people live and interact. It’s our job to walk with them, teach them, and set expectations for them.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for emergency financial, food, and housing. There is. We can’t expect anyone to make big changes in their lives when they are in the middle of a crisis.

But if that’s all we do, then we are selling them, and ourselves, short.

So instead of calling for more homeless shelters, I want to hear a rallying cry for more preventive and support services. I want a united demand for better mental health and drug treatment programs. And, most of all, I want people to stop putting the band-aid of temporary shelter on gaping, life-long wounds created in part by the inference that some people should just accept their place in life.

The Note

note from JoeThere are people who don’t understand what I do for a living or why I do it.

I belong to an underappreciated profession that isn’t well paid and regularly interacts with people who are often discounted by “the establishment.”

But then again, I’ve never been overly concerned about what the establishment thinks.

Great things only happen when we color outside the lines, cheer for the underdog, lift broken spirits, and, most importantly, believe in second chances.

That’s probably why I became a social worker  – a profession that is defined by the beliefs that anyone can change and that people, not businesses or corporations, power the world.

The opportunity to harness that potential energy to is what drives me to get up every morning. But listening to the stories of the people I have the privilege of serving each day is what keeps me going.

The power of their stories was never more clear than this past weekend when a friend and I drove by a man who was mumbling to himself as he ambled along the shoulder of the road.

“What’s up with that guy?” my friend asked.

“A lot,” I answered. “He has schizophrenia, he’s been homeless multiple times, his family disowned him, and he knows my name.”

What I didn’t tell her is how much he means to me and all of my co-workers and how we are all relieved when he comes into the office. Nor did I mention that we look through the newspaper and the local jail website when he doesn’t. I didn’t explain how we celebrate when we know he’s taking his medication, can hold a conversation and actually exhibits a great sense of humor.

She doesn’t work in my office and therefore can’t truly understand how being a part of such compassionate workplace is immensely more valuable than a big paycheck.

My friend knows that my fan club is a group of homeless men who hang out downtown during the day. What she doesn’t know is those guys actually have a talent for making me smile on my most difficult days, just as one of our most recent clients did last week.

His name is Joe. When he arrived at our office, he had just released from prison with the clothes on his back, $400 dollars to his name and his prison release letter. A caring landlord was letting him work off the cost of a security deposit, but he was still trying to find money to pay his first month’s rent.

And even though he came to the office looking for help, he was able to offer us more than we could give him. One of our toilets was clogged and overflowing. When Joe recognized the problem, he jumped right in to help.

Trust me, he really did jump and the fix really wasn’t pleasant.

Ironically, the next time he arrived in the office, another toilet was misbehaving.

He fixed that one too.

Since then, he’s weeded our parking lot, emptied our trash and started cleaning or offices on a weekly basis.

The man who grew up in foster care, is functionally illiterate,  and is trying his best to stay on the straight and narrow when the odds are again him,  has mastered the art of paying it forward.

Which is why, when I came into my office on Friday after a morning of meetings, the simple note on my desk meant so much.

The five words “Have a nice day Joe”  were more than mere words.

They represented his entire life struggle. I knew that writing that note had been an  effort for him but that he believed I was worth the effort.

And I believe he’s worth the effort too.

If Only

if only

As a social worker, the most heart-breaking cases always walk through the door on a Friday afternoon when most social service organizations are closing for the weekend, all the organizations are out of funds, and everyone is both mentally and physically drained.

And there is absolutely nothing I can do to help.

So it was a few weeks ago when a woman with three children under the age of four walked through my door. And as the woman told her story, two words ran in a continuous loop in my brain: “if only.”

“If only” I lived in a community with more resources.

“If only” the woman and her children weren’t invisible, irrelevant or deemed undeserving by people who are more concerned about their next vacation or their social status.

But most of all, “if only” our social services system wasn’t so broken that we invest most of our resources into programs that are as effective as putting BAND-AIDS on wounds that need major surgery.

The details of the woman’s story varied only slightly from those I’d heard before.

She had stayed home to raise her three pre-school age children while her husband worked. Everything was fine until, one day, her husband decided he didn’t want to be married anymore. In fact, he didn’t even want to live in the same country she did. And so, he fled  – leaving her with no work experience, no support system and three very young children entirely dependent on her.

Unlike me, the woman had never been supported or encouraged to ensure she could be financially independent. No one had even told her that furthering her education or skills was an option.

And so she did the best she could.

She went to the Department of Health and Human Resources and applied for benefits, including Temporary Assistance of Needy Families, or TANF. To receive those TANF benefits, she had to sign a personal responsibility contract that required her to make every effort to find employment. She did just that. The job she found was only part-time, and the limited hours were irregular. As the sole caretaker for three small children who got sick and had other emergencies, she was often late and sometimes missed work.

Unlike me, she hadn’t grown up in a home where steady employment was a top priority. No one taught her the importance of calling in or being on time.

So when her supervisor spoke to her about these issues, she quit.

Unlike me, no one had ever explained to her that the costs of quitting are greater than those of being fired. She just didn’t know. But she soon learned.

Her TANF benefits were sanctioned because she had broken her personal responsibility contract.

Without any income, she got a car title loan to pay the rent.

Unlike me, no one had ever taught her that the interest on such loans quickly grows out of control. And unlike me, she had no support system of individuals who could help her financially. The people she knew were facing similar crises.

Despite her efforts, she couldn’t afford her rent and was evicted. She and her three children went to live in a shelter with strict rules and little privacy. That’s why the apparent kindness of a new acquaintance was so tempting.

The man offered her a free place for her and her children to live.

But, unlike me, she had no role models for healthy relationships. She had no frame of reference that trust, one of the most essential elements of any relationship, takes time to develop. She was in crisis, and people in crisis want one thing: a way out.

And so she accepted the man’s offer even though shelter rules prohibited her from returning for 30 days if she left on her own accord.

Unlike me, she had never been provided with opportunities to reap the rewards of delaying gratification after weighing benefits and consequences. She had only been taught to act on instinct and in the moment.

But less than a week after leaving the shelter, she realized that the promises for a free home didn’t actually come without a cost. She escaped with only her children and a car that was being repossessed because of her failure to pay on the title loan.

And that’s when she landed in my office on a Friday afternoon

I wish I could say I helped her, but all I could do was encourage her to go to another town with a homeless shelter from which she hadn’t been banned for 3o days.

As she was leaving, one of her children asked her if they were finally going home, and her response was “I told you that home is wherever Mommy is.” My heart broke a little.

Her words along with my own words of “if only” have been reverberating in my brain for weeks now.

“If only” echoes every time I listen to representatives from social service organizations report, in an almost congratulatory manner, that they have increased the number of people to whom they have provided emergency assistance. Providing assistance to those in crisis is important, but when the numbers go up, we are reinforcing how little we are doing to improve the long-term circumstances of struggling families.

“If only” echoes every time I hear poverty defined in terms of a lack of money rather than as a lack of resources. We can’t eliminate poverty until we address all the resources people need to succeed – that type of resources that I was so fortunate to have growing up: ongoing support, positive relationships, skills, knowledge, encouragement and role models.

And “if only” echoes every time another desperate individual or family walks into my office on a Friday afternoon and there is nothing I can do to help.

“If only.” “If only.” “If only.”

The Update

windows-updateWhen I was a child, I gave little thought to 50-year old people. Why would I? On the rare occasion when I did consider them, my thoughts were limited to the idea that they were really old and knew all they needed.

In just over a year, I will be 50, and most of my friends have either reached that milestone or are very close.

I no longer think  that people in their fifties are particularly old, and I am quite aware that everyone needs to learn more.

Personally, I am still seeking answers to those things I’ve never been able to understand. For example:

  • Why does the trip home always take half the time as the trip to get there?
  • Why do the people who hurt us the most also teach us the most?
  • Why does life speed up just as we begin to truly appreciate it?
  • Why do we cry when we are happy?
  • Why  are we are the most comfortable in our own bodies at a time when our bodies are starting to fall apart?

But none of these is nearly as pressing as the question that has recently been consuming my thoughts: “What is the purpose of Windows Updates and why do they always occur when I most need my computer?”

Last week at work, I was using my laptop during a meeting when I lost access to it.

The reason? I had postponed installing the Windows Updates far too long, and Microsoft had decided that my time was up. The updates took control of my computer with absolutely no consideration of my needs.

I should have known better since, just the night before, my personal lap had done the exact same thing.

But this was work and the meeting was my first obligation of the morning. I turned on my laptop, started the meeting, and then the updates began.

For almost an hour, I muddled through while my computer processed “essential updates.”

I have absolutely no idea what these updates were because when laptop finally began functioning again, everything seemed exactly the same. Exactly.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these updates – they are some kind of digital Botox so the operating system appears immune to the effects of aging.

Or maybe the updates are a gimmick intended to convince Microsoft users that they are using the most up-to-date software when nothing is really changing.

Or maybe I don’t understand technology.

None of this mattered, though, when I was stuck in a meeting without access to my computer.

Instead of hiding being the screen while tapping on keys, I was forced to pay close attention to what everyone said and take notes the old-fashioned way: with pen and paper.

Which got me thinking about all of the updates in my life.

At times they may seem intrusive and unwanted, but sometimes they are absolutely necessary.

Sometimes they make us stop and think.

Sometimes they make us do things a bit differently.

And sometimes they make us appreciate those things we usually take for granted.

A Double Life

double lifeI lead  a double life.

Every day, I straddle two very different worlds.

Last week, I spent time listening to a man in his mid-thirties who is a regular in the waiting area at my office. He comes not for services but because he feels safe there.

The man is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been disowned by his family, experienced bouts of homelessness, been the victim of street-wise individuals and sporadically stayed in psychiatric hospitals. On that particular morning, he had housing but wanted to complain about police harassment.  He used “colorful” phrases as he expressed confusion as to why anyone thinks he could be violent or dangerous.

I gave him my sympathy while gently telling him that his rough language might put some people off. What I didn’t say was that I was pleased he was even talking to me. That meant he was taking his medication.

When he’s off his medications, he mumbles to himself and doesn’t make eye contact.

I take comfort in the fact that all of my co-workers keep tabs on him and worry when he appears to be off his medication.

Their concern doesn’t come from any work-related requirement. They care because they understand the tenuous line every person walks.

Some of us are fortunate enough to start life with a wide open road built by a strong support system. Taking a step forward to better circumstances is an expectation that is cheered, encouraged and made possible by multiple people.

Others are forced to walk a tightrope of poverty, violence and disinterest. Taking one step forward into better circumstances is a test of determination and the ability to navigate an obstacle course of mental and physical health problems, abuse and poor role models.

Which line we walk is often a stroke of luck, sometimes a matter of choices but always requires a safety net provided by our fellow human beings.  The people I work with know their job is to increase the odds for everyone who walks through our doors.

But that’s my work life.

My personal life can be completely different.

Only a few hours after my conversation with the schizophrenic, I was selling hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos at the high school concession stand where the talk among the parents was all about the latest drama: “slushee gate.”

According to those in the know (not me), the band has total rights to all fall sports concession sales. The football parents (not the students) disagreed, sought and apparently received permission from one high level administrator to sell frozen lemonade slushees during games.

Drama, including public cussing by the wife of a football coach, ensued.

I care about supporting my son and the band, but I can’t understand getting so emotionally engaged in something that doesn’t actually affect anyone’s well-being.

There are too many parents who are struggling just to meet their family’s basic needs and are ill-equipped to deal with the complications of daily life. A battle over concessions at high school athletic competitions isn’t part of their world just as their issues aren’t on the radar of parents who can afford for their children to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Because of my career choice, I live in both worlds.

Which is why I had a recent conversation with a woman who was young enough to be my own daughter yet had three children. She was homeless and had made a poor decision that resulted in her eviction, and therefore her children’s eviction, from a local shelter. She talked to me about her “baby daddy” (her exact words) and their violent relationship.

There was nothing I could do but provide her with a few kind words and a bit of advice. She had made one critical error that couldn’t be fixed and didn’t have a support system of family or friends that could help. Because of that, she had no place to sleep other than in a tent.

Her situation was weighing on my mind when a well-to-do donor breezed through my office door.

I listened as she described the stress of downsizing her home to what she called “a retirement cottage.” Since I don’t live in her world – I just visit it – I thought the only small thing about her new big house is that it has less square footage than the estate where she used to live.  I empathized with her concerns because she was feeling stressed.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but note that I was once again straddling not two  but three worlds. The one where I live, the one where my clients live and the one where my donors live.

I appreciate our donors. They are caring people who know they are fortunate and wanted to help those who are not. They are the lifeblood of my organization.  But they still live in a world that is very different from the one inhabited by the people my organization serves.

And I have to negotiate all those worlds. But that type of double life isn’t something about which I should be ashamed. Instead, I should consider it a gift that allows me to serve as a bridge that increases understanding and hope.

At least it increases my hope that one day, I’ll work myself out of a job and no one will have to lead a double life. That’s  because we will all  live in the same world.

Conversations with Strangers Part 2 – The Phone Call

stress-words_Wallowing in self-pity never results in anything positive, and I’m generally annoyed by people who use it to gain attention.

At the same time, I’ve been told that sometimes the behaviors that annoy us most are the ones we revert to when we are at our worst.

I was at my worst this week.

Nothing horrible or life shattering happened. I just had to deal with some difficult and taxing situations at work. By the time I got home each night, I was too exhausted to do much more than complain about how tired and stressed I was.

I deal with people who struggle to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, so I should recognize how fortunate I am to have a warm and safe home to take shelter in each night. I have friends who are struggling with serious health issues, so I should wake up grateful for a (relatively) strong body and mind. I know people who go to jobs in which their only reward is a paycheck, and I should realize that being passionate about my work is more gratifying than any financial reward.

And yet, I forget.

This week I forgot so much and complained so much about my stress that I was even starting to annoy myself.

Which is why, when my cell phone rang at 6:30 on Friday night, I almost didn’t answer it. The caller i.d. showed that a volunteer from my office was trying to reach me, and I thought I had reached maximum capacity for anything work-related. At the same time, the responsible side of my personality (the stronger one that completing despises my whining and self-pitying side) had to answer the phone.

So I answered it, and the call served as a wonderful reminder of why I should be grateful for feeling overwhelmed at times.

The volunteer actually wanted me to speak with his wife, who was also interested in being a volunteer. The couple recently retired in another state and  moved to my town to be nearer to their children and grandchildren.

I’d never met the woman who I spoke with on the phone, but on a cold evening in February, she was the only person who was able  put my week in perspective.

I initially tried to hurry her off the phone. After confirming when she would come in to discuss volunteer opportunities, I said, “Have a good weekend.”

She wouldn’t let me go that quickly.

“I’m just hoping you can help me,” she said.

That shut me up.

“My mother is 94 years old,” she said. ” That means I likely have 30 years of retirement ahead of me. Everyone tells you that retirement is great.  No one tells you that no one values your skills anymore.”

She went on. “I used to take pride in my work.  I liked contributing something. I don’t feel as though I’m doing that now.”

I told her I understood.

And I did.

I may complain about all the stress in my life, but that stress means that I’m overwhelmed by demands on my time and talents. That stress means that others depend on me and need me. That stress means that I’m valued and that others recognize how important my contributions are.

In other words, the type of stress I experienced last week  is a reflection of what I value most: the ability to make a difference to others.

The woman I talked to on Friday night may or may not decide to be a volunteer at my office. But whether she does or not,  she’s already made a difference in my life.

Sometimes, strangers can do that.

 

I’m a Social Worker, Not a Stereotype

I'M A SOCIAL WORKERBack in the early 1990’s when I worked for the WV AIDS Program, some people assumed I was a lesbian.

Now that I work for Catholic Charities, some people assume I’m Catholic.

Neither assumption ever bothered me even though they were wrong.

But when people make assumptions about social workers, I have a deep-seated desire to say “Dammit Jim, I’m a social worker not a stereotype.”

I don’t believe that giving handouts will save the world. I don’t believe that I have to hug and empathize with everyone I encounter. And most of all, I don’t believe anyone with a good heart can do my job.

In reality, most social workers I know don’t believe in just giving handouts. We also know that if we don’t provide people with the basic resources they need, they certainly aren’t going to be able or open to making tough decisions that may help them improve their circumstances.. What social workers do believe is that people can change and that we should never give up on anyone. We also believe that no one is more important or more “worthy” than any other person. Most of all, we believe that people are responsible for their own lives. Sometimes. they simply need more support to accomplish their goals.

Also, in contrast to popular opinion, not every social worker has a warm and fuzzy personality. We don’t see life through rose-colored glasses and we don’t always see the best in people. We realize that some people survive by scamming others, that there are individuals who will do their best to “manipulate” the system and that there are people who are just plain lazy. We also know that not everyone had the advantages of growing up in a family that treasured children, respected boundaries and believed in delayed gratification. Poverty isn’t just about lack of money but about lack of support. Being able to provide that support is what motivates us.

Most of all, not just anyone can do our jobs. This past week, I was in a meeting with an individual who helps low-income families. As she gave her report, the fact that she is not a social worker became obvious. She was discussing a situation in which an individual didn’t want to complete an application for assistance without his friend.

“Maybe he couldn’t read,” I suggested.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me they couldn’t read. He didn’t say that. He just said he wanted to wait for his friend before he completed the form.”

I wanted to scream. I’m pretty sure the other social workers in the room also wanted to scream but didn’t. That’s  
because social workers try very hard to be non-judgmental. And sometimes we fail miserably. I should know. T
here have been so many times over the past few years when I’ve wanted to scream at people who think doing nice things for poor people is social work. Being nice to low-income people has nothing to do with social work, which requires a college degree and a license. Many social workers help low-income people, but their job is not to be nice (although most are). Their job is to help individuals and families help themselves.

So instead of screaming, I strategize. I think about how we can engage low-income, middle class and wealthy individuals in supporting those who are struggling. I think about how we can educate all people about inequality. Most of all, I think about what I can do to convince everyone that all people matter.

And then, I act.

Because that’s what social workers do.