Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Four Months Ago (a Guest Post by Sophia Silva)

(Common Ground is sad to say good-bye to a very special young woman who has been with us the past few months. Sophia Silva, a senior Mizzou social work student, has been an enormous help with both Common Ground and Fresh Start Market, as well as our neighbor, HALO. We will miss her! We asked her to sum up her experiences in a guest blog post.  She gives a great perspective on what she has seen and heard while here.  And no, Kristen did not pay her money to say all the nice things at the end...but she should have! She is worth every penny! Good luck as a future social worker, Sophia! You'll be awesome!)

Four months ago…

Four months ago I had never heard of Common Ground or been to Jefferson City. I thought social service agencies were gloomy and filled with hopelessness: that the clients would be angry, frustrated with a system that has let them down; that I would not be able to connect with people living in poverty, because we are from such different backgrounds even with all the knowledge and education form the social work program I have. Four months ago I believed that poverty was so complex that I wouldn’t be able to make a difference in a client’s life, because I am just a practicum student, what could I do for them?

Four months ago I started a new learning and life journey as a practicum student at Common Ground working under Kristen. Here I am now at the end of my journey, and I can say that I have seen first hand how much courage, passion and resilience exists in this agency. Frequently I would hear about situations from clients that I could never imagine making it out of. However, not once did I see a client hopeless or angry. Courageously every client came, and opened up some of their darkest facets of life, hopeful of any assistance they could receive. Four months later I saw prospect in every client. Each and every one of them with strength they could identify and be proud of. To me that is social work in its sincerest form.

Four months ago I thought it would be hard to connect with clients at Common Ground. Now I recognize clients by name outside of the building and feel genuinely excited to have the opportunity to talk with them. One client in particular, she is my new favorite acquaintance: the woman who changed it all for me, who taught me a lesson I thought I’d never understand – the reality of how hard it is to rise above situations where you just cannot get ahead. No lecture or poverty stimulation could do what her story did for me. I don’t know what it is about her story in particular that made such an impact on me. I was able to feel the highest level of empathy. It didn’t matter she had just been released from prison with a past some may consider unforgiveable. All I could feel was a need to understand and help her. We connected.  

Four months ago I thought I would not be able to help that many people, I doubted all that I could actually do to provide change in people’s lives. Was I wrong! Four months later I have done so much. Things I did not think four months ago I could do: personally assist over one hundred homeless individuals; provide assistance to clients in an assessment that I led myself; and sign up close to one hundred clients for a market! Never did I think I would be able to do all these things and feel so much compassion doing them. Along with how grateful I am that I was given the opportunity to do so.

Lastly four months ago I did not know who Kristen Hilty was. I could probably write another entire blog on her alone so I am going to try and capture all that she does quickly. This is the best example I can think of… Project Homeless Connect was right around the corner (planning it while already being the director at Common Ground). As well as taking ownership in handling the (extremely large and complicated) grant, she still did little things like run to Walmart to pick up nametags and pens for the event! While we were at the store doing these last minute tasks, she stopped to grab supplies for her daughters birthday, and remembered to make sure to pick up her favorite cookies, and in the right frosting color! Because nothing is worse than you Mother grabbing the wrong cookies for your class birthday treat! She does the big things, and the little things! I also forgot to mention how on our car ride to Walmart this remarkably smart woman, director, mother, wife and my teacher discussed with me the most important complexities of assisting people in poverty and how programs and assistance should be provided. Her ideas and values are ones that can truly make a difference and be the change we need in dealing with these issues. Saying that I feel honored to have worked and learned under her would be an understatement. I do not know how else to say it besides, thank you! For taking the time to mentor me and teaching me lessons I will have forever! 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Big Girls Don't Cry

When you work with people experiencing poverty, you hear many stories that make you want to go home, curl up into a ball, hug your nearest pillow or teddy bear and cry your brains out. But you don't cry in the office. It's a rule. As a trained social worker, I hold it right up there with sharing too much personal information. You just don't do it.

Well...I don't always comply with the rules...

Sometimes something strikes you as so horribly unfair that you can't help but cry. Last week, a woman and her husband came asking for help with a deposit for a new apartment. They had been homeless for several months after the husband lost his construction job. He just got hired at a local factory and was now making some income, but the family was struggling to get together enough money to make a deposit and first month's rent payment.  They were living in a tent, with a few scatterings of hotel nights paid for by family.

And did I mention the wife had terminal cancer? And no insurance?

Homeless with cancer.

I was still holding it together at this point until the husband started crying. He was crying because he was unable to provide for his wife. He was crying because he didn't have a comfortable bed for her to lie in, to ease the deep pain she always felt. He was crying because he was ashamed to ask for help. He was crying...and by then, I was also.

We were able to allocate them funds for a deposit and with a friend's help, the couple got enough money together for the first month's rent. I called the landlord to make a strong case for them in the hopes he would work quickly. We also talked about Medicaid, applying under the compassionate allowance for disability, and other resources.

After they left S, my BSW intern, sat in my office to decompress. Like usual, I had let her sit in on the conversation to observe how to assess and intervene in these types of situations. She had been stronger than me and remained stoic during the interview, but now started to cry herself.

"I feel so bad. I feel guilty," S said.

"Guilty because you feel...lucky?" I asked, making sure I understood the source of sadness.

"Yes...I feel like it's not fair that it's so hard for them. I've never experienced anything like that."

I understood her feelings. I reassured her that it was normal to feel that way, but also okay to know that she was not to blame or responsible for what's happened to them or what's not happened to her.

However, I continued, we are responsible for being their advocate. Our main job is to know their story. When others disbelieve that life can be so unfair; when others think that it's just a matter of good living or hard work that keeps you from homelessness; when others think there is plenty of shelter out there if you currently have none...you and I will know better.

My student has heard stories and witnessed hardships that she has never experienced before. These stories are making powerful images for her that she will carry with her for a lifetime of service and gratitude. I'm humbled to be present in these moments.

And by the way S, it's okay to cry every now and then.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stop and Listen

Life just gets too darn busy, right? We can get so caught up in a swirl of activities, that we block out all other distractions. Sometimes it takes a quiet voice calling for help to bring us back...

After a relatively calm summer and (finally!) a long vacation with my family unmarred by serious illness or unexpected auto repair, I returned to work full steam. Two major projects coming in October and of course, the work of Common Ground, demanded my immediate attention. Requests for utility assistance alone kept the phones ringing nearly every minute we were open in August.

Because of the high volume of calls, our volunteers weren't making follow up calls as frequently. (We try to reach everyone we assist with at least one follow up call. It's not the favorite activity for our volunteers. It takes time, a willingness to leave lots of messages, and a free phone line!) The stack of follow ups was so high last week, I decided it was time for me to take a turn and make a dent in the pile. 

So I stayed after work one day, and one by one made some calls. I got a few answering messages and a few unreachable numbers. (Getting "disconnected" numbers is very common -- minutes are added to phone lines only when money is available.) Thankfully, I reached a couple of clients who were doing okay and appreciative of the check-in.  Then I got Cindy on the phone.

"I have a job now." 

"Great! Last time I met with you, you were out of work. How's it going?"  

"It's okay. It's only part-time at a hotel, but it's money coming in."

"Okay, great. Let's hope your hours will increase. How's your little one? I remember your adorable toddler. I even wrote here in my notes, 'very cute kid!'"

"He's good."

At this point -- a hitch in her voice. "Is something else going on?"

Cindy started crying. "I just found out I'm pregnant again. I'm so worried. I'm worried about my finances. I'm so scared."

My heart cracked. "I know you're a good Mom. I remember how well you handled your son. I know you'll be a good Mom to this one, too." We talked a little more about her support systems, then I offered her a referral to our church's toiletry and necessity pantry, knowing she could use the diapers soon. She felt a little better, and I told her to stay in touch. 

It was the last phone call I made that afternoon. I couldn't bear to make another. I needed Cindy's voice to sink into my busy life and create a space -- a space reserved being open to another. A space to stop and listen.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Underneath the Surface of Poverty

Poverty has one particularly damaging power: the ability to strip layers of your identity away, until you are merely a label.

Ezekial's story illustrates this point well. He came into my office with his youngest son asking for assistance with rent. A few months of unemployment had spiraled his family into debt.  The couple and four children were short on food, behind on every bill and wondering if I had any laundry detergent.

If we stop here, we might see a typical narrative: job loss, debt, a request for charity. Voila! Welcome to poverty! But if we dig deeper...

Ezekial told me he had been working for a well-known manufacturer in town for almost a year.  He reported long days, overtime with no complaint, and pleased-as-punch supervisors. But when the year was over, his temp agency did not renew his contract.  He was let go without warning, and unlike a lucky few, the manufacturer overlooked him for direct hire -- a move that would have guaranteed steady pay and benefits.  (An alarming 42% of temporary work is now light industrial or warehouse work.  Jobs that used to guarantee a middle class stability are now "tightrope" jobs without a safety net. Click here for a good article describing this trend.)

Fortunately for Ezekial, he was able to find another job relatively quickly.  His wife had also started a job the same week.  I expressed joy at this news, but his face didn't reflect the same happiness.  He had promised her she could pursue her education full time while he supported the family. He didn't want her to work yet. "She has had such a hard life. I wanted to give her a chance to be educated. I hope she doesn't give up."

Impressed with the way he supported his family, I asked Ezekial about his own past. He immigrated 10 years ago from Nigeria with his parents to escape the violence there.

"What did you do before you came here?" I asked.

"I was a pilot."

At this point in our conversation, Ezekial's young 18 month-old had had enough.  He started squirming and slipped out of the chair. Crying ensued. Ezekial patiently picked him up. "Tut-tut...I told you to sit still." He tenderly wiped the child's face. "I work at night and watch him during the day while the other children are at school and my wife is at work."

"When do you sleep?" I asked. (At this point, I was more than a little impressed with this quiet, unassuming man.)

"When he does," Ezekial said, giving his son a squeeze. "But I don't mind.  His smile keeps me going and makes me feel like it's all worth it."

I certainly want to believe that it is all worth it for Ezekial's sake. I want to believe that he can peel away the stress and havoc that poverty can cause, because underneath the label is a beautiful human being -- a patient father, a supportive husband, a trained pilot, a dedicated worker. I am honored to know him.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

You Want to Know...What?

There is one question on our intake form that gets more blank stares and puzzled looks than any other...

What are Your Strengths and Talents?

I don't think people are used to answering this question. A client just yesterday stumbled over it. "Do I have to fill this out?" she asked.

I noted her uniform.  She worked for a home health agency in town.  I replied, "Yes, please!  I know you're good at something!"

When she came up to my office, I explained to her why we ask that question. 
  • One, we realize at Common Ground that it is very difficult for some people to ask for assistance.  It makes them feel dirty, conspicuous, even less than human. The question reminds us that the person asking for help is really good at something. (In fact, the person is very likely to be much better at that particular something than I am!)  It gives a person worth and value in what could potentially be a dehumanizing situation.
  • Second, we have been told by employers that one of the most common mistakes people make in applying for a job is the failure of the applicant to identify his/her own strengths. People don't know how to sell what they already possess! I think this is especially true of people living in the cycle of poverty.You are repeatedly beat down at every turn, so it's hard to see yourself in a positive light. We coach our guests sometimes on what to say at job interviews, based on the answer they give to that one simple question.
  • Third (and most importantly), we try to center everything we do on relationship at Common Ground. This means we want to know the whole you. We want to know your weaknesses; we want to know your strengths. We feel we can only help you if we see you as a whole person. You may be short on your rent, or you may have your utilities disconnected, but you can sing like a meadowlark. You are an awesome mother. You can weld. You once got an award for a poem you wrote in high school. These are all very important things to know about you.
When I looked at the answer to the question on our guest's intake form yesterday, I smiled. "I am good at working with people in need."

She got it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pies and Kisses

I read recently in an article that, proportionately speaking, lower- and middle-income individuals give more than people in higher income brackets. This trend seems especially true in an economic downturn, when wealthier individuals are more risk-averse and poorer individuals are in frequent contact with the homeless or unemployed.

I certainly experience this fact at Common Ground.  We have gotten donations from the unlikeliest of sources.  I know some of these gifts are given from big hearts with small purses, because they usually come in odd shapes or unusual amounts!

Just this week, one of our neighbors left a note with $7 in it and a lovely message: "Thanks for being there for my family."

Last week, an older client brought us two pies! With our help, she had been able to keep her power from being disconnected.  It was a terrifying experience for her. As a hardworking immigrant from Eastern Europe, she had always had work -- even in her seventies.  A recent layoff, however, had kept her unemployed for months, and she was having a difficult time finding a job at her age.  But there was more! Before she left, she grabbed me and slathered kisses on both cheeks!

Another couple came to the center to thank my home church for helping with an insulation project. The husband pulled out a handful of money and passed it to me apologetically.  "We wanted to give more, but we only had $22."  Of course, I insisted our work was a gift, but he was equally insistent that we keep the money. "We want to thank you, and hopefully this will help someone else in return."

One of my favorite donations came from Rex, a man we helped several years ago.  He was on the verge of homelessness when his brother, a developmentally disabled adult, was removed from his care. Rex did not even know where his brother was taken.  He only knew that he was placed in a residential care facility somewhere in the state.  When his brother left, Rex basically lost all of his income, as he was a paid caregiver through a Medicaid program. I remember making a lot of calls on his behalf -- to landlords, to legal offices, to other social workers. He had applied for disability, but had a long wait ahead of him, and we were all worried how he would manage.

Eventually, Rex was approved for disability. I saw him around town, and he always had a smile on his face. One day, he visited me at Common Ground and pulled $50 from his billfold. "I read about a little girl who needed help in the newspaper. I can't help her directly, but I want you to use this to help someone else. I'm okay now."

That conversation still sticks with me. Rex not only wanted to help someone out of kindness -- he wanted to help because he had been helped.  He wanted to pass the gift on to someone else, even if it meant giving a huge portion of his paycheck.

I'm not surprised anymore when these wonderful gifts come our way, but they warm my heart each time.  These gifts are treasures, because they are given in love, humility, and extreme generosity. (And I'm always partial to pies and kisses!)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Whole Person

As I mentioned in my first blog, I often fall flat on my face at Common Ground. One of the biggest mistakes I made in my first year was to list what I thought should be a client's goals. The list was meant to guide our volunteers when making follow up calls, but it actually set many of our clients up for failure: 9 times out of 10 "my" goals didn't align with the client's goals.

We handle our goal-setting much differently these days, and yesterday's four visitors illustrate the importance of this shift in a beautiful way...

  1. Mary: Mary, who lives on disability, came to me yesterday about a utility bill that had gotten out of hand. Last month, she was forced to make a choice -- pay the rent-to-own company so she could keep her bed (she had been sleeping on the floor prior to the current arrangement), or pay her utility bill. Mary lives in public housing (really the only affordable housing on a disability check), so the choice to put off payment of an electric bill was no minor consideration. If her power gets disconnected for more than 10 days, she will be evicted from public housing immediately. I ended our time together as I do now (remember lesson learned above?): "Before we give you a call in a couple months, what goals are you working toward? What would you like to see happen?" Mary said without hesitation, "Get healthy. I have nothing to do all day, so I eat. I want to lose weight." Mary also had a seven-month old grandbaby that she adored, and she wanted to be able to keep up with her. We discussed the outreach program at the local Y, and I encouraged Mary to call to see what her monthly membership would be. I also disclosed to Mary that I myself once weighed 100 pounds heavier. I understood the struggle! Smiling, Mary said she would--I believed her!
  2. Helen: Helen was currently homeless. She came in with the simple request of helping pay for a non-driver's identification card. It's impossible to find work without an ID, but an ID is a surprisingly hard thing to obtain when you have no income, even at the modest price of $11. I asked her what her goal was, and not surprisingly, she said, "Find a job." Instead of telling her where to look for work, I asked her for what job what she was looking. She told me she had experience working as a med tech in residential care facilities. Luckily, I knew the hiring director for some local RCFs, and I gave her his name and number.
  3. Sue: Sue and I had met last month when she came in asking for a bus pass. She had a recent jail record and was working through probation. Sue was also struggling to find work. Her husband worked full-time at minimum wage, but the loss of her income after her short incarceration was making it hard for them to pay all their bills. When prompted for her goals, a job was high on her list, but she clearly seemed depressed about her prospects of finding work. I suggested some additional skills might make her a more desirable employee and told her about our computer classes. She started a couple of weeks ago and when I saw her again yesterday, she told me, "It's hard, but I'm doing it!"
  4. Leann: Leann needed utility assistance. Her power was completely disconnected. We helped with a modest amount, and she felt that her partner could help pay the rest with his next check. Leann had a lot of other issues she was struggling with (child custody issues, required counseling visits, etc.), and she seemed scattered during our meeting. When I asked her what she wanted to see happen before our follow up (she didn't understand the concept of a "goal", so I used different language), she said, "Get to a doctor and get my health figured out." Her scattered mind made sense now. She had suffered a traumatic brain injury several years ago after being hit by a car and had not seen a doctor in years. Even knowing where to start was difficult. She had been told by therapists to see a doctor "about her head," but she wasn't sure where to go. I told her that she probably needed a neurologist, and wrote out three names and numbers for her. She seemed immensely grateful for this one very tiny gesture.
Four stories = one big lesson. Clients know best. A good question directed at what the client perceives as his/her greatest need can do a lot more than give an answer. It can make a person whole.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

You Can't Go Back

Our time together began like most of my appointments: "What brings you here today?  How can we help?"

The reason for her visit was also typical.  She needed assistance paying a couple of utility bills. April is probably the month when I see the most requests for utility assistance.  There are no state or federal funds available for utility assistance during the "moderate" spring or fall months.  So starting March 31st, many people scramble to get caught up on their winter bills.  The utility companies take a tougher approach during this time, too.  No deals are struck.  Pay 80% of your balance or lights off. "We don't want our customers to fall further into debt," one Ameren rep told me.

Thankfully, my client did not have a large bill.  I assured her we could help her catch up.  But her face reflected little relief.  She began to tell me her story...

She had recently left an abusive husband with her children in tow and wanted to prove to him she could make it on her own.  After many years of being physically bruised and emotionally battered, she had had enough.  She was doing fine, until a well-paying job at a local plant ended (much of our factory work in Jefferson City is now contracted through employment services and are often temporary and/or unpredictable). She was frightened.  She needed work.  She had many applications out but few leads. We discussed some other places to apply.

She was also an immigrant and had supported her husband with several jobs over the years while he traveled back and forth to their home country to run another business.  He had not let her return to visit her family at all during the ten years they had lived stateside, and she revealed to me that her mother had died just the day before in Africa.  She had not been able to see her or be present at her burial.  Tears flowed.  The real pain surfaced.

So many of my visits progress this way -- a client comes in with a declared need and before we say goodbye, the root of a pain or sorrow slowly emerges.  While the "need" is usually typical, the story never is. We all have a very unique and personal story that shapes us and forms our experiences, and I am convinced that a story has the power to change the listener, from the inside out.  You may want to go back to where you were comfortable, but you can't!

So I encourage you to revisit WORTHY.  Stories need to be told.  Stories need to be heard.  Some will be sad.  Some will be funny.  Some will sound hopeless.  Others will make you sing.  But you've been warned.  The stories may change you, and you can't go back.