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.