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.”
That’s actually why I love it. Every day is different, and I’m always tackling new challenges. A normal work day can include dealing with personnel issues, fundraising, administration, bookkeeping, programming, marketing and volunteer development.
That’s not to mention the constant decisions I have to make that impact the lives of the people we serve.
So, while I’m generally harried and stressed, I’m also generally happy to be at work – with one exception.
I hate being the one responsible when something goes wrong with the building. I’ve dealt with roof leaks, security alarm issues and, worst of all, plumbing problems. I’ve dealt with so many plumbing problems this past year that I’ve become quite the expert with the plunger.
Of all of my accomplishments, that’s not one in which I take any pride. It’s also one I wish I could avoid.
That’s why, when I was called into the intake office on Friday afternoon, I ignored a rather loud gurgling sound coming from the downstairs bathroom – the ones our clients use.
Instead, I chose to focus on the homeless couple seeking help. After speaking with the two individuals for a few minutes, I went upstairs to make phone calls on their half.
I was on the verge of resolving their predicament when I got an urgent call from the intake office.
“The bathroom is flooding. There is water all over the floor and there is poop floating in it!”
This was not the time to display my mad plunger skills, but, as the person in charge, I still had to deal with the situation.
My shoe excuse didn’t impress the rest of the staff, who looked down at their feet with the same forlorn look that I had given mine.
Finally, the social worker, who was wearing tennis shoes, sighed and waded into the bathroom to get the plunger.
That’s when the young homeless man spoke up. “I can help,” he said. “I’ve done worse jobs.”
I couldn’t imagine a worse job than cleaning up the waste of a complete stranger, but he was true to his word.
He unclogged the toilet, mopped the floor and disinfected the bathroom.
And he never once complained.
While he cleaned, the social worker did an intake and an assessment with his partner, and we were able to find temporary solution.
After the couple left and I had asked staff to put the mop, bucket and gloves in the garbage can outside, I reflected on the incident.
The homeless guy hadn’t thought twice about helping out because he recognized what he could contribute to a really crappy situation.
And, regardless of the toilet situation, I was just able to help him out with his own very different, but just as crappy, situation.
And that is why I really, really love my job.
I love shoes.
Unfortunately, I wear out shoes quickly. Very quickly. And, I’ve found that when my shoes are worn out, I have to fight even harder to get respect.
I’m not sure that people who work in the for-profit world will understand, but anyone who works for a community-based nonprofit organization will – especially those who work for social service agencies. Our shoes , just like us, are often worked and worn to the bone.
We are a unique breed that must band together. Our biggest battles aren’t necessarily a result of working directly with the people who need help or of the perception that they are undeserving, lazy or simply crazy.
Sometimes, our biggest battles are with people who support our organization, a cause or a specific project.
I should know.
For almost twenty years, I’ve worked for community-based nonprofit organizations. And while the work is exhausting, it’s also meaningful and educational.
But now, my career path is about to change slightly, so before I leave my comrades, I feel the need to share a few words of wisdom with our board members, our volunteers and our donors:
1. We greatly appreciate you. We know the work we do wouldn’t be possible without you. We know you care, and we know you are compassionate.
2. Your compassion doesn’t mean you are qualified to do our jobs.
3. We do our jobs because we are both compassionate AND skilled.
4. Your bank account doesn’t mean that you know more about the issues than we do. Not only do we have the training and the work experience, many of us work in the trenches because we have ” been there.” Sometimes, because of our salaries, we are still there. Please listen to us.
5. Don’t assume you are more educated than we are. Most nonprofit and social services jobs require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree for a position that often doesn’t pay as much as an entry-level, administrative assistant job in the business world.
6. Don’t assume that our ONLY motivation is helping people. That’s a primary motivation, but we still need to pay the bills. Keeping agency administrative costs low is important, but keeping them too low may be hurting the people who are trying to do the most good. It may also limit your pool for people who can fill key leadership positions.
7. Don’t assume that staff doesn’t care about salary and benefits (or lack thereof) because we have spouses/partners who, in your eyes, have”a real job.” The work we do is “ a real job.” Many of our jobs require a license. The helping profession is bound by ethical, legal and professional practices that have been put in place for a reason.
8. Don’t assume that just because we don’t get personally involved with clients that we don’t care. We probably care more than you will ever know. But because we are educated in our field and because we often hold a license, we have to behave in a professional manner that will limit liability while improving outcomes for the client.
9. We know that when you work with our organizations you are volunteering, and we appreciate your time more than you will ever know. But don’t assume we are lazy or not committed to the cause because, at the end of the work day, we don’t have the energy to volunteer to do the same thing we do day in and day out.
10. Disregarding staff in times of key leadership decisions only leads to poor morale. When a key staff person is leaving, other staff members should be consulted as to what skills and leadership style would fit with the team before the selection process even begins. Staff should even be consulted about their interest in a leadership position.
11. The nonprofit and social service sector is composed primarily of females. Falling back on the “good old boys” network for leadership is taking a step backwards, not forwards. It doesn’t sit well with female staff, donors or volunteers.
12. Board members have to play an active role and not simply serve as a rubber stamp for decisions that may have been presented by someone with an agenda. You can always go back to the drawing board – don’t feel like your options are limited to what is presented to you at a board meeting.
These words of advice are based on my long-term work for community nonprofits. That work will end when I walk out the door of my current employer this Friday and into the door of my new employer the following Monday.
As would be expected, my departure has led to an appreciation I never knew existed (see suggestions Number 10 and 11).
So for all the people who, over the past few weeks, have told me that I’m leaving some really big shoes to fill, I apologize if I haven’t accepted the compliment with grace.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiments. I just know my shoes are really worn out.
Whoever takes my job not only needs to put on their own pair of shoes, they also have the opportunity to point those shoes in their own direction.
And I’m sure that direction will lead to a lot of great accomplishments.