There 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.
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.
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. There 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.
The story about Fran wasn’t inspiring. She was smelly and unpopular and didn’t have much hope or support. Her efforts to escape her family life was depressing. But the book opened my eyes to a world completely different from my own.
I had a parents who did what society expected parents to do. Fran’s father had left, and her mother was mentally ill.
I never doubted my future was bright, and Fran’s only hope was in an imaginary world.
Yet, some part of me understood and cheered for Fran. And some part of me wanted to step in and make her life better.
Decades later, I’m a licensed social worker and, next week, I’m starting a job that will affect families who, like Fran’s, are facing numerous challenges. As a freshman in college, I never would have chosen such a career path. I thought I was destined for much greater things.
But as a third grader, I think I knew what direction my life would eventually take. And I also think I knew that path would be all about doing great things.
That always makes me smile.
Day 129: The Bears’ House
Day 128: Veterans Day 127: Doppelgangers Day 126: Letting Life Unfold as It Should Day 125: The Constantly Changing Sky Day 124: When History Repeats Itself Day 123: The Love Scene in The Sound of Music Day 122: Helen Keller Day 121: The Welcome Back Kotter Theme Song Day 120: Sheldon Cooper Day 119: Having Permission to Make Mistakes Day 118: A Diverse Group of Friends Day 117: Family Traditions Day 116: The Haunting Season Day 115; Life Experience Day 114: Changes Day 113: The Wooly Bear Caterpillar Day 112: The National Anthem Day 111: Parents Who Care Day 110: Good Friends Day 109: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss Day 108: A.A. Milne QuotesDay 107: Spending Time Wisely Day 106: Parades Day 105: The Peanuts Gang Dancing Day 104: Sharing a Secret Language Day 103: The Electric Company Day 102: Doing the Right Thing Day 101: When Siblings Agree Day 100: Being Optimistic Day 99: Trying Something New Day 98: The Sound of Children on a Playground Day97: Good Advice Day 96: Red and white peppermint candy Day 95: The Soundtrack from the Movie Shrek Day 94: Accepting Change Day 93: True Love Day 92: Camera Phones Day 91: Bicycle Brakes Day 90: HeroesDay 89: The Cricket in Times Square Day 88: The Grand Canyon Day 87: Unanswered Prayers Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard Day 85: Being Human Day 84: Captain Underpants Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Day 80: The Outsiders Day 79: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day77: People Who Touch Our Lives Day 76: The Rewards of Parenting Day 75: Improvements Day 74: Family Traditions Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 72: Live Music Day 71: Sleeping In Day 70: Grover Day 69: A Good Hair Day Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness Day 66: Living in a Place You Love Day 65: Gifts from the Heart Day 64: The Arrival of Fall Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird Day 62: Green LightsDay 61: My Canine Friends Day 60: Differences Day 59: A New Box of Crayons Day 58: Bookworms Day 57: Being Oblivious Day 56: Three-day Weekends Day 55: A Cat Purring Day 54: Being a Unique Individual Day 53: Children’s Artwork Day 52: Lefties Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer Day 50: Campfires Day 49: Childhood Crushes Day 48: The Words “Miss You” Day 47: Birthday Stories Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us Day 45: Play-Doh Day 44: First Day of School Pictures Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes Day 42: Appreciative Readers Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote Day 40: Being Silly Day 39: Being Happy Exactly Where You Are Day 38: Proud Grandparents Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want Day 34: Accepting the Fog Day 33: I See the Moon Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap Day 31: Perspective Day 30: Unlikely Friendships Day 29: Good Samaritans Day 28: Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet? Day 27: Shadows Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads Day 25: When Harry Met Sally Day 24: Hibiscus Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck Day 22: The Wonderful World of Disney Day 21: Puppy love Day 20 Personal Theme Songs Day 19: Summer Clouds Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s VictoryDay 17: A Royal Birth Day 16: Creative KidsDay 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His MasculinityDay 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter Day 12: Round Bales of HayDay 11: Water Fountains for Dogs Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers Day 8: Great Teachers We Still RememberDay 7: Finding the missing sock Day 6: Children’s books that teach life-long lessonsDay 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment Day 4: Jumping in Puddles Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill Day 2: Old PhotographsDay 1: The Martians on Sesame Street
As a licensed social worker, I couldn’t get out of bed every morning if I didn’t believe people can change, that humans have an innate responsibility to support each other and that no good comes from belittling others.
As a rational human, I couldn’t get through life if I simply tolerated and never called out stupid and ridiculous beliefs and behaviors.
As a licensed social worker, I have to ensure that my conduct is appropriate, that I abide by a code of ethics and that I participate in ongoing continuing education.
As a rational human, I am dumbfounded by people who complain when they are required to meet expectations and criteria before they are provided with opportunities and privileges.
As a licensed social worker, I have an obligation to listen, try to understand the perspective of others and validate their feelings.
As a rational human, I simply cannot understand why others choose to ignore facts, scream conspiracy and throw around accusations that are hurtful. I have to call out people who choose to believe and spread all of the vile, ridiculous and illogical propaganda about gun control that I have been witnessing over the past few weeks.
The rabid followers of the NRA propaganda machine remind me of children blindly hitting a piñata at a birthday party. For most people, hitting the piñata is just fun game that results in children scrambling for a few pieces of candy. But the NRA is turning gun control into a piñata that must be destroyed and is putting the blindfolds on people as they swing at it. Those swinging the sticks are convinced that if they don’t break the piñata, they will never have candy again.
In reality, if the piñata doesn’t break, the children won’t be denied candy. They just won’t get the immediate gratification they are seeking.
Most parents allow their children to have candy, but they don’t want them to make a diet of it. Similarly, gun control advocates are not screaming that everyone’s guns should be confiscated. Instead, they are recognizing that too many lives are being broken and destroyed by guns and that something must be done. To counter that, claims are being made that the gun death statistics in the United States aren’t that bad.
Tell that to someone who has lost a loved one to a gun. For them, one death is too many.
Just ask Jackie Barden, whose son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school in December. Jackie recently noted that the process for adopting a kitten is more difficult than getting a gun.
I don’t know much about adopting kittens, but I do know a lot about adopting dogs. As a volunteer for a dog rescue group, my role is to process applications. In other words, I do background checks. I check national “do not adopt” lists. I do a criminal background check. I conduct property checks. I review living arrangements. I talk to animal control and veterinarians about the applicants. And I call references. If I don’t find any red flags, another volunteer conducts a home visit.
Many families who want to adopt a dog are denied for a variety of reasons: they’ve had pets hit by cars; they haven’t spayed or neutered their current or previous pets; they aren’t home enough to spend quality time with an animal; they don’t have the money or space for a dog; they already have too many pets. The list is long and varied, but the bottom line is the same. Rescue groups want to ensure the dogs have a good quality of life and, most of all, that they are safe.
We should want the same for people. And yet, in the United States, people who are denied adopting a dog can walk into a store or a gun show and buy almost any gun they want.
We might be keeping dogs safe, but I have to wonder about the people.