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God loves U…enjoy the sandwhiches

Stop right there, I know. That is not how you spell sandwhiches. Is there a story? But of course. Let me explain,

I want to talk about a concept that has been in the back of my mind for a while now. It is something that I think has been bugging and awing me for the past for months. This thought is one that rarely gets much attention. However I believe it deserves all the credit in the world for how relationships between all individuals operate.

It is the concept of capacity.

Webster’s Dictionary defines Capacity: the maximum amount or number that can be contained or accommodated

Centered at the front of my attention, this concept of capacity has been on my mind for a while. While the definition seems simple, I think the word means so much more. I think it is a loaded word, pregnant with so much life and substance. I think it is a word the defines relationships. I think it is a word that contributes to who we are as individuals, citizens, friends, lovers, workers, humans and so much more.

The capacity at which a person can love.

The capacity at which a person can hate.

The capacity at which a person can forgive.

The capacity at which a person can forget.

The capacity at which a person can determine priority.

There is a capacity that each of us allows to feel from others and a capacity that we allow others to feel. And beyond relationships, I think capacity can apply to tangible things as well (This will come into play with the post’s title).

In my line of work, I deal with people at their rock bottom. For some being homeless is the lowest level of low that one can possibly be at. I see people in their most genuine form of survival and their capacity to survive. What I think blows my mind day after day is their capacity to act on what they feel will help them survive.

A few weeks ago the housing specialist came to my desk to let me know that a woman would be coming into the shelter to obtain homeless status to be eligible for a housing grant that we have access to. She asked if I could take care of her paperwork and assessment. I agreed and a few nights later her ID was dropped on my desk.

I had no idea of who this woman was or what her situation was. The grant we have access to is to help people who need financial assistance with moving into their own homes. Almost anyone can be eligible for it, but they need homeless status and to acquire that, they need to stay in the shelter at least one night.

With her ID on my desk, I prepared her assessment paperwork like I do for the dozens of new people entering the shelter every week who I assist in transitioning. I walked out front and saw her sitting on the front bench, shaking. I smiled and introduced myself. Her voice shook as she reached out her hand to introduce herself. I explained the intake procedure and we walked back to my office. We sat down and like I do with any client before beginning the technical stuff  I just asked,

Why are you here?

Every day I go in I think nothing could ever shock me again, and every day I am proven wrong.

This was one story that stuck with me. It was her birthday back in 2011. Her husband woke her up with breakfast in bed. He kissed her good morning and said eat up. When she was done, they got dressed and he suggested they go on a birthday walk. She told me how in love they were. Their 3-year-old daughter was staying at her grandmother’s house so they could spend the day together. They went out walking. She stopped and stared at me. Her look went right through me and I felt the shift within her. Her eyes welled up. When they were walking he tripped. He stumbled and fell into the road. She said everything happened so fast that no one knew what happened. She didn’t. He didn’t. The driver of the car didn’t. She watched him get hit and just dropped.

Fast forward a year and a few months later. She had spent months in mental health recovery and while any specialist could tell you that isn’t nearly enough time, she came out of recovery for her daughter’s sake. She lost her home because they couldn’t afford it without his income. Her mother took them in. But in the time since he passed, she was finally able to secure a job. She just couldn’t afford that first lump payment for an apartment and heard about our financial assistance. When our housing specialist said she would need to stay in shelter one night to acquire homeless status, she became nervous. We sat in my office, very fragile. When we finished the paperwork, she said, what’s next? I told her now she left the office area and went into the shelter. The tears started coming and she said, oh of course. She dropped her bags and frantically collected them.

I said her name and she looked up, broken, all I asked was if she wanted to sit with me a little longer to prolong her inevitable stay in the shelter. She breathed out and said thank you. I’ve never seen someone so grateful just to stay sitting in an office. I said, tell me about your daughter. She went on and on. And I realized, despite all the trauma this poor woman had been through, she was putting herself through more, all for her daughter.

I couldn’t even comprehend the capacity of love she had for her daughter. Despite all the loss and pain, she wasn’t phased for a second when it came to the love and sacrifice she would go through for her daughter. I cried when I left work that night because of how tragically beautiful the story I heard was.

Now, while a person’s capacity to love can be immense and so powerful. Their capacity to hate can be just as immense and what’s more, take a much bigger toll on us.

Last week was the worst week it could have possibly been. I couldn’t have woken up last Monday morning possibly conceiving it would be a worse week. From the moment I walked into work to the moment I left Friday afternoon, just awful.

And during this whole awful week the concept of capacity stayed focused in my mind.

The capacity to throw 4 months of meticulous work, a college education and low-cost housing all out the window. The capacity to throw it all away.

The capacity to have someone risk their job for your health and then disregard them for your own selfish reasons. The capacity to use others.

The capacity to tell someone with anger and hate filling your bones that you wanted nothing more than to slice your wrists open and it was their fault. The capacity to be angry. The capacity to hate.

Such negative emotions. Fueled by what? No one knows. I don’t anyways. But being at the end of all the hate, selfishness, anger. It burnt me out.

People said one thing when I started this job.

Don’t get burned out.

But when I woke up Monday morning, I felt it. I didn’t want to go to work. But I did. I’m not just going to not show up. Fortunately, I had a 1-on-1 with my boss. We sat down and I told her everything. And like she does, she asked me my self-care areas.

I work out, I write, I pray.

Those get me through the day. And when I left I thought, I am going to work out tonight and maybe I should write about this too. But I didn’t think about prayer.

I went to the kitchen and asked the director if there were any lunches left. He said there were some bag lunches in the fridge. I grabbed one and walked back to my office. I sat down with a sense of exhaustion and defeat. But I opened my bag lunch and noticed a piece of paper inside. I reached in and pulled it out.

God loves U...eat the sandwhiches

God loves U…eat the sandwhiches

I almost teared up because of how happy it made me. I don’t know who put it in or where it came from. I could have grabbed any number of random bags. But that is the one I grabbed. And I grabbed it for a reason. Despite all the pain and sadness from the week before. I forgot about my own capacity. My capacity to trust in my faith. To trust in the fact that I am loved and watched over by someone so much greater than anyone.

The capacity to do anything is great. I believe capacity to love, hate, trust, forgive, forget, be humble, be great, be good, makes us who we are. And by the definition, is what separates us, making us unique and allows us stand up and stand apart from others.

Anyone has the ability to possess those qualities. But to possess the capacity to truly understand and demonstrate them, is something completely different.

Thank you for watching out over me.

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SUIT UP! Getting the job

So after that week, I was really disheartened. Despite learning a lot, I was empty-handed. I didn’t really know what to think about my current position, but I knew that I couldn’t stop. Despite the scams and let downs, this was job hunting. This wasn’t something I could just say,

“Oh well” and walk away from. Post college job hunting is a fight that doesn’t stop until you win. So despite the frustration, I was in no position to complain. This battle had just begun.

Or so I thought.

On the following Monday I sat at my desk with my resume and my legal pad to prepare for my phone interview. It was with a non-profit company called Father Bill’s & Mainspring, an agency working to end homelessness. It was for the position of Triage Worker. An old family friend recommended it to me and so I followed through with the company.

My interview was with a woman named Caitlin Kelley. She called and we chatted for about a half hour and I thought it went really well. She told me she’d call me the following day if they wanted to follow through with an in-person interview. Which she did. I came in later that week to their Quincy facility. It was a homeless shelter and I was honestly a  little taken back. I wasn’t expecting to actually be at a shelter, and what might have made it worse, I suited up. I came to a locked door and a man came and asked what I was doing there. I told him I was there to meet Caitlin. I had a seat on a bench and watched as people cleaned around the shelter, not knowing who was homeless and who wasn’t. But after a few minutes a woman came to the lobby and said,

“Nicholas?”

I looked up and she looked very much like a girl I had just graduated with. I was expecting an older woman, but she couldn’t have been much older than me. She brought me into an office with a different woman named Shannon. We sat down and talked for about an hour. Again, by the end, I felt very good about it. I however, followed my own rules. I asked what I would be doing. They said, I would spend my days meeting 1 on 1 with homeless individuals assessing their areas of needs and helping them back to self-sufficiency. I would be given the resources necessary to help them and work from there. I loved this idea. If there is one thing my friends know about me, it is that I love helping people.

With that said, I was told they would review my information and I would either get a call from their manager for a third and final interview or a less than desired phone call.

That was on Thursday. The weekend that came after that was my first alumni weekend at school. I found it very interesting to go back to school and see how in just a short period of time, so much had changed amongst my former classmates. We all had grown in such different ways. Our lives had taken different paths. But nonetheless, we were all back to the place we once called home. Whenever people asked me what I was doing, I just told them I was trying to get involved with a non-profit and help people. I returned home feeling a little anxious still not having a phone call.

But then the next day I was out to lunch with my mother and my phone rang. It was a woman named Jill St. Martin and she was offering me my final interview. I jumped up in the restaurant with such excitement. She told me my interview would be in a week and a half. While I was a little anxious that I had to wait so long, it was something.

The day of the interview came and I suited up again. I wore my black suit with a grey shirt and my favorite tie. I needed to feel good if I was going to nail this interview. I drove to the Brockton office and waited. A few people told me she was running late and would be there soon. I waited about 15 minutes. She came and met me and I swear, this is what I remember about the interview.

We walked into her office. I sat down in her office and the first thing I noticed was that it was a tad warm. When I get hot… I sweat. When I sweat… I sweat more. So we started talking and then I felt the first drop of sweat on my forehead. Then I realized…shit, I’m sweating.

All I could think was

“STOP SWEATING!” But of course, that made me sweat more. I couldn’t tell you what she was saying, but I could tell you that I was starting to sweat a lot. How could I tell you this? Because the next thing out of her mouth was,

“You can take your suit jacket off if you’re hot?” My response?

“No no, I’m not hot.” WHY DID I SAY THAT? She then proceeded to go turn her fan on… on me. Because I was visibly sweating so much. So as the interview continued I became more nervous about the fact that not only was I profusely sweating, she took note of it. So as she continued to talk, I made the decision to take my jacket off and when I shifted to do so I became aware of something. I was wearing a grey shirt and was sweating.

So yes, pit stains were unfortunately all too present. As discretely as I could I took my jacket off and kept my arms in. In all honesty, she probably totally absolutely saw them. Cause that’s what you want in an interview. So despite the sweat, I finished the interview. It finished with her saying I would either receive this position or an interview for a different position. I liked my odds, but to this day couldn’t tell you what we actually discussed in that interview. I freaked out the whole time. The interview was on Wednesday and I would find out on Friday.

I got home and my mother asked how it went and I said,

“I don’t know, I sweat the whole time.” She laughed and we agreed to just hope for the best. The next day I received a phone call from Caitlin. She was calling to offer me the position and I couldn’t hold back my excitement. I accepted the job on the spot and she said we’d start-up in a week and a half.

So despite all the frustrations of the first week. I ultimately ended up with a job that today, 3 months later, I love. And while yes it is a non-profit. I get to help save and changed lives every day. And I couldn’t ask for anything more in the work that I do.

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Defining Normal

define normal

During my stay in Ecuador we participated in nightly reflections. Each time there would be a theme, a reading and a series of questions or statements to prompt discussion. Towards the end of the trip, the question was asked, “What is something that has changed for you during your journey?” A number of answers and stories were shared by the group. Billy, our service leader host shared with us, “I’ve been here for a few months now and the thing that has changed the most for me is the definition of what is normal.”

In the past week, I’ve seen people’s capacity to do a lot of different things and it has really raised this question again in my mind,

How do we define normal? Can we even do it?

I haven’t written for a while and that is because on October 15 I took a job as a Triage Worker for an organization working to end homelessness in a growing region of Massachusetts. Whenever I met people in the organization who asked about my background of school and work, I’d answer, “English and Art”  resulting in the same strange look. But two weeks ago, an employee I hadn’t met yet introduced himself and we got to talking. He was also an artist who flat-out just enjoyed helping people. But when the question of my background came up, he didn’t give me any strange looks, he thought it was awesome and asked very casually why I loved being here. My response,

“I’m a writer, I love characters.”

He laughed all too knowingly of his next statement,

“We have plenty of those here.”

Because working in a shelter, you see and meet a LOT of characters. You meet people with stories that simply couldn’t be written. I’ve wanted to write a lot of them for a while now but due to confidentiality and the fragility of starting my first career, being cautious was my first move. But after getting my boss’ permission (who is a wonderful boss if she is reading this) to write about my work and some of the cases I deal with,  recent events in particular have pushed me to the keyboard.

When I first joined the organization, I went through a rigorous two-week training program. I had to learn every in and out of this organization. Two months later, I haven’t stopped learning for one day. But those two weeks were crunch time. At one orientation in particular, directed by the organization’s COO, she told a story about why our organization is different from others. Her words were,

“We don’t give up.”

My first reaction to this statement was a positive one. Of course I had no interest in giving up. As a fresh young graduate starting small in a large non-profit, giving  up on anything was the farthest thought from my mind. But over the past few months, things have proven difficult with this motto holding firm in my head. Because the people who come to me everyday are the ones who have been given up on by everyone else in their lives. And unfortunately, many show and explain legitimate reasons to be given up on. But my job description doesn’t include judgement, it includes getting them to the point of self-sufficiency so that there is no need to be given up on again.

But getting there is no easy journey.

When you are sitting at home, warm, comfortable, satisfied with life, is that normal?

When you are sitting across from a man strung out on heroine and alcohol,  is that normal?

Most that I know would said no to the latter. But consider that for that man, that is his normal. His world populated by drugs and alcohol is all he knows.

The difficulty is not in defining normal, but in tolerating it and even more, respecting it.

Because while we grow up in a middle class lifestyle sharing in the common differences that is human nature, we lack the knowledge of the vast and rare differences that the world is populated with. What is normal for some unfortunately is seen so poorly by others.

What sparked this concept in my head were multiple instances last week. Each dealing with a different scale of normal.

1.

The first was talking to a friend who was upset about her boyfriend and his actions of late. She expressed her frustration with his lack of knowledge of seemingly obvious boyfriend etiquette. I asked how many girlfriends he had in the past. She stated none, she was the first. Being objective, it seemed clear that of course he didn’t know “obvious boyfriend etiquette”, he had never been a boyfriend before. But her definition of normal wouldn’t let her accept this answer. But his concept of normal wouldn’t let him to understand her frustration.

2.

About two weeks ago a gentleman came into the shelter with bloodshot eyes. We drug tested him and he came up positive for heroine. I told him there wasn’t a penalty, it was more for liability we needed to be aware. He seemed lost and confused and I handed him my card and said come here in two days and I’ll help you. He returned in two days and had been sober for all of 2 hours and withdrawals had begun. We went to my office and began calling detox centers all over. One after another they said they were filled and the look of disappointment swept over his face. I told him we were going to keep calling. He asked “Why are you helping me? I’ve never done anything for you.” I looked back and before I could answer, he saw a bracelet on my wrist which I have worn for years. He spoke up again, “What does that say?” I responded,

“Mitakuye Oyasin.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“We are all related.”

He smiled and sat back. I called the next detox and sure enough they had an open spot. I drove him there, shook his hand and explained to find me when he was clean and we’d take a next step. I felt proud until the next day he stumbled into the shelter smelling of alcohol. But I didn’t see him for quite a few days after that. Until mid last week when he came pounding on the front door. I happened to be there and answered asking how he was doing. He was clearly intoxicated and said confidently,

“I am going to go jump in front of a train, I’m going to go kill myself.”

My heart sank and I felt myself go into shock. I had him sit down inside to run to my boss and ask what to do. Within the hour we had him sitting with a counselor talking. When they were done, he went to bed. The counselor who was from outside the organization asked me his story. When I explained it she was surprised we still helped despite the self discharge from the detox. She seemed judgmental. I had this moment of clarity when I realized that despite this being her job, she would have given up. Because something I was taught early on in my training was that you must suspend your judgement when working. But  more importantly, you must suspend your definition of what is normal. Because if you sit in silence with anyone thinking, that isn’t normal, then the barriers to the relationship will never go away.

3.

Last night I was at a family Christmas party and we decided to get a fire going in the backyard. One cousin who is 25 and another who is 19 went out to the back to start it up and I joined. We huddle around the small but growing flames chatting and catching up. When two of our little cousins, ages 7 and 10, ran out to join us, they wanted to throw everything they could find into the fire. My older cousin and I assumed the parental roles in the situation to make sure our littlest cousins weren’t about to be barbecued. He, a teacher, got very stern and strict with them. I, a case manager, took the more casual and relaxed route.

My other cousin of 19 stood back laughing at the two of conducting different parenting styles and stated he enjoyed not being one of the “older cousins” quite yet. He openly continued to comment on our personality types busting out as we tried to prevent the little cousins from burning down the property. Eventually when it came to putting out the fire and having the little ones go inside, it was young parenting at its finest. His teacher voice was in full discipline mode while I quickly understood that these two had no intention of obeying him or I in a parenting duel. My response was walking over and tossing them both over my shoulder and taking them inside. When I put them down inside, half the family was laughing and half was appalled. I explained the situation and my uncle, their grandfather, stated “did what you had to do.”

I walked back outside and helped put the fire out. My younger cousin still laughing at how the two of us handled it in our different ways. And it made me realize how someday my older cousin, who I refer to as my older brother, will have kids. And I’ll have kids. And those kids will be very different from one another. They will be raised, like we were, by two very different sets up parents. But he will love mine and I will love his, unconditionally. Because while we all have our own particular definitions of normal, it makes no one else’s wrong or bad, it makes it their own.

There were a lot of instances from the past week that made me think of this concept. But with each one I tried to stop myself and ask, “Is it just someone else’s normal?” And I think it’s a valid question to ask when dealing with the things we don’t understand. Because that’s just it. We don’t understand them. I think there is a lot we don’t understand in this world. About each other, about different cultures, about the world. And instead of thinking it is wrong or weird, we should strive to understand and appreciate why is it someone’s normal.

Webster’s Dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern” And I guess you have to ask yourself, how do you define normal?

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