A reflection on a year working in community action

A year ago I transitioned from living and working in Guatemala with the Peace Corps to living back in my hometown with my family in Oregon. After a few months of job searching and histeria, and a brief moment at Lowe’s Garden Center being completely confused about how there are this many types of plants that all look the same, I stumbled upon the joint initiative of Community Action Partnership. And as it is the end of May, it is still Community Action month!

Community Action Partnerships nationwide help to create strong communities that are more equitiable for all. CAP helps people to have the tools to help themselves.

When I started in June of 2020 I began working in homeless prevention through our county’s Community Action rental assistance program. It was a great opportunity because I got to learn the ins and outs of the programs at the organization, learn how important proper documentation was for our clients and processess, and I was able to practice my Spanish through interactions with the Speaking speaking community seeking assistance. I worked in that position specifically for three months and then was offered to level up to another position as Outreach Specialist in the organization. I continued with my homeless prevention/rental assistance position through December and transitioned to my Outreach Specialist role in September. January of 2021 I was fully working as Outreach Specialist and focusing on that role. Now, June of 2021, I’ve been working as Outreach Specialist for almost nine months! And can celebrate my one full year of working with the organization!

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it all for several reasons. The first being that I didn’t know what I was getting into at all when I applied to work here. I was desparate to find a job that I liked and that helped me to grow professionally, but felt discouraged thinking that there was not a lot of options in my hometown. When I found this position it seemed intriguing and exciting. I stayed up all night perfecting my resume and filling out the application with extreme attention to detail. The next day I got a call for an interview and was offered the job within one more day. It all happened so fast and I was honestly not expecting too much out of the job. It was a work from home position and I was still in the mindset that I would be returning to Guatemala (because this pandemic isn’t going to last more than a few months, right?! Ha!)

I was in for some real surprises, but a lot of real gratification. I loved talking to clients and getting to see their joy when they received assistance. I loved to hear their stories. Some would even send me pictures of their kids and tell me about their families. It was a powerful moment of growth and change as I went from a person who once told my fiance, “never let me become a social worker” to a person who was considering changing my career path from international relations to social work. I was not quite changed by the fall, however. It took my transition to Outreach Specialist to fully convert me.

My opposition to becoming a social worker was always rooted in my belief that I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t handle the pain that others were feeling. I am too much of an empath and I thought that it would crush me. It was easier to turn my head and focus on other ways that I could make a difference. What I did not realize was that once I took a real look, I could no longer turn my head to those that were suffering. I had spent seven months living in Guatemala doing amazing work with the community there. Throughout high school I went on many mission trips and built houses in Mexico and built relationships there. And that was all good work. But it was easier for me to ignore the hurt that was happening in my own community, to my own neighbors, and to instead flee to other areas of the world.

Within these past nine months of working as Outreach Specialist I have built the trust of many of my houseless neighbors, heard their stories, sat with them in their pain, shared laughs, and was present with them. Someone who I would have a year ago thought of as the “other” and may have been too scared to talk to or make eye contact with, I now know by name. I now know where they sleep at night. I now can say hi to them and let them know I see them. There’s a lot more complexities to the job that I do, including case management, getting people to agree to treatment, having really hard conversations about mental health, getting yelled at, being rejected, collecting paperwork, and so much more. But down to the core, the most satisfying has been the ability to see people I may not have wanted to see before and have them see me right back.

The moment that it hit me was when I was sitting on the steps of a church during their meal time speaking with someone who had been homeless in the community for over a year and I got to listen to their story as they ate. They told me about their life growing up and how it was riddled with abuse. They had struggled throughout school with a developmental disability and lost every job they ever had due to the disability and eventual issues controlling their anger. Their biggest housing fear was that they would not be successful in an apartment due to the developmental disability and lack of support. Their family didn’t want anything to do with them. With tears in their eyes, they told me how the broken relationship with their daughter was a huge pain and regret to them. I sat there listening intently. Could I do anything to fix it? No, and definitely not anything right in that moment. But I could listen and affirm. And when I got up to leave I couldn’t believe that that was my job. Sitting on the steps of a church and connecting with other human beings to hopefully eventually transition them into a stable living environment.

The goal is, as Community Solutions/Built For Zero says, to live in a community where homelessness is rare and when it does occur, it is brief.

I could talk forever about this and I haven’t even touched on the complexities of it all, but I wanted to take the time to reflect on the human aspect of it and how it has been changing me every day. There’s a lot we can do as a society to see and hear the “other.” To transform our ideas of them in our head from an outsider to someone who is a part of us.

The words in this blog post are mine and mine alone and do not reflect Community Action Partnership, Community Solutions, Built For Zero, or any organization working to end homelessness.

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