I've worked in the nonprofit world, professionally, for more than 10 years. I've worked in the for-profit world as well, but nonprofit work has always called out to me, demanding my attention.
For the last year+, I've worked in an emergency shelter for adults in one of the "most dangerous areas of the country." It's hard work, but it's incredibly rewarding.
Most days, I genuinely love my job because I can see- in real time- the transformative effects of how my staff approaches breaking the cycles of poverty, homelessness, and addiction.
A few months ago, I was privileged to attend a graduation for gentlemen who had gone through a course we offered that focuses on building up men into better husbands, providers, and fathers. One particular man (I'll call him Joe) stands out to me:
Joe arrived to our shelter struggling with addiction and poverty. His child's mother kicked him out of the house and cut off all communication for him as a means to protect their daughter from his addiction and general inability to be a functioning adult. It took a few months, but slowly, Joe began to trust us and finally began to take advantage of the services we offer at the shelter. Fast forward about six months, and Joe completed the Fatherhood course. At his graduation ceremony, he received a few gift cards that were meant to celebrate his achievements and growth.
I think of Joe's story all the time. He's since moved on from our shelter and into a place of his own. We were able to help him with job placement and a housing voucher, and he's been sober for about 5 months now. His story is repeated in others every day here, and it's amazing to see. The work we do doesn't just transform the individuals we serve; it transforms their families, friends, and colleagues.
Unfortunately, not all stories end like Joe's; I really wish they did. Today, I walked in to see several of my coworkers standing around a computer screen looking through security footage. This isn't entirely odd- there are often incidents that need to be tracked or cataloged given the area in which we serve. However, I could tell by the atmosphere of our normally jovial lobby that something terrible had happened.
One of the people we serve- I'll call him Michael- had been hit by a car. Unfortunately, we didn't capture the accident on camera, but we were able to see the aftermath of police cars and ambulances that raced up the street, just off-camera, that responded to the scene. It took us all day to locate him. We called hospitals, morgues, even the police station, but due to HIPPA regulations and various policies (and the fact that we aren't considered guardians or family), we weren't given any information. Luckily, one of our social workers had backdoor access to the hospital that we were able to locate him at. News was grim; Michael was pronounced dead on arrival.
Michael had a history of addiction and serious health concerns. Poverty prevented much of his ability to see to those health concerns, and he walked with a cane. However, he was always very pleasant and polite, greeting me every day with a "Good mornin', Miss Gina" and "How's that baby of yours, Miss Gina?" He'd also poke his head into my office now and again to ask me if I'd wanted to share lunch or a snack. He didn't have much family left as he, himself, was approaching being a senior citizen. He reminded me of a sweet grandfather who simply got dealt a bad hand and was doing what he could to make the most of it. It kills me that he died steps from our shelter and none of us could do anything about it.
And to add insult to injury, I opened my inbox to find a heartbreaking SOS from two sons who were trying desperately to find information on their mother. It turns out that she had been deceased since October, but could only be identified recently through fingerprints. They were trying to piece together her last months and hoped we had come into contact with her.
Upon seeing the name and photo of their mother, of course we recognized her. I will call her Linda.
Linda was a recovering drug addict who also experienced a significant amount of trauma from multiple sexual assaults. She had been a member of our shelter family back in 2021 before we were able to find her placement in a rehabilitation program. Upon completion of the program, she began rebuilding her life, but unfortunately, suffered a setback and found her way back to the streets. Luckily, she knew she could return to us for help without judgement, because we all know just how hard it is to break these cycles. For a couple months, we worked with her to help her regain control over her life. Unfortunately, she relapsed and overdosed about 2 miles from our shelter. She left one day and never came back. It wasn't until we got the e-mail from her sons that we learned how Linda's story ended.
I struggled a lot today with myriad emotions. Obviously there is intense sadness, but there's a lot of anger and despair as well. My whole staff was feeling it. These are really hard pills to swallow, but they're the reality of nonprofit work, especially nonprofit work that deals directly with the most vulnerable members of society. We work so hard trying to prevent these tragedies, but the truth is, no program can magically make these systemic problems vanish.
It would be so wonderful if we could. Alas, we are but humans.
I was driving back from the bank, just thinking about the conversation I had with Linda's sons. I had to remain calm and compassionate for them... an anchor in a storm no child should find themselves in. And so I stuffed my emotions away until I was in my car where I could rage without causing more harm.
Because when this happens, I can't help but think of all the other Lindas and Michaels that we could not save. I tick them off, one by one, and castigate the world (but really myself) for allowing their stories to end without applause. I walk arm-in-arm with Despair, and I allow him to lead me, for a time, to the Sea of Futility. I contemplate leaving... walking away... because how can I look myself in the mirror when I have failed so many?
And yes, I do take each loss personally. How can I not? I am directly tied to the success of our mission, and our mission is to transform lives. Each loss brings about intense introspection: Could I have partnered with another business to secure funding for extra social workers? Did I miss an opportunity for partnering w/ police to increase safety around the facility? If we had just done more training for CPR, Narcan, or even DV awareness, is it possible we could have caught warning signs sooner?
And as always, the Holy Spirit quietly alights on my shoulder and whispers the names of those who have benefited from our programs. Chris. Pat. Kim. Ernie. Doris. Tai. So many more. Countless others. And their faces slowly come into focus, turning the Sea of Futility into a Sea of Hope. Their faces blot out the dark, inky waves and visions of their happily ever afters cause Despair to flee. I'm instantly reminded of the Starfish story, and while I can't "save them all," I can save some and to those individuals (and their family and friends), that's enough.
But I'd be lying if I said days like this were easy. It NEVER gets easier. It's ALWAYS gut-wrenching and makes you second, third and hundredth time guess yourself.
Regardless, I came back to the shelter renewed and made sure my staff was also reminded of all those who have found their happily ever afters here. It is so important, especially on days like today, that we combat the despair with stories of hope. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is really good at that sorta thing, and we spent the afternoon sharing our favorite "success stories" with one another. We did not do it in spite of what happened to Michael and Linda... we did it as a means of honoring their memory and the memory of all those we lost.
May they be at peace, and may those who work within the nonprofit world- taking on untold emotional, psychological and spiritual warfare- be blessed with that same peace.
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