Monday, November 19, 2012

Lessons from a Feeding Program

I was young, newly self-confident, eager to serve God and people, and excited to put my studies into practice. After my junior year of college, I applied for the only internship that interested me. The interview went well, and so I spent my senior year of college as an intern with a crisis center specializing in providing food to the needy. I spent most days volunteering at a feeding program in the basement of a Unitarian Universalist Church in Quincy, MA.

 I met with a social work professor for clinical supervision each week, but the minutes of my day were largely out of the eye of social workers. I spent time getting to know the folks at the feeding program: John who ran it every day and invested his life into the relationships he could build there. A small group of clients who needed the free meal, but on their own volition came hours before service every day in order to help. A rotating but consistently present set of Mormon missionaries who volunteered with us twice a week. Clients who struggled with poverty; clients who struggled with alcohol abuse; clients who displayed delusional thought. A young man who volunteered with us as part of his probation requirements.

                My internship was atypical in that I was the closest thing to a social worker on site many of the days. I’m glad of that, though. John, who was in charge of the program, served as a direct supervisor for me and offered instructions that, although not really clinical, have been very formational in my career. “Just get out there and be with the people.” So I did. For a year, my job was to sit at lunch tables with folks who needed, for whatever reason, a free meal. Help in a social-worky way if the need presents, but mostly – just be present. Interact with your clients as though they are people. Because they are people.
                That’s the most valuable lesson I learned there. I became comfortable being with people in a wide range of life situations. I saw them as people in situations, rather than seeing them only as the situation they were in. I talked with them, joked with them, listened to them, took what they said seriously, and valued their stories. People generally respond well when you care about them and respectfully convey through your actions that you really want to hear their story.
                On one afternoon, a wealthy older gentleman in his clean tennis clothes came down the dusty sidewalk and took the concrete steps into our basement. He was upset that our program brought lower-income people into his part of town. He wanted our program to stop so that they would leave. John bristly asked, “Where should they go?” The man’s only response was, “Well, we don’t want them here.”It’s ten years later, and I’m surprised to find that I’m still angered as I remember it. The man was only thinking in terms of economy. Bring a feeding program into town, richer folks go elsewhere, and the town stops being a lucrative place of business. He saw our clients as economic influences. But to me they weren't just “clients,” they were also people that I had come to know and care about. I think he lost sight of their humanity, and it saddens me.
                The same lessons have helped me as I've worked in foster care and adoption. Foster parents have often been scared of birth parents. Birth parents who've had their children removed are often angry at the system or at the foster parents. The kids are confused, depressed, or traumatized and act out against teachers, other kids, foster parents. The social workers are often overwhelmed and pressured and honestly, sometimes take it out on the birth parents or the foster parents.
                It’s helped me as a social worker to view people as “people” rather than as “clients” “foster parents” “birth parents” or whatever other category. Sure, this person is a “person who is a birth parent,” this person is a “person who is a kid in foster care,” this person is a “person who works for the county as a social worker.” But they’re all people and viewing people as “people first” lends itself to treating them with respect, patience, and grace. Someone wrote recently in one of the open adoption interviews that “there is no such thing as a stereotypical birth mother.” There sure isn't – and if we treat people according to stereotypes, we treat them wrong.
                I've had pretty good luck with clients so far. And I think it’s because I view them as “people who are my clients” rather than as “just my client.” After all, people generally respond well when you care about them and respectfully convey through your actions that you really want to hear their story.

Interested in learning more about social work? Here's how I became a social worker, and what I learned in Intro to Psychology.


  1. Such a lovely post Addison - even though I'm not a social worker I could really relate to this. I guess it's not surprising that John's advice to "just get out there and be with the people" also works in many cross-culture situations. He sounds like a wise man and I'm glad your career started with his advice.

  2. Thanks so much! I think you're right - "just get out there and be with the people" is probably be best advice in any cross-culture situation!


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