by Molly Butler
Molly is serving at Community of Hope in Washington, DC, in a family shelter where she runs an after-school program for the shelter's children and manages in-kind donations, among other things!
The following is a letter that I would give to myself if I were to go back in time to August 2012, just pre-Loretto. I offer this advice not only to provide reflection on my work experience over the past six months, but also to conceptualize my goals as I begin the latter half of my volunteer year at Community of Hope.
Congratulations on the beginnings of what will be a very formative experience at Community of Hope; you have a lot to look forward to! As someone who has done this work for a bit of time now, I want to offer a few pieces of advice for this journey. These tips are ones conceptualized in retrospect, and will maximize you growth and happiness in this position.
First of all, throw your job description out the window! Well, wait; don’t do that just yet because you are going to be responsible for the important tasks on that sheet. But do not mentally compartmentalize these bullet points into one narrow expectation that meets category: “Activities Coordinator.” Start by opening yourself up to the array of possibilities that comes with working at a family shelter, to working with youth, to creativity, collaboration, community; YOU NAME IT! Leave room for this fluidity, it is key. Non-profit work moves quickly and you need to be ready to adapt. Every day is different and you can only plan to a certain extent. You will have the opportunity to connect with the families in ways that you cannot yet anticipate. Take advantage of this. You can’t facilitate a meaningful afterschool program, or any program for that matter, without first assessing the needs of the community, by listening, and establishing relationships with those who are a part of it. These things take time. It’s a continuous process.
Recognize your strengths. Use those strengths. It’s more productive to build on these capacities than to fixate on your weaknesses. You are kind and creative, both qualities that are central to your position. Continue to build on these and you will gradually learn strategies to aid in the areas where you could use some growth. You are going to have a lot of freedom to develop the enrichment program for youth living in the shelter – don’t let this be too daunting. You’ll have the opportunity to see your ideas materialize and to adjust them when the outcomes are not what you had hoped. This kind of autonomy is liberating!
LEARN. Ok, this one is totally inevitable, but you do also need to beintentional about it. Take the time to research policy, statistics, history, etc. Homelessness is a super complex issue with impacts that vary from person to person, family to family, neighborhood to city to country. There is no one size fits all type of solution and it’s important to be critical of those policies and to keep up to date with the current changes. Seek out trainings, panel discussions, workshops; all of these contribute to your knowledge base and help inform the ways you engage with your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your colleagues; communal support is what it’s all about, right?!
LEAN IN TO THE DISCOMFORT! Seriously, working in a shelter setting is very challenging. Working with youth is challenging as well. It doesn’t matter that you’ve worked in these contexts before, the reality is that every child is different; every family is coming from a different place. You will feel completely lost and disillusioned at the sight of cyclical poverty. But as your heart continues to break open, leave room for joy. There is nothing like celebrating with a family who just found out they will be moving into permanent housing; or that moment when a kid asks you for help writing a rap about earthquakes! Often times the most difficult days are the ones where you learn the most. And sometimes they are just the days when you go home, vent to your community, drink tea and go to sleep wishing for tomorrow to be a better day. Both will happen. Both are ok.
Tap in to those emotions. It’s normal to be a little emotional sometimes. This work will make you feel all kinds of vulnerable so it is essential to process these feelings outside of the work space; no shame in that! Practice self-care so that you will have the energy and motivation to continue your work. Love what you do, because even though it may be different than you had imagined, you are faced with an opportunity to grow in ways you did not even know you have always wanted to grow.
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” ~W. Dyer
Your future psyche
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.