The beauty of the people we serve

Dyann Roth, chief executive officer at Resources for Human Development (RHD), visits RHD’s Center for Creative Works – a creative arts studio for people with intellectual disabilities in Wynnewood. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer.

We have the Philadelphia of young people, polished and professional, sipping their designer cocktails and lattes. Right next to them is the Philadelphia of the gaunt, the homeless, the opoiod addicts, the muttering mentally ill. And right next to those people are the people who try to help them. How do they do it? How do they handle the despair and darkness they see daily? Why aren't they swallowed up by the magnitude of the task before them and the inadequacy of their resources?

"One of the things that has kept me with RHD is the beauty of the people we serve," said Dyann Roth, chief executive of Resources of Human Development, told me in our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer and online via philly.com

RHD, a social services agency based in Philadelphia, serves tens of thousands of our nation's most vulnerable -- the homeless, the addicts, the formerly incarcerated, people with mental and physical illnesses, people with behavioral and emotional issues and developmental disabilities. People who are kind-hearted, people who are the opposite of that.

How do you find the beauty, I asked Roth. In theory, we are asked to find the beauty in all people, but in practice, it's hard. 

"I think that at their core, everyone is a human being," she said. "What has happened in their life that’s led them to this point? Do you blame a person for that? I don't know. What I know is that I have seen people who have been at that place, heroin addict, whatever, and have recovered.

Really?

They're amazingly beautiful people. That was in them all along. How do you make an assumption that someone else who’s still struggling doesn’t have that in them? I have seen so much.

What lessons do you take from that? What insight have you gained from those people that you have applied in your own life? 

There's a young man and he’s just actually made a little documentary film. By his own admission, 25 years old. He was a bad dude on the streets of West Philly. He sold drugs. He did a lot of bad stuff, according to him. Then he pulled off a robbery, a violent robbery, and he was put away for at least five years in the federal pen. It's a fascinating story because his best friend was supposed to go with him that night when he called to go hit up this, I think it was a Chinese food restaurant or something. The friend decided not to answer the call at the last minute. It's a fascinating story because these two young men, same street experience.

One went to federal pen and almost died by being hit in the head with a lock in a sock in prison. He was still violent and tough in prison. The other one is now finishing his masters in criminal justice at Drexel.

Now the young man who went to federal pen, came out and, through a judge’s order, got put into a program and came to RHD for a job. He was our cleaning guy at night. I was always impressed with him because he’s just a gentle, wonderful soul, and diligent in his work. He became a certified peer specialist with one of our youth programs, and now he’s a full-time staff person at one of our programs, and he’s created his own organization called Men of Understanding.

This a 25-year-old man, whom I think of as this gentle-hearted, amazing inspiration to other young men. I [asked him], `What changed for you? What was the moment?'

He said, `Realizing that I had hurt my mom. Realizing that I had hurt my sister and feeling like, you know there's something bigger than me.' I always wonder what is it that they drew upon. I do think it's about relationships with others and that there's something bigger than you.

What is the something?

I think for people it's different. For me it is definitely my family, but it's also a sense that we're all here for a purpose to make this world better. How are you going to use your life to do that? 

When I visited you today, we spent some time in the Center for Creative Works – a creative arts studio for people with intellectual disabilities in Wynnewood. Believe me, it was inspirational. Everyone took such joy in their work and in the work of their fellow artists.  And everyone was so friendly.

Wonderful. When I get really frustrated with the administrative stuff, the only thing that grounds me is to go to the programs. It's like, `Oh yeah, this is what we do and why we do it.'

Makes sense: Just to be able to come here would be very therapeutic because everyone’s happy and cheerful and they're excited about what they're doing. Right?

Some of the programs are not quite as colorful. We run a methadone clinic, and we run a lot of programs for people who are homeless. There's a little bit more grittiness in some of our programs. Yet, I still rather be there some days than in the office.

What have you learned about homelessness?

That there are a lot of factors that cause people to become homeless. Really it is there but for the grace of God. Any of us could be in the same place. We have a newspaper called One Step Away. I don't know if know it.

I'm a subscriber. Not a subscriber but I buy.

Two or three years ago, I was one of the vendors for a day. I went out with an experienced vendor, and I was in front of Reading Terminal Market. I had a big green vest that said One Step Away. I was in business clothes selling this newspaper. It was remarkable how people treated you like you didn't exist, or that you were less than. People clearly trying to avoid seeing you. Then some who were really actually very aggressively critical.

Then there were these beautiful people who would come up and just say, “You're doing wonderful work,” or really, really caring people. You kept looking for the people who were the angels because it was a really hard experience to be treated that way. 

Yes, they experience that day in and day out.

The vendors in our One Step Away newspapers they do it every single day. This was sub-zero temperatures. I think what I've learned about homelessness over all of my years of working with homeless folks is again, there's not a typical homeless person. Each person has a different story that's led them to this point. Each person has different talents and strengths that are going to help them kind of move out of it.

Are you a believer in that home first movement?

Yes. Housing first. Yes. As long as there are supports wrapped around a person to help them maintain the home and get the other things that they need underway.

Jeffrey Brenner, the doctor that has done so much work to help the desperately sick in Camden, told me in an interview that the most important thing for these people is a bedroom door with a lock on it. Number one. That made a big impression on me. 

Right, because then your body’s not just trying to survive. We have a program for young men, 18 to about 22 who’ve been homeless and this is a safe haven for them. Truly, one of the first things that they say that they need and value is a place that they can actually sleep, like sleep. They haven’t slept because you can't close your eyes completely.

Wow, I never thought about that. So basic. So important.

You're hyper-vigilant at all times. They come in. They have their own bedroom. They can lock it, and they sleep. That's the beginning of any healing, or any sort.

Right. A good night’s sleep.

Good night’s sleep.

It made so much sense, but was that the kind of thing it was news to you?

Yes. Because you think about, oh, they need a job and they need this and they need that, but none of that is possible if people don't feel safe. A big focus of our work now in every single program, in every population we're serving is understanding the effects of trauma on the people and how trauma has really been the basis for a lot of the struggles that they're experiencing in their life. In everyone of our programs we are trying to figure out: How do we understand the trauma that people have experienced in their life? How do we not, in our own work with them, retraumatize them? Also can we work with that experience of trauma to help them find their resilience? 

People with intellectual disabilities who’ve been institutionalized, there was so much trauma that they experienced when they were in institutions. Emotional, physical, sexual. The histories of trauma of people with intellectual disabilities is almost worse than any other population. We haven’t figured out a way, not just RHD, but the industry hasn’t figured out a way of really supporting people who may not be able to verbalize well their experiences. That's our work is to try to figure out how to understand and work with their trauma.  A lot of the behaviors that people have are their own protections about their traumatic experiences. We have to work with it. We have to understand it better.

What about compassion fatigue in the staff? Tell me about that a little bit.

That is a very real danger, particularly for our staff who are working two, three jobs.

To make ends meet?

To make ends meet. They're physically fatigued. Their stress is great. Then what they do is so emotionally draining that, and again, we have tried to do a number of things to help our staff with that. A lot of self-care pieces, both in groups and as for individuals. It's our own version of NEAP. It's therapy sessions for our employees, or their family members. We do a lot of team clinical interventions that support people, just to breathe. To learn more about taking care of yourself. Eating right, and so forth in this work. There's never enough. The pressure to just keep doing, doing, is as real in this industry as it is in anything else.

What helps?

I do believe that many of our staff go also get renewed by doing some of the work. I think if they were doing a different job where they never saw the meaning of it, that would be worse. I do think that there's some pay back emotionally for our people. 

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