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The Joy of Accompaniment: Reflecting on 15 years of serving moms and babies in Washington, DC

This year I mark my 15th anniversary working at The Northwest Center (NWC). As I reflect on these years, I am reminded of the foundational value of a good volunteer experience and how it can influence future career paths.

As a freshman at Georgetown University, I chose to receive a fourth credit for my Introduction to Psychology course by taking on weekly volunteer work. I value volunteering and also supporting pregnant women, so my search led me to NWC and its Pregnancy Center Program. I volunteered for a semester and subsequently chose to volunteer on my own my sophomore year. I remember helping sort donations and sitting with women and listening to their personal stories. It left a lasting impression.

To this experience, I later added a post-college year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working with teen mothers and felt called to pursue a career in social work. Fast forward 10 years and, after several years of working in child welfare for Montgomery County, I was thinking it was time for a job change. A friend who had been volunteering at NWC told me there was an opening for Director of the Maternity Home, a second program offered at NWC. Before I knew it, I was working at the agency where I had gained my very first work experience related to my eventual social work profession. Subsequently, I also became Executive Director, overseeing both NWC programs.

Susan

During these ensuing 15 years at NWC, I have grown in so many ways. When I left Montgomery County for the maternity home position, my supervisor gave me a small novelty hammer and screwdriver. To my great surprise, those farewell gifts turned out to foretell how much I would need to learn about maintenance issues for the upkeep of the 100-year-old DC townhouse that houses NWC’s programs.

But the main growth has been in understanding the need in the community and how best to meet that need. I have learned the importance of creating a safe space for women to share their hopes, dreams, and struggles and to respond by listening, not judging, and providing encouragement.

My experience at NWC often brings to mind the words of Father Greg Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. Father Boyle talks about “standin awe at what people have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

I am truly awed by the resilience of the women we serve in the face of what they have to carry: from domestic violence to poverty and lack of resources (housing, food, adequate medical care), to the racism they face. In spite of this, each and every mother makes countless sacrifices for her baby and her family. My lens of viewing the world has widened as I have seen the daily struggles and joys of so many different families who have allowed me a glimpse into their lives.

“Accompaniment” is my greatest joy in being a social worker and working at NWC. Walking alongside women – providing support, encouragement, guidance – has allowed me to watch the moms grow in every area of their lives as they become new parents and build long-term stability for their families. Being a part of a child’s life – from before they are born, and watching them grow, achieve developmental milestones, and become a member of the village which supports their family – is truly a gift.

The story of one determined mom is an example of the difficult path women have walked as they progress through NWC programs. This mother was pregnant with her second child and did not have stable, safe housing nor health insurance. She was eager in working towards her goals: deliver a healthy baby, find daycare for her children, obtain U.S. citizenship, and find a better paying job to support her family. She obtained health insurance, gave birth to a full-term baby, and found a good daycare. The mother and I deciphered our way through the citizenship application. I drove her to the immigration office for her interview, reviewed study questions for the test with her, and eventually attended her naturalization ceremony. She obtained a better paying job, now lives in affordable housing, and I continue to provide resources and support to her family.

And then there is the joy of reading to a young infant and watching that become a part of his daily routine. I was reading a board book to a 4-month-old who blurted out gleeful sounds every time he saw the hippo in the book. His mom was impressed that a baby that young enjoyed reading and began reading to him daily. Some of the babies liked the animal noises so much that every time they wanted to read a book, they walked around making animal noises and handed their mothers a book.

Many we serve become extended family, keeping in touch after they have moved to independence, and often visiting NWC to support new women entering the programs. This is a real way that I see The Northwest Center living out its mission to support all women through pregnancy as well as beyond to long-term well-being for themselves and their families.

I have been blessed with dedicated, supportive, and creative coworkers who truly define what it means to be a team. I am grateful for the wide range of volunteers who pick up and sort donations, meet with families, and offer their expertise, energy and passion. It is these volunteers that keep me going when the work is challenging. I am amazed at the generous community donations that help provide resources in support of the needs and hopes of new mothers and their infants.

My 15-year tenure also has been enriched by the generosity of our donors, by the strong commitment of the board, staff and volunteers, and by the embrace of our local community. I am humbled to work at an agency that exists and thrives because of these caring efforts in support of pregnant women and families.

This reflection was written by Susan Gallucci, LICSW, the current Executive Director of The Northwest Center (Photo by Renata Grzan Wieczorek/FortheLoveofBeauty.com).

A Catalogue Member Reflects: Hear from Nicole Lynn Lewis About Her Forthcoming Book, Pregnant Girl

When I got my first job out of college and started to get to know my coworkers, I shared a bit about my college journey. So many people told me that I need to share more to inspire others and to change the way people think about teen parents. Nearly 20 years later, my book Pregnant Girl: A story of teen motherhood, college, and creating a better future for young families is being released by Beacon Press on May 4th.

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Part memoir, and written as an urgent call to action, Pregnant Girl explores how we can better support young families so they can thrive and how the intersectionality of race, gender, and poverty impacts our lack of support for young parents. In it, I also reflect on my own experiences as a Black mother and college student fighting for opportunities for my family. The book presents the possibility of a different future for teen parents – one of success and stability – in the midst of the dire statistics that dominate the national conversation.

I also tell the story of how Generation Hope, the nonprofit I founded in 2010 and later included in the Catalogue for Philanthropy in 2014 and 2019, came to be. I share our philosophy and approach to helping young parents succeed, and I talk about the dearth of funding for organizations led by people of color. As a Black woman and nonprofit CEO, I’m often called a unicorn, because this combination is too rare in this sector – less than 10% of nonprofit leaders are people of color. A further differentiator is the fact that I have lived the mission of my organization as a former teen mom and college graduate. This background and lived experience have aided me in leading and growing Generation Hope over the past decade by informing our mission and the whole-family work we do every day to help more teen parents earn their college degrees while also preparing their children for kindergarten success.

One of my main motivations in writing Pregnant Girl was taking steps to ensure that my story, both as a teen parent in college and, in subsequent years, as a Black woman leading a direct service and advocacy nonprofit, is no longer a rarity. Fewer than 2% of teen parents earn their college degrees before they turn 30, and nonprofit organizations led by Black women receive less than 1% of foundation giving. These statistics point to broad systemic changes needed in higher education (Which students do we deem “college material” and worthy of support? Who was our higher ed system designed to serve?) and in the ongoing racial inequality that permeates all industries, including philanthropy.

Nicole Headshot

One of the most powerful tools we have is our stories. In Pregnant Girl, I share stories – mine, and the stories of the young parents we work with at Generation hope – in order to shed light on populations that are too often overlooked and rendered invisible. For too long, the stories that have dominated the issue of teen pregnancy – and more broadly race, poverty, single mothers, etc. – have been negative, damaging, and inaccurate. At Generation Hope, our work is directly informed by the tremendous assets and needs of the families with whom we work, underscoring the different kinds of stories it is possible to tell about teen parents and their families. Our impact and our families’ triumphs have been clear, proving that the future we wish to see is not an impossible dream.

I hope you will join us in telling a new story about young families. You can pre-order Pregnant Girl here, join us for our spring events for an in-depth book discussion and a celebration of our graduates, and/or continue the conversation with me on Twitter. We can all play a role in removing obstacles to opportunity, reimagining our educational systems as places that truly fulfill their promise of mobility and success for all students, and changing philanthropy to invest in leaders and solutions that will truly address racial disparities.

Early praise for Pregnant Girl:

“Reading this book, you will learn something important about race, poverty, and gender and how they play a role in teen pregnancy. And you will learn something about how hope can win over adversity.”

- Soledad O?Brien, award-winning documentarian, journalist, speaker, author and philanthropist

“Pregnant Girl is not just a powerful memoir; it’s an empowering guide for all of us. Nicole Lynn Lewis shows us that all our journeys matter, and the beauty of those journeys is not just the destination but the lessons of the path. I would highly recommend this book to all.”

- Wes Moore, author of The Other Wes Moore, CEO of Robin Hood Foundation

“Makes a compelling case for the multifaceted approach that is necessary to ensure that all young people – particularly our youth of color and young parents – are able to make the choice to pursue a college education, earn a degree, and lead thriving lives…It is an approach that is deeply rooted in the belief and call to action that is core to this book – that all young people are worthy of an education, worthy of resources and opportunity, and worthy of our every effort to help them reach their potential and soar.”

- Dr. John King, 10th US Secretary of Education under President Obama

Jasmine is a Woman on a Mission!

Jasmine’s success, and the success of her community, has been driving her for a long time, but especially since she returned home in October 2020 from a 15-year prison sentence.

Last year brought challenges for everyone. Combining the challenges and barriers of COVID-19 with the stigma of being a returning citizen, Jasmine was faced with a choice: return to the life of her past or continue to fly high. Only weeks after choosing the latter, Jasmine connected with the DC Department of Employment Services’ (DOES) Project Empowerment Program for supportive services, job coaching, employability and life skills, for DC residents living in areas with high unemployment or poverty. It was there that she was introduced to Suited for Change.

From beginning to end, Jasmine describes her experience with the volunteers at Suited for Change as “Amazing. From the moment I stepped in, I felt comfortable, even though I’ve never had an experience like that. It was like I was at a photo shoot,” Jasmine recalled. While there, volunteer Marianne Clifford Upton helped Jasmine pick out clothes that made her feel comfortable and prepared her for her next steps.

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Jasmine remembers walking away from her first appointment feeling proud, confident and excited about the choice that she had made, and that was even before she was put in touch with her Suited for Change volunteer mentor coach who helped her prepare for her interview with the Congress Heights Community Training and Development Corporation.

Jasmine remembers her coach, Patricia Blackshire, being incredibly patient and working with her through job interview exercises.

“Patricia made me feel so confident in my skills. This experience was so new to me, but I walked away feeling assured that I was going to be able to obtain a job and do well.” Each Suited for Change coaching session focuses on bolstering client confidence in their qualifications and tailoring their strengths for upcoming interviews.

After Jasmine successfully got a job as an Administrative Assistant with the Training and Development Corporation, she shared that she is most excited about her work for several reasons:

“Success just excites me, I’m so hungry to succeed because I know that through working here, I can continue to soar.”

Jasmine also shared that she is excited about continuing to build her skills working for an organization impacting in her community. The Training and Development Corporation works to provide training and employment opportunities for people in economically depressed neighborhoods to help them and the surrounding communities. Jasmine is tied to the mission because it allows her to be a part of something that makes the path to success easier for people in her community faced with lots of hard choices.

Her experience at Suited, with DOES and now at the Training and Development Corporation have helped her immensely on her path to success, but Jasmine also attributes her success to others along the way like her mentor, Michelle West. Michelle was a fellow inmate with Jasmine and was influential in leading her towards her current path as a role model and mentor.

“Women like Michelle, who is a first-time offender facing two lifetime sentences, are my why. She taught me simple things like being early is being on time and looked out for me on my path to this choice.”

Jasmine’s excitement is infectious, and her drive to succeed is clear. Now that she is well on her way, having made her choice, there’s clearly no stopping this woman on a mission. We here at Suited are glad to have been a part of her journey.

Celebrating 10 Years of Support for Immigrant Students

The Dream Project began 10 years ago at Emma Violand-Sanchez’s kitchen table. She organized a group of people who knew students’ immigration status should never limit their educational aspirations. Now, a decade later, the Dream Project has grown to support 100 students annually with scholarships and has expanded programing to include mentoring and case management to give students their best chance at success.

Like all nonprofits, the Dream Project has had to adapt and pivot due to COVID-19. However, we have also been fortunate to be able to grow and celebrate thanks to innovations and virtual programs. We began celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Dream Project with a wildly successful virtual holiday event. Our supporters recognized that immigrant students and their families were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and responded with overwhelming generosity. Thanks to their donations, we have been able to bolster the support we are providing to Dreamers.

Dream Project

As you may know, the majority of our immigrant students are ineligible for state and federal aid, including Covid-19 stimulus funds. The majority of our students work in small businesses to pay for school, some juggling multiple part-time jobs. Unfortunately, these jobs in restaurants, retail and other small businesses were the hardest hit by the pandemic. So, in addition to awarding scholarships, we made supplemental funds available through our COVID-19 Emergency Fund and the Herman Loan Fund, and increased our case management, connecting clients to low-barrier resources for rent assistance, food pantries, mental health services, medication coverage and more.

The pandemic also presented a challenge of maintaining the vital sense of community that started at Emma’s kitchen table, celebrating the successes of the past 10 years while acknowledging the hardships everyone, especially our students and their families, faced due to COVID-19. The Dream Project was inspired to create new ways to connect from our homes while advocating for undocumented students in the community. In partnership with Busboys and Poets, we launched a series of virtual book talks called DARE TO DREAM: Important Conversations about Immigration, which is open to the public. The books and presenters selected reflect the struggles of our students, Dreamers and the Immigrant community. Thanks to the virtual format, we have had highly esteemed authors such as Four-time Emmy Winner and NPR reporter,Maria Hinojosa and prize-winning poet, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

Our next talk, with a panel from PEN America’s DREAMing Outloud program, will take place on February 18th. RSVP here.

The Dream Project is optimistic about 2021 and invites you to join in our efforts to empower immigrant students by attending our DARE TO DREAM book talks, mentoring, donating and staying up to date on our programs. More information about the work of the Dream Project can be found on our website or in our Annual Report.

Our Minds Matter Hosts Winter Leadership Training

For many, Sundays are for football, worship and trying to not think about anything related to school and work. It is the last refuge before a Monday, a sanctuary day when no one is supposed to do anything for as long as they can.

Yet, on Sunday January 10th, we saw the next generation of mental health activists come into their own on the Our Minds Matter (OMM) zoom stream. Our Minds Matter hosted its Winter Leadership Training where over 75 students from 45 schools across the country joined to learn about how they can end the stigma against mental health in their school environments. Each student is a leader of an Our Minds Matter club and together with other student leaders and members, they work together to promote mental wellness and increase access to mental health support among their student body. These clubs have the potential to save lives and change the story around mental health; over 80% of participating students in OMM’s summer 2020 wellness series reported an improved sense of well-being from the program.

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Led by Laura Beth Levitt and Catherine Royston of the Our Minds Matter program team, OMM’s club network has seen explosive growth through its mixture of competent mental health wellness programming and peer-to-peer club model that allows teens to really become leaders of their own social movement. Student leaders work hand in hand with school officials, teachers, and mental health experts to help them speak out about their mental health issues and find adequate support. As COVID-19 has increased rates of depression and anxiety among teens according to the CDC, Our Minds Matter is working with teens to counteract the next public health crisis before it occurs.

The training touched on different aspects of leadership development, teaching students to be attentive leaders in both the administrative responsibilities of their club as well as build their interpersonal skills. A panel of student leaders presented tips, tricks, and challenges on the following topics: student recruitment, leveraging OMM resources, making online meetings interactive, school-wide campaigns, and leadership transition planning.

The most exciting part of the leadership training was seeing how each of these teens valued making a difference overall. During the question-and-answer section of the program, student leaders were asked about what they hoped for most in 2021 and their answers were powerful:

  • To be someone people can talk to in my community.
  • To bridge divides between people and communities.
  • To normalize the discussion of mental health.
  • To create a community for everyone to feel safe and welcome.
  • To build a life where I feel I made a difference.
  • To be a hotline for someone in need.
  • To leave behind a club that can make an even more long lasting impact.

Each student sees themselves as part of a larger movement, one that is building a world where mental health is treated with the importance it deserves. These student leaders directly see how their work needs longevity, that the change must persist after they graduate and embark on the next chapter of their life.

This is the level of civic engagement that Our Minds Matter promotes. We work with teens to help them realize their own power to influence social change. We already have young leaders hosting townhalls, working with government officials to provide more mental health support and challenging long-standing and archaic norms around mental health.

The session ended with a mindfulness exercise that focused on self-compassion. The calming energy could be felt even over Zoom.

This is all to build a world where no teen dies by suicide. Our Minds Matter student leaders are going to make a difference in 2021. We should all be in their corner, providing them support to succeed.

Adoptions Together: Home for the Holidays

However holiday celebrations look this year, one thing is certain: all children deserve to enjoy the season with a loving family.

Across the United States, there are over 120,000 children available for adoption. These children live in a state of uncertainty – moved between foster homes, group homes, and other unstable settings. As we count down the days until Christmas, we are all surrounded by images of children spending days of celebration with the warmth and security of a family. For these children that is far from reality. While these children wake up every day with uncertainty of what the future will bring, they will not spend Christmas wrapped in the loving care of family.

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Adoptions Together is driven by the belief that family is a human right. We believe there is no such thing as an unwanted child, just unfound parents. Every day spent without a family is a day that offers no chance to heal from trauma. We know healing happens in the context of healthy relationships and we do everything possible to support children and families.

Children should be home with their family, especially during the holiday season. Adoptions Together has been working hard throughout this complicated year to ensure that kids are connected to their forever families and we are thrilled to be placing 6 children with secure families this month – just in time to make dreams of spending Christmas with family come true.

Adoption across state lines is complicated and geography should never be a barrier for a child to have a family. While each state system has a complicated bureaucracy to navigate, social workers must work diligently to push through the process. Unfortunately, it can take months of additional instability before a child arrives home with their forever family. At times, it can take advocacy on all levels to bring a child home.

Eleven-year-old Anthony was matched with his mom and dad back in July and has been visiting through daily FaceTime calls since then. It has been hard for Anthony to understand. Why is it taking so long for him to come home? Our team has moved mountains to get this young boy home for Christmas. We are thrilled that Anthony will wake up Christmas morning in his own room and be surrounded by his forever family.

While we celebrate the joys of these six children and their families, there is still much to be done. As you experience your own holiday traditions this year, as different as they may be, we hope you will dream about how you can help make a difference in the life of a child.

Remember, there is no such thing as somebody elses child.

Changing the Conversation on Teen Pregnancy in DC

I was honored last week to accept the Changing the Conversation Award from DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. DC Campaign has been very successful at reducing the rate which, just in the last six years, has decreased dramatically in teens ages 15-19 from 54.5 to 28.2 per 1000. Or to look at it another way, in hard numbers over a longer period, we?re talking about 999 births in 2006 and 458 in 2016 — the most recent year for which we have stats. That’s more than a 50% decrease and this is a very good thing, and well worth applauding. But as the DC Campaign will tell you, it isn’t yet good enough. And this is true for a number of reasons: first, though the rate is lower here than in demographically comparable cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore, it is still higher than the national average, and second, because the numbers in some wards of the city are still just unacceptably high.In Wards 7 and 8 in 2015, there were 278 births while in Ward 3… one. Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, AU Park, Cathedral Heights, Friendship Heights. One. And lest we think this is strictly a matter of race, the difference between the rates for black teens outside Ward 8 and inside Ward 8 is significant. The combination of poverty, unemployment, high female-headed households, crime, and low rates of school completion — what Child Trends calls “community disadvantage” — is at the heart of the problem.

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign's 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara Harman giving her speech at DC Campaign’s 20th Anniversary Change the Conversation Luncheon

And what is striking, if less apparent, about the numbers, is the overall impact that they have on the well-being of multiple generations. Teen moms and their children — without other kinds of interventions — generally do not fare well: pregnancy often means dropping out of high school, or not attending college, or both, and this is linked to a similar pattern in the next generation. Of course there are interventions — at the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, which I founded in 2003 and where DC Campaign has been featured since 2004 as one of the best community-based nonprofits in the Washington region, we see a wide range of efforts that help prevent teen pregnancy both before and after it has occurred: in programs that keep teens off the streets and deeply engaged in after-school arts, or sports, or educational enrichment; in programs like Generation Hope, which works with teens who DO parent — to complete their education, and to focus on the child as well for a two-generation approach to ending poverty; or in schools like Columbia Heights Education Campus whose MCIP program helps fund an on-site day care center and program for teen parents that is very successful at keeping parenting teens in school and thus short-circuiting the intergenerational repetition of the problem.

But at least in these latter two examples, it’s a case of closing the barn door after the horse is stolen. Until we solve the problem of “community disadvantage” and bring the teen pregnancy rate to zero we need these programs, but to address the problem now we need the DC Campaign to help parents talk to their kids about sexual issues, to invest in the after school programs that are effective at engaging them productively, to talk to boys as well as girls, and to their parents about sexual health, to advocate on behalf of teens, and to make contraception widely available. DC Campaign’s simple assertion “there are only two ways to prevent teen pregnancy: don’t have sex or, if you do, use contraception” — may sound simple, but simple it is not. We need to keep at it, to work with teens (and their communities and families) on delaying sex, preventing pregnancy, and ensuring more promising lives for them and for the children they will bear in their 20s and 30s when they have finished school, have decent jobs, and are ready for the demands of parenthood and of life.

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of Catalogue for Philanthropy board members, at DC Campaign's May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Barbara and Amira El-Gawly, one of the Catalogue for Philanthropy’s board members, at DC Campaign’s May 2nd Change the Conversation Luncheon

Because one thing I think we can all agree on is that we want a better life for all of the children who live here — not just for our own. I have a very young granddaughter who lives with her parents in Ward 3. One of my many wishes for her is that she will do what her mother did and have a child intentionally in her late 20s when she is fully and happily ready to be a parent — economically secure, parenting with a spouse (or partner – because parenthood is a joy, but at the same time it is not easy to do alone), diplomas in hand, ready and eager to take on the world and to take on …another life. I think we all want to see community disadvantage become community advantage — but that is a long haul and, in the meantime, this right here, this work — this is something we can do now. We are already doing it, and we must continue the work. Our lives — and the lives of all of our” children — depend on it.

 

Written by Barbara Harman, Founder of Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington

 

What I’ve Learned from 7 Months of Serving Homeless and Housing-Insecure Women in DC

AVODAHGRAs I finished my senior year at Wesleyan University, one of the things I was most afraid of for my post-grad life was losing the environment in which everyone is eager to share the learning process with their friends and peers. The desire to preserve that, and the importance of my Jewish communities and experiences to me, is what led me to Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

Avodah is based on studying the issues and approaches of our own service work as a way to navigate the centuries-old question central to Jewish life that is: how do Jews meet our obligation to serve? To do this, my fellow 23 Avodah Corps Members in DC and I are placed at leading anti-poverty organizations across the District – where we gain hands-on work experience and learn about the root causes and effects of poverty in this country. We work with individuals facing challenges related to healthcare access, food insecurity, housing insecurity, our immigration and refugee systems, and much more, as we also consider how to best organize the Jewish community toward a more just and equitable future.

For the past seven months, I’ve been serving as a program associate at N Street Village. N Street Village empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. to claim their highest quality of life by offering a broad spectrum of services, housing, and advocacy in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

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Before I started Avodah, I was worried that my position and responsibilities would be too far removed from the macro-level social justice that I had spent most of college thinking about and cultivating my skills toward; I was nervous that I would not only miss reading, writing, and critically thinking about social justice in these ways, but that I wouldn’t be qualified for the direct service work that our clients needed me to do. Within the first few months I definitely faced a steep learning curve, but have also since found that I continue to learn more than I could have ever imagined about the lived experiences at the heart of the issues that I care about. This has been due in part to all of the training and learning opportunities that my placement provides its staff – especially its Avodah Corps Members and social work interns.

One of the areas of learning that has profoundly impacted me this year is trauma-informed care. Trauma informed care is a holistic approach to providing services, based in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma. What fascinates me about this framework is that trauma-informed care is more about changing systems than providing brief interventions to navigate traumatic experiences: it’s more about how a person who has experienced homelessness feels in a space that is intended to provide care, rather than about agencies checking off boxes of predetermined treatment requirements.

Learning and exploring the principles of trauma-informed care has helped me imagine concrete ways in which the choices that I make at work can be empowering for clients, even when challenges within the systems can be endlessly disempowering for them. Having an understanding of this holistic approach to care, I’m able to better recognize symptoms of mental health instability as related to the traumatic experiences of homelessness and being deprived of basic human needs. Most importantly, this framework helps me as a staff person to focus on the sheer resilience at the core of human responses to stress and crisis, reduce the shame and stigma associated by homelessness and/or other crises, and ideally, help survivors feel respected, connected, and hopeful about their recovery.

Though I describe trauma-informed care as systemic, and at its core it is all about a widespread change to social work and the standards behind providing services, where it really manifests are the personal experiences I have with clients and my coworkers. In the fall, our N Street Village CEO wrote a letter to the organization’s staff in the wake of multiple acts of white supremacist violence – from the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to the murders of Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Louisville, Kentucky. She wrote that in our work at N Street Village, “every day we have multiple invitations to challenge our implicit biases and to seek interpersonal justice. We are invited to acknowledge our well-worn habits of mind which automatically see an ‘other’ — and instead to exercise new habits of heart which see our commonality and which instinctively reach for connection.”

Having experienced this work for the past seven months, and getting to see its impact, I’m so grateful to my workplace and to Avodah as a whole for bringing the interpersonal connections to the foreground in my understanding of justice. I can only hope that through the rest of the year and beyond, my fellow Corps members and I never stop finding ways to fold that interpersonal justice into greater action and movements for progress.

 

About the Author:

Sammi Aibinder is an Avodah Jewish Service Corps Member. She currently works as a program associate at N Street Village, which empowers homeless and low-income women in Washington, D.C. Ms. Aibinder is a graduate of Wesleyan University.

 

Mikva Challenge DC: Project Soapbox

In a place like Washington DC, when people think of power and politics, they think of the President, Congress, CEOs, or lobbying chiefs, but Mikva Challenge DC is on a mission to reshape that perception. Mikva DC exists to enhance the expertise and power of young people to create change, and to inform both local and national policy making. Modeled after the successful civic engagement programming developed for youth in Chicago, Mikva Challenge DC develops youth to be empowered, informed, and active citizens who will promote a just and equitable society.

One way Mikva DC students ‘do civics’ is by speaking out on how to address issues in their communities via an annual citywide speech competition called Project Soapbox. This past December, students took to the stage to speak about a range of deeply important topics, like mental health support, LGBTQ discrimination, racism & xenophobia, food deserts, and homelessness.

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One of this year’s competition winners, Nehemiah Jackson, enthralled the room when he proclaimed from his soapbox:

“When I grow up, I want to put an end to this nonsense. I believe that police officers need a punishment for brutality. My solution is for police to have better training on how to deal with the public. Better and longer training would help police understand that people might have mental illnesses or might be nervous when stopped by police. During training police learn state laws, criminal investigations, patrol procedures, firearms training, traffic control, defensive driving, self defense, first aid, and computer skills. But something they don’t learn is how to help people with mental illnesses. Something they don’t learn is how to deal with scared citizens, something they don’t learn is how to handle their own anger. Also, how about we can create non-deadly weapons that don’t kill. It seems to me if you can send Rovers to Mars, have cars that drive themselves, then why can’t we make weapons that don’t kill?”

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After experiencing a day of these incredible speeches, one student remarked: “I am not done in this fight. There are others struggling like I am and our challenges united us. I feel inspired seeing my peers use their stories and identities to fight for change.”

It was not just students and the Mikva DC staff who felt the power in the room. As Jenny Abamu of our local NPR station, WAMU, said: “Though there is only one winner, students didn’t treat the event like a contest. They encouraged each other – judges listened and responded to some impassioned performances by noting resources for students dealing with crises. Many students said they wanted to raise awareness. In this way, they were already winners.”

Mikva Challenge DC’s credo is that young people who do civics will help make the nation become its very best democratic self. And who can argue against that when you hear, see, and experience the vision and power of DC youth for yourself?

Aspire Counseling — 40 Years of Mental Health!

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For forty years, Aspire Counseling, a mental health non-profit based in Gaithersburg, has been helping Montgomery County residents grow, change, and thrive.

It began in 1978 with Maryrose Rogolsky and a small, rented office in the Rockville Seventh-day Adventist Church. Rogolsky, lovingly known as “Posey,” set out with a vision to start an agency specializing in low cost, high-quality mental health care, to children in need. From that room, Posey and her three staff members founded what was then known as the Child Center and began their legacy and transformed access to affordable mental health care in Montgomery County.

Posey was a true visionary. She served children during a time when there was little recognition of children’s mental health needs. She bravely did battle with insurance companies that questioned how a child of six years could be experiencing emotional problems. Fast forward 40 years and it can be very difficult to find an appointment with a child therapist, especially if you are uninsured and face financial and cultural barriers.

“With a firm foundation based on the belief that all individuals, regardless of race, age and income, deserve access to affordable, evidence-based, excellent mental health care she built an organization that has helped thousands overcome personal mental health challenges,” said Carrie Zilcoski, Aspire’s Executive Director.

Over its 40 years, the Child Center evolved, expanding to become Child Center and Adult Services, and now Aspire Counseling, but it continues to be guided by Posey’s vision. “What would Posey have done?” has become a mantra as Aspire’s staff continue to adapt to Montgomery County’s, and society’s, ever-changing needs.

In 2018, Aspire Counseling’s Main Clinic is on pace to set a record of 1,400 unique patient encounters and nearly the same volume of patients in the community. Aspire’s newest program has brought services back into schools, training hundreds of educators and school employees on becoming a Trauma-Informed School with a goal of placing therapists in each school who specialize in trauma and helping students who have experienced Adverse Childhood Events.

Aspire Counseling also offers programs dedicated to new mothers who are suffering from or at risk for postpartum depression. The Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies program connects families to community services and provides a therapist who will make 12, no-cost, home therapy visits.

Committed to transforming lives and building resilience regardless of ability to pay, Aspire has found its place in Montgomery County’s growing and diverse community. To learn more visit we-aspire.org or call (301) 978-9750. Regardless of the challenges, you’re facing or your ability to pay, Aspire is here for you.