Meeting People Where They Are

By Kaitlyn Keffler, Change A Heart Franciscan Volunteer Program 

The following reflection is a notable entry to our annual Volunteer Story & Photo Contest. Each year, we ask our member programs to submit stories and photos of their daily life to celebrate the experiences of faith-based service.

Throughout my year of service with Change A Heart, I worked at Operation Safety Net (OSN), a division of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System that provides medical and social services for persons experiencing homelessness. As a full-time volunteer at OSN, I have had the opportunity to truly learn what it means to “meet people where they are.” This phrase is meant both literally and figuratively.

I saw this phrase implemented literally when visiting people’s homes under Pittsburgh’s many bridges and overpasses with our outreach specialists and street medicine team. I saw this phrase implemented figuratively every time OSN staff accepted that people were simply not ready for assistance or being housed. Still, they continued to reach out to these people with simple hellos and peanut butter sandwiches. I strove to emulate their skills at the drop-in center clinic, during street rounds, and when forming relationships with clients at the permanent assistive housing facilities. I experienced the joys of this approach as a particularly difficult client, Jim, started to trust me and allowed me to assist him in a variety of ways.

When I first met Jim last November at the Health Center, I quickly realized that I had my work cut out for me. Jim was elderly, had a complex medical history, and a certain gruffness that came from having an unstable housing situation for a large portion of his life. Over the course of our first visit, I recognized that much of his attitude and distrust of people stemmed from being scared – scared of being an unhealthy, elderly man with no where to stay as cold weather approached. With this new understanding, I slowly but surely worked with Jim to assist him in a variety of ways.

Series of memorial plaques posted in Pittsburgh by Operation Safety Net (OSN)

I quickly realized when working with Jim that my priorities or agenda did not matter, because no progress would have been made if Jim was not on board. Instead of pushing my priorities on him, I met him where he was and made his priorities mine. Jim’s top priority was getting his senior bus pass so he could easily navigate the city; hence, obtaining a state ID and then a bus pass were our first two steps. Acquiring Jim’s bus pass achieved two positive outcomes: the first being a lessening of Jim’s daily frustration as he rode the bus with the required documentation; and the second being the first step in gaining Jim’s trust. I honestly think that Jim was so jaded by the system that he was doubtful that I would see him through this process, or any other one for that matter. By staying true to my word and helping Jim through the process, I was able to start forging our relationship, showing him that I and the rest of the team at OSN cared about him.

Our relationship continued to develop as Jim, myself, and other staff members worked together to make other positive changes in Jim’s life. We met priorities of getting him an EBT card, medications, a new insurance plan, appointments with various specialist physicians, and enrollment into a housing program. Near the end of my time with OSN, Jim recognized the positive results of taking his medications and noted that his quality of life was improving. As I prepared to conclude my service year, Jim was preparing to move into his own place via a permanent supportive housing program. I feel a surge of pride when I reflect on our journey, where I struggled with the injustices of our nation’s systems, strove to be an advocate, and learned how to navigate Jim’s demeanor. Although there were frustrating moments along the way, the joy of seeing Jim improve and want to make positive changes outweighed those frustrations.

This experience of working with Jim helped me to implement the practice of meeting people where they are. By seeing through Jim’s South Side attitude and his affinity for cursing, I was able to develop a rapport and assist this man in getting into a safe housing situation. Overall this year of service with OSN has shown me that meeting people where they are means setting my pride aside, listening, and aligning my actions with what the client wants. I believe that any other approach to service takes away from the dignity of the persons served. Keeping clients at the center reshapes the hearts and lives of all involved, including my own.

Author Kaitlyn Keffler served in Pittsburgh, PA with Change A Heart Franciscan Volunteer Program from 2018-2019. Kaitlyn is a 2018 graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

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