I’ve often said one of my most and least favorite aspects of my job is asking our clients to share their stories with me and others in the community.
It’s my favorite because it allows me to meet and get to know a little bit more about the men, women, and children in our programs. I get to see them as moms, dads, school children, resilient women etc. I get to see past their homelessness and allow them the opportunity to shine in their own light.
On the other hand, it is often my least favorite because I am asking the individual or family to let a complete stranger in to their lives and share on a personal level. I feel that is such a difficult thing for someone to do.
I understand that when I ask a person if I can photograph them or their children to help tell our story and show our work, I am asking them to put themselves out there into a place they may not be comfortable.
As an aside, I always ensure that they know it is 100% their choice and that there will be absolutely no repercussions of their decision one way or the other. In fact, I first conference with their case worker to identify those who would likely be comfortable sharing their story, and then the request is made through their case worker – someone they know and trust.
I also offer them a photograph of themselves to keep as a thank you. Despite this reciprocity, I still worry that at some level it is disrespectful. Given our values of safety and respect, I can’t accept that.
Interestingly, what I’ve learned over the years is that more times than not, the client gets far more out of the experience than I could have imagined. When they tell their story in a safe and respectful place, they tell me they have found it to be healing. They see that their struggles and successes can help someone in a similar situation, and that is empowering to them. Often, the photo I give them as a thank you is the only photo they have of themselves or their family.
This past week, I had the honor of meeting a woman who had been through our Operation First Step shelter program, graduated our Certified Nursing Assistant Training program, and recently was moved into her own apartment through our Rapid Rehousing program.
She struggled with issues in her life and is still working through some – not unlike many of us who struggle with obstacles life throws our way. She shared her story in front of 400 women at our Women Helping Women event.
To see her on stage telling a room full of women she didn’t know, how hard it was for her to be separated from her children while she worked to get herself back on track – it was gut-wrenching for me. But she persevered…she powered through (in life and on stage) and talked about how she now works two jobs (one as a CNA), has her children living with her, pays her rent and meets regularly with her case worker. Her son talks of going to school to be a lawyer.
Watching her through this and talking with her afterward, I realized that it is not for me to decide whether or not she gets to share her story. I realized that although it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, that it felt empowering to her – and that was more important than my discomfort.
I spoke to her case manager the next day to check in and see how she was doing. She said that speaking was a healing experience for her. She said she wanted to let a room full of “powerful women” know that she knew she was going to make it. I realized that holding her back from sharing her story would have been a disservice to her.
I appreciate that we, as a service provider, have a responsibility first and foremost to those who come to us for support. We must be careful not to take advantage of the trust and rapport we build with our clients – nor create a situation where they feel they need to tell their story in order to benefit from our services and programs.
At the same time, we need to recognize that if a client does want to share their story and it helps them move to a better place in their life, then we have the responsibility to create the safe place to allow them to do that – even if it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Watch video footage of this year's Women Helping Women speaker on our Facebook page below: