Ever wonder what it’s like working on the front lines of the community – in a food pantry or helping families in crisis? We sat down with Wilkinson Center’s professional case management team, who shared why genuinely and authentically connecting with people is so important to our mission of providing pathways out of poverty with dignity and respect. It’s an essential piece to our approach that complements providing income supports and services. Among those we spoke to were Myra Collins, Monica Flores and Sonja Wright in our Adult Education Program and Patsy Driggers and Angelica Sierra in our Food Pantry program.
Most people who come to Wilkinson are working through a hardship. How do you identify how you can best help them as individuals?
You make them feel comfortable from day one, because we have a lot of people who are embarrassed to be here – someone who can’t make ends meet or an older student coming back to get their GED. We want them to know that any point you start at is a good point.
On orientation days, I’m down to earth and always using humor, because I want them to see me as someone who will meet them where they are and not as an uptight professional. I tell them about my own reality, that I dropped out of college, but I eventually realized the value of education and went back to earn three degrees in five years.
That’s right. When I’m having a bad day, I let them know. I show them I struggle too. We’re just authentically who we are as individuals. Yes, we’re professionals. We have higher education, but we are people just like them. And we all take that approach across the board. That’s the Wilkinson way – always with dignity and respect.
Tell me more about the “Wilkinson way?” What does that mean to you?
We are here to be available, to invest the time, to be a resource. We don’t rush people. A lot of our clients and students have been in situations where they’ve been shoved here and there like a piece of paper. They may call a place for help and not get a return call. We don’t treat our clients and students like that.
It’s different here. I started out as a client at Wilkinson Center, so I know. When I adopted my son, I wanted to get my GED and go to college. Back then, [Program Director] Rachael Berhe was my teacher. My success was because of Rachael’s support and consistent follow-ups; her encouragement kept me going. She pushed me all the time to achieve what she knew I could do and encouraged me to finish. Now I get to do that for other people.
So, building that personal relationship is really important?
Lots of people who come through Wilkinson Center don’t have family encouraging them and backing them up. To make progress, you need somebody cheering you on or patting you on the back in a genuine way – but also holding you accountable.
What you have to understand is that each person is in the middle of an emergency, and it’s hard for them to see past that when they’re hungry or without work. They need to feel that we hear them and understand their frustration. That’s how we start to build trust with them. We know anybody can be in that situation. It doesn’t matter where you come from.
What are the most common challenges you see people facing?
There are lots of barriers holding people back – transportation, child care, language barriers, employment, abuse at home – all kinds of things.
But you wouldn’t always know it. The average student [in Adult Education] can sit there and smile, while inside they’re falling apart. If you just look at our students in terms of academics, they won’t be successful. They might have a lot going on behind the scenes that will stop them from being successful.
That’s right. You have to really be listening – listening with your “third ear” – to see what else is going on beneath the surface.
What is a typical day like for you at Wilkinson Center?
When I arrive at the Food Pantry in the morning, there might be 25 to 30 people waiting to get in line for food, and there is a constant, steady stream of people until about noon.
It is similar with the Adult Education program, because we do much more than teach workshops. Students come to us and say, “I need a resume, I need a job, I need food.” And we help them with that. We spend at least half the day meeting with students. It’s a constant flow.
What is most rewarding about helping people at Wilkinson Center?
For me, it’s when a student is successful. Seeing them reach milestones. Then achieving their goals and continuing to strive for greatness.
I went to the thrift store down the street the other day, and one of my former students works there. She said, “Hey Miss Sonja!” When she came into the Adult Education program, she really struggled with getting to class in between work hours. But, she did it. When she earned her GED, they promoted her to manager. I’m just so proud of her.
We get cards and letters at the Food Pantry. They’ll say, “I was down in this really rough place, and coming to Wilkinson Center and the positive, friendly environment you provided helped so much.”
When a student graduates, I look at them and smile. I say, “Look, I got my paycheck.” And I really did. Their success is the biggest reward for me.