In social work it can be difficult, reminding yourself of your position when you become so familiar to the families you serve. As a volunteer for Tides Family Services, you often have to make a tough call that will compromise your standing with a family for the safety of your client. On the other side of that coin, there are many other moments when I’ve wondered if I had made a difference at all—if I had even provided help in the way of a stepping stone toward a client’s treatment goals. In both instances, I was becoming too wrapped up in the troubling parts of my service.
I was taught a very important lesson that would take me out of that mindset by a client who I’ll call Sophia. For the first couple of weeks, we were open to her, she was tough to engage with: she hated eye contact, did not like small talk, and, even with open-ended questions, gave one-word answers. But with persistence and patience, Sophia became easy going and responded well to the team during her times of crisis.
It was bittersweet that as she was coming out of her shell, I was shifting to a new role at Tides Learning Center. I was closing out cases with my families and offered a goodbye recreational activity to those open to it. Sophia was quick to take up the offer. During our time in the community, we discussed safety planning around threatening situations and continuing to encourage positive self-image. Sophia then stated there was a memento, a paper fortune that was one of a few personal things that she kept after moving from house to house. She had forgotten about it in the past few years but was going to look at it more often to remind her what she liked about herself. When I asked her what it said, Sophia got frustrated in trying to get the exact wording. When it became too distressing, we moved on to a different topic.
Time has passed since that last conversation we’d had. I am trying to build new bonds with clients and students I am always quick to identify as “my kids.” But I was settling into my troubled mindset again. Is what I’m doing going to have any effect? What if the students don’t respond well to me? What if there are students who do, but it becomes strained after a tough decision that I will inevitably have to make?
It was a little over a month later when a coworker sent me a message. Sophia had texted the on-call phone trying to reach me. “If Leisha is still around, tell her the fortune cookie I’ve had hanging for years says, ‘Your emotional nature is strong and sensitive.’ I keep forgetting but I said I’d tell her.”
I couldn’t believe that she remembered the conversation. Much less that Sophia still believed it was important that I know what that little fortune said; words that reminded this anxious girl, who had gone through so much at such a young age, what she loved about herself.
When the going gets tough, we reflect on our relationships with those we serve. That means celebrating the small successes that could easily be overlooked if one doesn’t take a step back from the daily grind. Receiving that message in the midst of my own doubts reminded me to focus on them: An open question in class, a student doing work for the first time in months, a previously quiet client initiating interest in a recreational activity.
There will always be some setback here and there. But they become fewer, with a little more time in between each one, and in the meantime, it’s those moments the client and I focus on to remind them that progress is being made. That relationship of understanding is something that is being felt, if not at the very least seen. I am eternally grateful to be able to usher my kids at least a little of the way on their individual journeys. And enjoy those small successes with them.
Leisha Adrianzen is a second-year volunteer serving at Tides Family Services/Tides Learning Center in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.