Let’s Discuss Dignity

Twenty-two years ago I spent two days laying face down, crying into my living room carpet . Everything I had tried just failed.  Big things, a thousand small things, all of the things had slipped from my grasp and I was failing.

I had been psyched up to be a wife, and a young stay at home mother, and maybe someone who completed a BA down the road if I found time in my suburban dream. Instead, my relationship crumbled, Mervyn’s fired me (because I was obviously falsifying comment cards, it was impossible that I could be so good with people…but ask me about this another time), and I had 3/4ths of a degree in Physical Therapy with no way to get back into my life as I had known it.

When it “got real”, I pulled out the phone book, found the blue pages of government listing service and looked up the address to the Welfare Office. Bleakness.  I walked into to a dim green room where my shoes stuck to the floor and I will never be certain if the puddle in the chair next to me was apple juice, but I’ve decided to believe it was. In my hands I held a ten page, double sided application, and a pen. I could not fill it out. I must have made five trips to the Help Desk and I still wasn’t comfortable. I met with an eligibility worker who shamed me; pointed out that all the other white people on the building were employees, and send me home with a list of needed documents and a follow up appointment.  That was the day I walked back into my little apartment and folded onto the floor wondering if if I could ever get up again.

Twenty years later, or 2 years ago, I had my Bachelor’s Degree is Sociology, my own car, house, and no debt at all. I found my revenge on the County Welfare system by becoming an employee within it in a job that allowed me to do outreach work and volunteer in my community. My baby was off at  college, but a second child had arrived and I was still a single mother – only by this time I was doing okay. Education, house, career, and home life were all neatly checked off in the Success column.

   The floors of the Welfare office must never get washed.

I had this thought as I was lying face down in the lobby of the GAIN office in Burbank. Just seconds before I was walking a client to the door when the room spun and the floor ate my face. My doctors pulled me out of work and put me on medical leave.

Medical leave is nice and all, but waiting for Disability to come in so I could pay my bills and feed my youngest daughter was nerve-wracking. I had some concerns. I shared these thoughts with the front desk volunteer at MEND one Thursday morning in late January. I was in the San Fernando Road  office working on the silent auction for the Gala fundraiser my local non-profit throws to breathe life into their programs designed to help people survive in an impoverished neighborhood and find ways to leave that desperate economic strata. As we talked, Adela, the volunteer, walked me into the intake room and put me at a desk.  When a third person walked in, Adela said “This is Sonya and she needs to see if she qualifies for your program.” She smiled down at me and whispered “Come to my desk if you have problems with the forms” and disappeared down the hall. A week later an EBT card arrived in the mail.

This was the MEND effect.

Meet each need with dignity.

I was treated with dignity, and not because I volunteered for MEND, but because that is how MEND works. Some Saturdays I walk in through the floor to ceiling glass doors and stand by that reception desk just to watch the flow of faces. Little kids sit laughing at the tables, parents chat in the waiting room chairs, someone is always knitting in front of the clothing boutique, and bent senior citizens angle their grinning faces up to each other while they wait for food, or a medical appointment, or whatever special program is  offered that day.

Mend staff on Oscar night at universal stidios
MEND staff at their fundraising gala

The floor is not sticky. The room is not dim. The chairs are dry and clean. In my five years of volunteering for MEND, I must have had the opportunity to sit in every chair and even the one I broke in Lupe’s office was clean. I never intended to be a MEND client, even momentarily, and I never felt like one. I don’t think anyone does.

I’m used to volunteering at MEND

The MEND Effect is a design feature that started with the Rose family who just wanted to do a little something nice for their neighbors and then let others in on their idea until it grew into the community icon it is today.

MEND is not the heart of Pacoima. MEND is the limbic system that connects all of the other vital parts of the community ; politicians, doctors, dentists, tutors, teachers, schools, grocery stores, dance teachers, Health educators, financial institutions like Home Street Bank and Wells Fargo, ophthalmologist, dental and nursing students and their programs, the Welfare to Work program, courts, and more all touch and mingle in the bright beautiful building at Pierce and San Fernando Road and in the ETC nestled into the heart of Van Nuys Boulevard. MEND staff are likely to shake hands with a Board of Supervisors Member with the same warmth and enthusiasm they shared while clasping  hands with an elderly client.

Nene with “young volunteers “.

You will hear that MEND is volunteer run. Seasonal volunteers, like me, drop in for special programs like the Santa’s Workshop, Christmas in the Spring, and Head to Toes. Day to day volunteers answer the phones, pack food boxes, drive delivery trucks, teach English, send out mail, scheadule medical, vision, and dental appointments and perform the technical arts of Dentistry and Medicine. Volunteers are everywhere and they are hard to spot unless they come in the form of a Scout Troop. (It is safe to say that eleven-year-olds are not on the payroll.) MEND volunteers are trained, knowledgeable and efficient. This is not accident. Every volunteer is assigned to a department and each department has  staff members tasked with being an expert in their area and teaching their volunteers everything they know. Sharing their knowledge keeps the program alive and the volunteers take these skills back to the neighborhood where they are passed around again and the entire community is better educated, elevated and healthier.

The first time I used the EBT card (it is in my wallet as a reminder, ask and I will show you) was at Food 4 Less in Van Nuys and Glenoaks. The cashier leaned over and whispered “If you need more help than that, go to MEND”.

Volunteers at the 2017 Gala

 Poverty and food scarcity is only a paycheck in either direction. I donate money, time, and goods to MEND because I keep being reminded of this unfortunate truth. Through MEND, poverty can be survived with dignity.

Dignity will pull you up off the floor, not push you down in tears.

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