The Youngest USC Master’s Student


“Fight On!” Is the motto for @USC. This is how I am fighting on to my goal when Los Angeles City Parks and Recreation gave me last minute notice that they have Caesar Chavez Day off.

Yikes.

So, off to campus we go. Thanks Professor Kurzban for letting her audit your class today.

When you’re a single parent, you do what you have to do to achieve goals.

#usc #fighton #childcare

I was a Republican Conservative

sonyakeothcomservativeI was a proud Republican Conservative until it became my job to help people live in dignity.

You can be proud to be an American
And love your neighbors who are not.
You can disagree with the leadership
And express that in words requiring thought.
You can wade into poverty
To pull out people who just might drown
And teach them new life skills
Without once putting them down.

You can believe in the Constitution
While understanding the amendments
Are designed to allow changes in ideologue.
You can respect 3 branches of government
and that sometimes the police
“Are the boss of me”
While knowing that blue is a uniform
Worn by a human who is not always right.
You know there is a time for poise
A time for noise
and a time to fight for your right.

You can be an American
And swim in the melting pot,
And appreciate all the subcultures
Have values, even those you’re not
A member of.
You can be an American
Who loves Jesus, God and the saints above,
While respecting a call to Mecca, Temple, meditationand the vagueness
Of love.

America is wide and vast and colorful.
It is a reality and a dream
You can be an American who doesn’t
Condense the experience into a meme.
I used to be a conservative
Until I lived a life of service .
I applied “What would Jesus Do”
To my work, and now
Conservatives make me nervous

This is Social Work

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I am not real unless you believe in me. I have no voice unless you listen for it. Much like a shadow, I can be seen but I have no power to move objects or create change. Sometimes, however, seeing a shadow will make you stop, look carefully, or even change direction.

It is hard to be powerless. My oldest sweet baby girl is now twenty-one and making choices so inappropriate that I might have made them at her age and she does not want to hear what I think. That is powerlessness. I don’t need to sit at a government issued cubicle to feel superfluous: motherhood already does that for me.

When I tell people that I work with chronically homeless adults who often deal with drugs, alcohol, emotional & mental disturbance, physical or learning challenges and are parenting while navigating these obstacles, I am told I am a “hero”, or “I’m glad I don’t have your job”.

I am not a hero.
And
Yes, you probably have my job but you aren’t given a business title. I hope you have my job. I am about to mix some metaphors so forgive me in advance.

I love people. I do. Jury duty excites me because I am locked in a room with strangers for days. Entire days with people I have not met! They have lives I can explore, adventures I have not heard of and dreams I could not imagine. I dig Jury Duty.

My job requires that I love folks. It isn’t in the description, but it is an invaluable tool and skill. I have to love humanity enough to spend time with people scraping the bottom and trying to bob up for air…and I do it over and over , 5 days a week for years, while being paid a salary that might as well be imaginary. Also, I have to dress up to look like someone who has their life together and is worth respecting enough to listen to. There really should be an Oscar in this for me.

I sit in a big room with people who all want to “help others”  and push paperwork and Excel workbooks like Winter Olympians at the start of a bobsled race. The environment is cold but we are passionate and giving it everything as fast and furiously as we can. It is a crazy stressful ride and each day we do it again-sometomes 14 times a day.

Sometimes I win. The specter of my shadow stays visible to them as they make.choices, keep promises made at my desk, and plot their futures.

It is a strange job. I don’t get anything more out of helping a fan find employment and stable housing than I do if I spent the day reordering my file cabinets (ya’ll know I am alphabetically chalkenged). There are no bonuses, certificates of merit, gold stars or any other acknowledgement that my work is great , or even passable. The work has to be o’clock own reward.

Today I received a call from one of the local colleges asking if I had completed my Masters Degree yet. I have not even been accepted to a program and I am stuck where I am. However, we agreed that I like the work and I’m good at it , which are important achievements. I did not like working in a call center or selling shoes at Mervyn’s. I did like working at LAMP with John Best and his crew.

For the most part I am invisible, but when I am noticed by someone trying get to create change : it is all worth it.
.and that is what I do.

I haunt people and crawl into their thought processes until they do what I want them to do. If only  I was able to do that as a mom.

Well, Hell

“I just had a miscarriage and I know I should snap out of it and do my thing, but I’m so sad and depressed.”

Crap. I need to talk to this person and do it so she doesn’t see the obviously pregnant people I am surrounded by.

And here I was, complaining that my boiled egg peeled poorly so I was “walking on eggshells” in real life. ( IRL for you hipsters).

I already wrote her back and set something up – bit this being smacked in the face with real crises is always a reality check. This was hard in my heart.

Sometimes I Cry

I don’t think I have told you that before.

Sometimes the work prompts me to cry.

Today I met with a man who does not know where his wife is, and does not feel he should remove his children from living with her parents because he is homeless. He sees them in the daytime and does homework with them and them sleeps on the streets at night. He was crusted in filth and smelled of urine and rot. Dirt filled the creases of his neck and his fingernails were indistinguishable because of the buildup of soot and debris. Looking at his clubbed thumbs, I am going to play amateur hour and diagnose him with heart problems. In speaking with him it was apparent that he struggles with English.

The part of me that is a mother wanted to hug him, bathe him and just cry. This man was someone’s baby.

The part of me who is a social worker looked for solutions, GR, Legal Aid, 211, Shelters, and all the places he could find food or a ride. I gave him that information.

The part of me that is human hid in the bathroom and bawled before unconsciously scrubbing my hands and arms and neck because I could not wash his.

I Blog to Cope in Social Work

Today sucked.
It is 12:26am  and I am writing this on my Verizon Samsung phone. I did middle of the night grocery shopping, cleaned my kitchen and still have the events from work poking me in the eye.

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All else has failed, so I will write. It turns out that writing is pretty therapeutic (something psychiatrist have been saying for years, blah blah whatever). I started this blog officially to explain my passion and job to my parents and people I grew up with from the affluent town of Arcadia. Unofficially, I totally started it to impress a man I was dating who worked at Microsoft and friends with noted blogger Robert Scoble.

This has been a great place to toss resources for my own reference, mention events in the news, explain complex processes of government assistance and vent. Tonight it has been a measuring stick for me.

When I started as a social worker I was so excited and bright eyed. Not for the work I would be doing, but because having the work meant I had completed my college degree and the work would take me out of Welfare. That’s right, I was a Welfare mom who went to school on the DL because Welfare programs did not allow education – only work or community service.

I started at a Senior Center in Monrovia as a glorified receptionist who also did the MIS & database for matching care providers with low income seniors. While there I met a homeless man who was unable to connect with food, shelter or a way out if our parking lot. It occurred to me that Monrovia, Arcadia, and Temple City all were without food stamp or Welfare Check dispensaries. That’s right, in the dark ages before EAT cards benefits were handed through bullet proof glass and half the time you had no idea if your case was currently active until the moment of truth when the teller would either hand you a packet of coupons and a check or shake their head at you – causing an entire day trip to sit in the DPSS office completing forms and bad attitudes.

I did my research and found LAMP. For two hours before my first interview with Mollie the founder, I sat on the roof of my car and talked to the residents on Crocker Street. Skid Row, I discovered is more than a section of the city – or place where more people fill the streets than cars. Skid row is a smell, a stench of urine and police equestrian feces and people who had little to no access to showers. It was many things, but scary wasn’t one of them.

Working at a shelter and apartment for recently homeless adults was a trip. I had nothing to compare it to. Here is where I discovered how easily influenced I was by manipulations of addicted minds who worked differently than mine. I’m a gullible sucker. Also, I discovered how much I love people. For the first time, I dug in with people and met their problems and private fears. This happened just as my own daughter was developing her own perspective on the world. I was parenting at home and, to some extent, at work.

Non-profit organizations are hopefully run differently than this one was. “Non-profit” referred to the employees. We got calls asking who could live on $40 until the next pay period because they had not made payroll and sometimes were told we couldn’t use our insurance because premiums were not paid.I was spending 15 extra hours a week teaching residents of the shelter how to blog and MSN/Microsoft and employees had kindly given computer parts and books to assist me. . . . See, dating that Mocrosoftie wasn’t just good for me: it benefitted others. I’m a giver like that :smirk:.

For the last eight years I’ve been a contractor for the Los Angeles GAIN program: the same program that tried to prevent my college completion. So much has changed in that time.

I completed college, my oldest child turns 21 years old next month, bought a house and am raising a tiny tyrant – I mean 4-year-old. I don’t work for the paycheck anymore (in part because I realized social work never has much of a financial return), and I have the technical skills to solve hardware issues and the soft skills to connect meaningfully with clients.

So, today sucked. Today was the day of Opiates Addicted Pregnant People (can I see that on a Hallmark calendar? ) and PET team calls, paperwork, reports and audits. Today was the day a full grown woman collapsed into my arms sobbing about her death wish – I dealt with it – with compassion and humor and professionalism.

Okay. Going to sleep now I feel better.

I trade in human misery

I feel like the scum who lives on the dregs of humanity – taking money for other people’s drug addictions and emotional crisis. For as much as I rant and rave or celebrate here, the job often feels like a belt sander is being rubbed against my soul.

What It’s Like To Work in A Welfare to Work Office

It is a Wednesday morning in beautiful Burbank California. The sun is shining warmly from beyond the mansion dusted foothills and clouds are gently moving across a baby blue sky. I am in a tiny red Scion and turning into the parking lot while doing my best to casually clip the No Parking sign the local restaurant has placed at the entrance to the lot. I like to start my day of service and good will to mankind with a little angry deviance.

I work in a large orange rectangle also housing the East Valley In Home Supportive Services Department. Every Tuesday and Thursday they all come in to work and parking garage changes from a “simple stop, lock, and leave your car” into a game of Tetras played by bad drivers who are happy to block your car in or, in my case, just hit your car so hard that the bumper falls off. (For the record, my employer, the county, and the owner of the lot all shrugged shoulders and said it wasn’t their responsibility to help me replace it.) The building is nestled in behind a restaurant, and flanked by a local Armenian Cathedral and convenience store. The buildings back door faces the street and has many large signs instructing visitors to walk around the building, but no one can understand the words until after they have yanked on the door and pounded in the glass for a few minutes.

The main entrance has a metal detector and a security guard. If you have a badge from the County, you never need to be screened and can bypass the long line with a nod to the security guard. Before leaving the lobby, it is wise to approach the bullet proof glass partitioning the receptionist from the waiting area to ask if anyone is here for you. If you don’t ask, and you are running late to work, there is a greater than normal  chance you have a client waiting in hard plastic chairs.I like to turn to the room of people waiting and greet them – it causes people to relax and be nicer to their workers once they are called through the heavy door leading to the long hallways. From here it is a Choose Your Own Adventure featuring more locks than the Panama Canal which can only be opened my a security tag carried with your badge. If you’re running late, take the stairs. You can have your leg in a cast and crawl up the stairs faster than the elevator … I’ve seen it done.

The office space is a sterile landscape of cube farms. Small children occasionally burst into tears because looks like a doctors office from a dystopian nightmare. The social workers here are mostly young women, clad in black, scuttling from one cube to the next while drinking coffee or whispering with clients across government issue desk modules. Don’t stand still if you get motion sickness or fear earthquakes- the flimsy floor shakes when toddlers scamper and many small earthquakes have gone unnoticed by the staff because it felt like someone walking by. Of course, I sit as far from the door as possible. This means I’m as far from the kitchen and restrooms as can be imagined and I’ve learned to never miss a chance to see the loo when possible. However, my cube has windows and an awkward layout that prevents people from disturbing me. I live for these windows. I also enjoy the occasional balloons that break the monotony. Birthdays are fiercely celebrated and decorated for with gusto.

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papercut

7.5 hours of the workday are spent with my best friend – the computer. Programs and data bases like LEADERS, GEARS, PhASE store participant information and program rules. We would all look better if there was a Spell Check feature on any program where I have to leave notations. Microsoft Excel is mandatory for my sanity.   I can see the 180 color coded names of clients and each of those names is also on a file in a locked cabinet. Every cabinet and drawer has a lock and when not in use, it is locked. You will never see the name or any identifying information about a client posted in my space because confidentiality is as much a feature of the office as the slow elevator. What you will find are boxes of toys, markers, and books tucked under the desks.

The big room quickly fills with sounds and smells. Coffee perfumes the room at the start of the business day and again at 4 pm.  Outlook emails  chimes every time a client checks in with reception. The same introductory speech is delivered 8 times a day to new clients and the raised forces of crying babies, laughing children, chattering people, and frustrated parents quickly drive me to plugging headphones in my ears when I’m alone. They are not plugged into anything, but wearing them helps me focus on my thoughts and tune out the cacophony.

Welfare to Work is what Welfare Reform looks like in practice. We call it the GAIN program in L.A. County.

It is awesome. The focus is employment… a job, a better job and a career for people on public cash aid. However, being a parent and needing employment comes with hurdles of paying for child care, affording transportation, and knowing how to land a job that will permanently  lift you from poverty. GAIN addresses all of those and more. I make appointments for clients who need mental health, domestic violence, and substance use counseling and I tell people how to become students. When they find employment (on their own or through our job search activities) I help them fund a work wardrobe. As I work through files, I pile them on the corner of my desk to take for drop off with my supervisor who will return the forms the next day having approved or denied my request to fund the needs of my clients – who are called participants.

This job is one long test – of patience, of creative thinking, of character and sadly of spelling. Everything is on a clock. I have 24 hours to take action on every call, email, snail mail or visitor to the office. Deadlines for reviews are constant and at any time 15% of my work is with an auditor for quality control. It feels like I’m always being tested. Fortunately I’m a great student. There are days when my key breaks in the file cabinet, my fingers become plastered with bandages from deep paper cuts inflicted by case folders, and the County Information Line (211) gives out my office number to suicidal strangers just as three families walk into the office without appointments. Those days are frustrating. My coworkers are the best part of being here. We share stories of our families, gossip about pop-culture and work as a team without emailed questions and answers when facing a difficult situation. Good Case Management is a team sport.

Occasionally the days are heartbreaking.  This week I met with a mother who was ashamed to ask for food stamps and her baby was stillborn from malnutrition. Social pressure and the stigma of food stamps made it hard for her to ask for the help that meant the difference between life and death. I wish the people posting angry Facebook Memes about parents on Welfare could see the end result of their hate. Food stamp fraud is rare. This is the second baby in 8 years that I know was not born alive because the mother was ashamed to ask for help in time. If you are really anti abortion, you should be pro-food-stamps.

Some days I have to push the black button under my desk and summon the security guard. Yesterday I was close to pushing it when a woman rushed into my cube and demanded I speak with her. She refused to leave and sit with her worker and remained yelling in the hallway because… frankly I don’t care. The best way to keep me from helping you is for you to become aggressive or argumentative with my coworkers. I trained many of them so I trust they have given you correct answers. Following directions and resolving problems without being a brat is an important life skill for adults. I won’t inhibit your personal growth by stepping in to interfere with your case management until something is seriously inaccurate with what you’re being told. I will interrupt your meeting to ask of I can hold your crying baby…babies and children love me:it’s a thing and we don’t fight it. Yesterday I help a starving toddler whose mom was proclaiming she did not want to be a parent any more – yesterday was heartbreaking and I spent half an hour walking up and down the hallway singing to a hungry and sobbing child until she fell asleep.

On ideal days ; people come to their appointments and bring all the dead trees I have asked of them. They bring paychecks and we celebrate their employment and plot their next goal and how to get there. Parents come in with children who are fed and clean and fun to have nearby and we adults do “old people stuff”. I feel useful. My boss and I talk over the partition between our cubicles and we laugh and also debate policy. On great days – people leave me and we break up and they move on to a life outside of county assistance, or a life with a case manager who does not have to do  triage on their lives.

toilet paperwork
No job is finished until the paperwork is done.

On average days : Several times a day I email and speak on the phone with local homeless shelters to find space and discuss policy and answer their questions about the program. Twice a day I walk to the 7-Eleven for caffeine – sometimes the owner will let me sing instead of pay. Mostly I need to walk out of the building and see the sky. It feels like a prison after a few hours of whispered desperation filling the air. My two breaks are filled with FaceBook updates and texting to my friends for sanity checks – all done from my personal phone.

By 5pm most of the staff and clients to are gone. My car is easy to find in the lot and I am physically and mentally exhausted -just in time to get a 4 year old from day care!

Things I’ve Learned While Working Within Poverty Programs

  1. Outsiders act like I am working with slime covered hardened criminals. I hear a lot of “Someone has to do it, I am glad it isn’t me” and “How do you stomach THOSE people?”

  2. The closer you are to living at or below the poverty line – the more you hate poor people in general. There must be some kind of delusion accompanying “near impoverishment” – a kind of beer-googles that distort reality

  3. People distort reality.

  4. Programs, Charities, Government Assistance all have good intentions. Their services, however, are designed for an idea of a situation someone may be in – or the ideal temperament of a client. In reality, our clients never fit the mold and some interpretation and persuasion are mandatory. THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL

  5. Using Meth twice a month is probably an addiction and not casual use.

  6. Take the bus that comes before the bus you need.

  7. Public Transportation routes are not what they should be.

  8. More people are in domestically violent relationships than I expected.

  9. 1 of every 4 children you see only eats because of the food stamps program.

  10. Don’t be a special snowflake.

  11. Case Managers are not Life Coaches or mental health therapists.

  12. You can never have enough bandages at your desk , so splurge and get the cute ones. Paperwork = paper cuts.

  13. You will start to feel guilty for having a couch no one sleeps on or an extra room you don’t bring a homeless person home to live in.

  14. Some days you will have a heart ache that even Diet Coke can’t touch. (What do you mean – of course Diet Coke is medicine!)

  15. Keep a sense of humor and joy at all times.

  16. Babies die. Parents leave. Children starve. You are not GOD can also cannot hypnotize people into behaving in ways that keep everyone in their care alive and well.

  17. Solid Mental Health is not a requirement to hold down a job. (It is a detriment to holding down THIS job)

  18. Don’t help more than you are supposed to , it cripples people . You really can kill them from being kind to them. Someday you won’t be there to make calls, plan meals or budgets and if they were not forced to learn when you were there to teach it they will fail and everything will fall apart.

  19. Homelessness is hard.

  20. Poor people don’t vote as often as they should

  21. Smart Phones are not luxuries, they are necessities.

  22. There is enough housing to shelter every homeless person in the United States, but there is no way to get everyone housed without shortchanging the folks hoping empty properties. Or, maybe there is and I have not figured it out yet.

  23. Compassion is not an endless commodity

  24. People do better when you treat them like you are happy to see them.

  25. High school Diplomas are as necessary as food, water and shelter

  26. We have plenty of workers but not enough jobs for their skillset.

  27. You can tell how poor a neighborhood is by the number of AutoZone stores in the area.

  28. It sounds like a good idea to police the food items and clothing items available for purchase with public assistance dollars, but in reality you are just being bitchy about the whole thing.

  29. No one makes a living off of welfare fraud.

  30. Except farmers. They can make millions from being paid to not grow crops (and then grow them anyway and sell them). The Department of Agriculture is in charge of SNAP and Food subsidies and millionaire farmers make bank off of Farm Bills and our Public Officials are too chicken to change that.

  31. Walmart benefits more from the Public Assistance Programs than all of their employees on public assistance combines.

  32. Old folks on fixed incomes need food stamps

  33. You can move to this country and never work and become a citizen and receive more in social security than a teacher who has worked for 30 years in the public schools.

  34. You can receive a pension from Russia and still collect Social Security

  35. Supervisors, Administrators and overseers of public funding will visit each other and never once drop in at my desk to see what the job is really like.

  36. Addicts return to skid row after rehab because it is their home = the same way you go home after you get out of the hospital

  37. I like talking to strangers

  38. More coordination is needed between public departments and charitable organizations , also between public departments and charities. Everyone services the same populations but the coordination of services is . . well, is not anything at all worth bragging about.

  39. Some programs have the goal to end poverty. Some have the goal to count the number of poor people services and say “Look at me!”

  40. Even rich neighborhoods have poor people

  41. The average person receiving public help is a child

  42. Ronald Reagan made up the “Welfare Queen in Chicago” story. No one can live on welfare.

  43. The Poverty Line is far above the cut off limit for cash aid, and further still from the amount a single person on minimum wage can earn.

  44. The most interesting characters are not the clients, they are the case workers. Every. Single. Time.

  45. there are 3 ways to get enough money to leave cash assistance. 1. Inherit 2. Steal 3. Earn – and when you don’t have a skill set or a mentor and no one in your family leaves you a fortune, stealing sometimes is your best option until you are taught better. This is why it is a shame we invest in prisons and not in education as a priority.

The crazy week

Sweet baby Jesus, it is crazy.
As the holidays draw near, the urgency of human need is crashing down on the heads of social workers, homeless shelters, teachers, family law professionals and the like.

Sweet baby Jesus. Did I just say that?

Family get together are on the horizon and people need to have success stories to tell. Stories of employment and financial gain, increased social status either educationally earned or via popularity or merits.

So of course parents who are on cash aid and having good emotional and family issues are feeling the crunch. In turn, we, the people here to help them, are seeing get faces long missing since the slow and lazily warm days of summer.

There may not be enough Diet Coke or coffee in the world to get me through.