Broke But Happy – Work That Serves Others
by Miss Mary
When people ask me what I do, I tell them that I’m a civil rights advocate with people with disabilities. I do such a variety of things at work, it would take me forever to tell you the minutiae of the daily grind. Besides, I work in a system that doesn’t always make sense to the people in it – forget trying to understand what the heck is going on if you’re an outsider. But know this: the developmental disability services where I live are community based. We no longer have institutions for people with disabilities in this state. The mission is to support people to live life, just like people who don’t have disabilities. Plain and simple.
Since we’re talking about work at OT, I thought I could tell you a little about what it’s like to do work that serves others. No one makes a career in to human services for money. We’re here for the people. I don’t make a product. You can’t bottle or sell what I do. And I never work with two different people in the same way. My work is about relationships, and each one is as unique as the relationships in your own life.
I’ve built friendships with the people at work, even outside of the “office,” and I hope to hang out with these genuinely awesome people for years to come. I’ve know some of the people I serve for five years now. They met me when I was pregnant, threw me a baby shower, they held my newborn baby. I, in turn, have attended their weddings, birthdays, and other milestones of life. The people I serve and I have visited each others homes, and had countless “how was your day?” conversations over tea or car rides.
Now it’s not all roses… There are some people I will not continue having a relationship with outside of work, but isn’t that life? My work is not separate from my life. My work is about people’s lives.
When I go to work, I have an idea of what my day will look like, but at the end of the day it’s something totally different. I’ve learned to go with the flow, always say yes (with obvious exceptions), and always be willing to try something new. It’s simultaneously stressful and freeing.
I’ve learned the hard way how to be a manager. (Oh boy, those are some life skills right there.) I’ve learned to be a teacher and a coach to both the people I serve and my employees. In order to learn these skills a couple of really amazing people have formally and informally mentored me along the way. I can’t put in to words what life altering impacts these people have had on me. I can never repay their generosity and the love they’ve shown me.
I’d say the warm and fuzzy feeling of being a professional helper is priceless, but I know better. People in the social service industry are expected to work for smiles and hugs. When you’re budget is constantly shrinking, you begin to count on people with big hearts and little pockets to help out. I could put a dollar amount on what I do, and what others like me do, but people who pay the bills couldn’t afford it – it’s a price they literally can’t pay.
So I have a choice: I could be bitter that supporting people who are vulnerable is undervalued, or I could do the work I feel obligated to do with a sense of duty and pride. Most of the time I walk around with a tornado of these overwhelming feelings inside of me. How dare someone say, “I couldn’t do what you do” or “you have so much patience”. This isn’t the work of heroes. This is what humans do with and for other humans. This is part of being a person. We are all obligated to reach out and help other humans when they need a hand. Loving and caring about other people is our very nature… and yet… everyone has to have a job to pay the bills. So I whore out the thing that comes naturally; I make a living out of caring about (not for) other people.
It’s all so unnatural when you think about it: forming paid relationships with multiple people who count on you to be a friend, a confidant, a professional, and a buddy. It can get very confusing. It’s unnatural to pay someone to have such a complex relationship with you. The paid supporters and people receiving support spend huge quantities of time together, more then with their own loved ones, and so they’re forced to build close relationships. Still, one is paid to be there and one is dependent on the existence of the relationship. Which is weird.
When I think about it too much, I have to ask myself how this system ever came to be. Why did people stop caring about other people? Who thought it was a good idea to pay a few folks to take care of a small portion of society so that others didn’t have to worry about the vulnerable? We can’t be bothered to build a relationship with someone who is different than us? We can’t collectively take a few minutes out of our days to help a neighbor grocery shop, clean their bathroom, or carpool to work? What’s wrong with us?
I know the history of how we got here, but not why we let it continue. Not our excuse for treating people in a way that goes against our basic instincts. A good friend of mine wisely reminds me that we need to break down the bubble of developmental disability services. We operate in a mostly closed system, but we shouldn’t. As a group of people largely hidden away from the rest of society, we have a lot to offer people. If we broke down the barriers, we could all benefit from each other.
My work is not unusual. People who serve vulnerable populations make up a huge percentage of the workforce. Society assumes that these workers will take on the responsibility, that they will complete there daily tasks with near perfection, and that they will do so for the same amount as entry-level food service workers — if that.
So what is it like to have a job where the non-monetary benefits are the most valuable, where you have to look hard to identify the fringe benefits? What’s it like to choose to serve, rather than choose to make money?
It’s a way of life.