Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finding Community: A Lifelong Journey for Some

“The current state of the economy suggests we are needed as much now, as ever before. Working to help women step up and out of homelessness is a process. Change may come slowly, but when it comes, it comes with great reward.”
Dawn Swan, Executive Director at Rachael’s Women’s Center in Washington, DC

Community is something that many of us take for granted everyday.

Our colleagues at work, our families and neighbors, a church congregation, or perhaps our sorority sisters---communities that many of us rely upon on a regular basis (consciously or subconsciously). Community is the network of support that helps us sew together the patchwork pieces of our personalities and talents together into a vibrant quilt that defines who we are. As difficult as it is to imagine, there are many women who are not encircled with a community of personal support. Even the strongest individuals among us, would struggle to find our self-confidence and individual strengths if we lacked the materials and sewing circle for seaming together the ups and downs of our lives into something that ironed out into an inherently beautiful creation.

I first recognized the gifts that I had in my community of family and friends when I met women who had none during a semester long, service-learning program in the Over-the-Rhine community of Cincinnati, Ohio during college. Second-Floor, West, was the corridor where many of the women of the Drop-In Center’s Substance Abuse Recovery Program found a community they could belong to for the first time in their lives. It felt like a prison to some and an escape to others. Through tears and testimony they shed their fears and found hope that they could find forgiveness in themselves and in the people in their lives that had failed them. Seeking to heal themselves would take self-discipline and personal will power, in addition to an ability to trust in themselves and the community of people around them to be there when they couldn’t handle the rough road alone.

Family was obscured for many. My friend Kim, a homeless, recovering alcoholic, had expended her wild cards with her family, and they no longer wanted anything to do with her. Erratic behavior, and decisions that spun her life out of control caused some of her self-destruction. Without a “home”, both figuratively and metaphorically, she followed a pathway into loneliness---a pathway into loneliness that only those that have experience losing their way can understand. The bottle became her friend, and the only constant she could count on in her life.

During long walks through Washington Park (the only substantial green space that was accessible to the women) and on the way to the Family Dollar Store or church for worship and concerts, we bonded together. We learned from each other---I received as much as they received from me. In the 6’x15’ closet, turned smoke room, the women shared with one another, and grew closer. Even though there was still much discordance between them in the ways that they would recover, they now had each other. Their bonds, and the halls of their temporary home, provided a safe haven and a place for picking up the pieces of their lives and finally finding the internal and external peace needed to rebuild.

I was reminded of how important community is on a visit to Rachael’s Women’s Center, a space of growth that has existed for homeless women in the Washington, DC area for the past 30 years. Although the center services over 400 clients every year---some women that are facing substance abuse (50 women a year) and others mental health crisises (70 women a year)--- for most of the remaining clients, the space is a place for seeking support and friendship. One client that I talked with described the weekly bingo games as the reason she returned to Rachael’s Center on a regular basis---an unexpected answer considering that the center provides many other substantial services including meals, showers & laundry, case management, intensive care management, employment counseling, and even computer training. This “real” answer revealed an underlying reality----without the power of friendship and community, all of the other tools that are of our disposal may fall short of meeting one’s needs.

The friendship of community is the thread that seams the quilt together…particularly for women who find home at Rachael’s Women’s Center and other safe havens in Washington, DC and across the country. You can chose to be a friend to those around you by reminding yourself to be there for those closest to you when they need you, and also as a friend to complete strangers---through volunteer service, or simply a warm hello or smile to someone that you pass on the street. Your outreach may help someone find new hope and community.
I encourage you to learn more about volunteering at Rachael’s Women’s Center by visiting

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