My name is Nora O’Leary and this summer I am working at HOPE, a non-profit organization that provides food, clothing, and resources to low-income and homeless families in Addison County. HOPE has a food shelf, which is available to families once a month, and a surplus area stocked with day-old food from Hannaford’s supermarket and other generous locals. The organization earns money from sales at their thrift shop, Retroworks, which they use to aid families with a variety of expenses, from heating bills, to laundry vouchers, to car repairs. HOPE also provides assistance to homeless individuals with basic necessities, camping supplies, and with the difficult transition out of homelessness. Because HOPE is not a government-affiliated organization, the staff is able to be flexible and provide financial assistance based on a person’s needs at any given time rather than following strict guidelines. That means there is a lot of personal interaction with the clients, because the staff seeks to hear everyone’s stories and understand their struggles, in order to help them in the most effective way possible. As HOPE’s receptionist this summer, I have had the opportunity to have the initial contact with every client who walks in the door, hear their stories, and figure out how best to help them.
Coming into this summer, I wasn’t sure how this internship would relate to my (hopefully) future career as an elementary school teacher. However, I’ve found myself thinking about how closely related the cycle of poverty and education really are. Many clients that HOPE works with struggle with obesity, or drug addictions, have been incarcerated, or have never finished high school. These problems are ones that people are often harshly judged for in our society, because they all involve making some poor choices along the way. However, more and more I have thought about the young child within each of those clients who comes in. Who taught that child about nutrition, or warned them against drug use, or encouraged them to release frustration in healthy, non-violent ways? What about the child who quit school to start working and help his parents pay to keep the heating on in the winter? Many of the clients who come into HOPE everyday never had someone to teach them important lessons about finances and managing money, or a positive role model whose example they could follow in life. A teacher can be a hugely positive influence on a child, and this job has made me so eager to be that for a child someday. I continue to think about how a client’s life might have been different had they someone who believed in them, and encouraged them to work their hardest in and out of school everyday. I am hugely grateful for so many things this summer has taught me, but motivating me to continue on my way to becoming a public school teacher is an unforeseen and wonderful outcome
Nora O’Leary, ’17
My name is Sarah Karerat and I’m spending this summer working at WomenSafe, an organization in Addison County that works towards the elimination of domestic and sexual violence. WomenSafe’s services include a 24-hour hotline, direct advocacy services, outreach to underserved communities, support groups, supervised visitation for parents, and community education. I primarily work as a direct service advocate. This advocacy consists of providing survivors with whatever kind of support they may need, or directing them to whoever can. Thus, sometimes my advocacy works consists of simply picking up the phone and lending an ear, but it can also involve providing emotional support during relief from Abuse hearings at the courthouse, or facilitating survivors’ entry into an emergency housing program to enable them to flee their abusive partner. The key word here is certainly ‘support’, though I’ve learned that a fundamental part of this job is knowing that we are not here to help survivors, but rather, to enable them to help themselves. After all, it is their strength that has carried them thus far and that will continue to. This has been an incredibly valuable lesson that solidified itself for me at WomenSafe, and is something that I will hold with me throughout my future work in any communities.
As for now, I am glad that the bubble of Middlebury College has popped in my life; it has been incredibly informative and humbling to learn about the realities of poverty in Addison County. I spent half of my childhood living in large cities in India where a significant population lives in poverty, but this summer has shown me that poverty takes on many different personalities. I have started to understand poverty as it manifests itself in Vermont, and the community response to it in this area. My training and subsequent experiential learning at WomenSafe has also vastly increased my understanding of the intricacies of trauma and violence. Despite telling myself to separate my work and my personal life, with work like this, I feel that I have experienced a fundamental shift in perspective that influences all aspects of my life. The way that I view my own behavior, my interactions with others, and relationships and interactions around me has changed. In fact, it would probably be most accurate to say that my perspective has grown; I feel that it will constantly change, hopefully for the better!
Of course, WomenSafe is a nonprofit organization, and I’ve learned from my time spent on meticulous data entry that there are many hoops to jump through in order to do anything community-related. Luckily, among the stress of this all, WomenSafe is an incredibly supportive workplace where self-care is key. The empathy that I see as so essential to my advocacy work is ever-present among colleagues too.
Needless to say, I feel blessed to have this opportunity to learn at an organization like WomenSafe and to have the privilege of witnessing the strength of individuals across Addison County. I look forward to these last few weeks as an intern and volunteering thereafter.