Hidden figures: Human services organizations' clients are an inspiration - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 18, 2021 11:00 am

Hidden figures: Human services organizations’ clients are an inspiration

"It’s tough to ask for help in the best of circumstances, and a global pandemic is certainly not the best of times," says Generocity columnist Valerie Johnson.

Back on My Feet’s Team North Philly — which columnist Valerie Johnson is part of — meets weekly a week to run together.

(Courtesy photo)

The last year has been incredibly challenging all around. No matter what your situation, whether you live alone or with family, are back at work, working from home, juggling virtual schooling, job searching — it’s all challenging.

None of us were prepared for our lives to shift significantly, and life has been harder all around for everyone.

However, when I think about unsung heroes, I think about the people that are struggling with more than just general pandemic-related challenges. I think about the people who are experiencing homelessness, food instability, and extended unemployment — some of the most difficult challenges in the best of times.

I am the team lead for Back on My Feet’s Team North Philly, and we have been very lucky to have been running and walking together three days a week since August. Our team includes folks who are in recovery from substance use who have faced housing instability or homelessness.

Yes, getting up early once a week and getting out for a run with the team in the freezing cold (or, alternately, in the summer heat) is a challenge. But I’m only getting up once a week. And I have a safe home to return to and a job that allows me to purchase all of my essentials (and even some occasional takeout meals to support small businesses in my neighborhood).

Our members are up and out with us three days a week at 5:30 a.m. They’re working their recovery programs, they’re keeping up with chores and responsibilities in the facilities where they live, they’re doing life skills and workforce training, they’re pursuing educational programs, and they’re job searching. They’re working to stay connected with their families despite limited access to technology, especially smartphones, tablets, and computers. I’ve seen more “Obama phones” with our members than I can count.

The amount of strength it takes to keep all of that up, despite a global pandemic that limits access to public transportation and job prospects, is unimaginable to me. I’m struggling to hold it together right now, as are many of my friends. It’s hard for me to imagine the level of resilience required to keep on keeping on when faced with the kind of challenges our members are up against.

And it’s not just Back on My Feet members in this position.

There are thousands across the city who are experiencing homelessness. More than a hundred thousand people are unemployed. It’s too early for food insecurity rates due to the pandemic, but in the most recent statistics I could find, it was nearly 10% of the city’s population — surely, now, it’s gone up.

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Our overall poverty rate continued to hover around 25% pre-pandemic, which is the highest out of the 10 largest cities in the US. Those are just the tangible figures; we also have to consider racism, sexism, trauma, abuse, and all the many other things that lead folks to need support from nonprofits.

Human services organizations’ clients do not get enough credit for their strength in asking for and accepting help. It’s tough to ask for help in the best of circumstances, and a global pandemic is certainly not the best of times.

These are the stories that we need to tell.

We need to shout from the rooftops about people like Dan, who moved into a home at the onset of the pandemic in Philadelphia through Pathways to Housing PA. He’s in recovery from substance use and job searching, and he’s got an incredibly positive attitude. And Candy, who is working on setting healthy boundaries with her family, saving up to get her license and buy a car, and thinking about getting her GED.

So, in the spirit of recognizing the unsung heroes in Philadelphia, let’s all take a moment to applaud those who are struggling with the largest challenges.

They’re not giving up and they’re not accepting defeat — they’re persevering through some of the most difficult struggles in the middle of a global pandemic, and they’re truly an inspiration.

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